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Game Observations: Patriots find offensive stride, outlast Bills to win the AFC East

2019-GameObservations-PDC

The Patriots and Bills traded punches in a 60-minute dogfight that saw the Patriots pull away late and make a goal line stand at the end to seal a 24-17 win, giving them their 11th-straight AFC East title. Despite some notable big plays by the Bills, it was the Patriots best game of the season.

Tom Brady and the offense showed some of their best execution of the season in the win. They finished 2-4 in the red zone, 7-14 on third down, with 414 yards of offense. It wasn't exactly an explosion of seasons gone by but it was consistent against a very good defense, especially on the ground where the team racked up 143 rushing yards.

Couple that with a game-sealing stand by the defense and it was the kind of quality win the Patriots have been waiting for most of the season. New England now awaits the result of the Kansas City-Chicago game on Sunday night, where a Chiefs loss will clinch the second seed for the Patriots.

Here's everything that stood out in a tough divisional battle and the best effort of the season by the Pats.

-- The Patriots looked like they were on their way to the Bills side of the field on their opening drive, until Jordan Poyer forced a Rex Burkhead fumble and returned it 31 yards. Burkhead was picking up big yardage on a screen pass so it was an especially tough turnover and just the kind of start Buffalo needed. The Patriots defense would get the red zone stop, holding Buffalo to a field goal and an early 3-0 lead.

-- The offense responded with one of the better drives of the season, using a run-heavy approach to go 11 plays, 75 yards and finishing it off with a Matt LaCosse touchdown, the 76th different touchdown target of Tom Brady's career. Having good success on first and second down put the offense in manageable third downs and they converted two of them. But the red zone finish was what was more impressive. Those kinds of well-executed drives have been rare in 2019, the offense looked locked in early.

- After the defense forced a punt, the Pats offense took over at their one-yard-line and put together another sustained drive with big plays to Harry for 12 and 18 yards, Edelman for 17 and Sanu for 10. They'd come up against a 4th-and-1 on the Buffalo 27-yard-line and convert with a power run to the left side behind Elandon Roberts, another situational win for the offense. The pass protection stood out once again on the drive. It wasn't perfect but it was definitely better than it's been this season even if the net result of the 17-play, 81-yard drive was a 36-yard field goal by Nick Folk. The drive ate up nearly nine minutes of clock.

-Marcus Cannon would sustain an ankle injury on the drive but would remain on the sidelines after emerging from the blue tent. He would not return to the game. Marshall Newhouse was solid in replacement.

-The Patriots defense was in lock step with the offense, forcing a three-and-out on the next possession with J.C. Jackson making a good tackle and getting a third-down pass defense. Elevated to a more significant role due to Jonathan Jones' absence, Jackson has stepped up in recent weeks, though he'd give up a 28-yard pass on to Beasley on the opening play of the second half that was one wart. Jackson had some bad plays but he also made some of the key stops, including the last play of the game.

-Tom Brady and the offense lost their steam and couldn't get much going just before half on their fourth and fifth drives, with a miscue intended for Mohamed Sanu looming large on what would've been a first down. On the last drive before the half, Sanu would also be stopped one yard short on a third-down reception and then would miss a critical fourth-down block that kept N'Keal Harry short of the one yard needed for a first down. Despite the pass protection, Harry and Michel all stepping up early in the game, Sanu came up short three times and it would cost the Patriots points.

-The Bills would capitalize on the Patriots fourth-down failure as Josh Allen would use a designed run for 16 yards then throw a 34-yard perfect pass to Dawson Knox that got them to the goal line. They'd put it in the end zone two plays later, tying the game at 10 before the half. It was a frustrating turn when it felt like the Patriots had carried most of the game.

-The first half was book-ended by the Burkhead fumble and the fourth-down failure, mitigating the good feelings about the two sustained scoring drives in the middle. At the half it seemed like the game could go either way.

-The defense forced a punt on the first drive of the second half, after a Lawrence Guy sack backed the Bills up. The offense would bounce back with a seven-play, 44-yard field-goal-scoring drive. The most impressive part of the drive might've been Nick Folk's 51-yard field goal. A 50-plus field goal toward the lighthouse end of the stadium is a good sign before the playoffs.

-The Bills responded with an explosive 53-yard touchdown pass to John Brown to take the 17-13 lead on the next drive. Josh Allen is nothing if not sporadic. Sometimes he'll skip easy throws into the dirt but then he'll make two throws like this on to Brown and the one to Knox before the half. The Patriots blew a coverage with Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore in the area.

-Making things even worse was when Julian Edelman headed to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion. The offense predictably went three-and-out on their next possession without their most valuable offensive weapon. No matter how the playoff seedings play out, Edelman's health is of paramount importance.

-With the offense reeling, the defense pitched a three-and-out at a key point with what felt like the season in the balance. The offense responded. After getting the ball back, Sony Michel busted off a 25-yard run on first down to get it started. A 15-yard pass to Jakobi Meyers and then a screen pass for 23 yards to Rex Burkhead would take them inside the red zone. Burkhead would then make an excellent effort on third-and-5 to pick up a first down at the Bills five-yard-line. But the offense would be stopped short from there, settling for a field goal that still left them one-point short at 17-16. Those kind of red zone failures can't happen in a couple weeks.

-The defense would force another three-and-out, sparked by a John Simon sack of Allen. Outside of a couple big plays they shut down Buffalo's offense, especially their dangerous rushing offense. After regressing against Joe Mixon, the run defense was back on point. If they're getting back to the Super Bowl run stopping will be a critical key.

-Edelman returned to the game and picked up 30 yards on the first play taking the Patriots back into Bills territory. Rex Burkhead would finish the drive off with a touchdown and Brady would find Edelman for the two-point conversion for the 24-17 lead. Edelman's return to the game was a major spark and the turning point in the game. The moment kind of encapsulated the season.

-Down by a touchdown, the Bills would put together a final drive, moving well into Patriots territory as Allen once again found his stride, delivering quality passes to his receivers and backs. The Bills would get inside the Patriots 10-yard-line but The Boogeymen would make a four-down goal-line stand to seal the game. It was a thrilling end to a great football game.

The Patriots will close out their regular season next Sunday, December 29th at 1pm against the Dolphins.

The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, December 21, 2019.

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