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Game Observations: Pats inch closer to bye

The Patriots moved one step closer to securing the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a deceiving 37-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills. The game was tied at 16 late in the third quarter when the Patriots rattled off the final 21 point to win going away.

Dion Lewis led the way offensively, carrying 24 times for 129 yards – both career highs – and added a pair of touchdowns, one on the ground and one on a screen. It was the second 100-yard game of Lewis’ career after he also topped the century mark in the Patriots win over Miami at Gillette Stadium earlier this season.

Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots 12th win of the season, the eighth straight year New England has won at least that many.

-The Patriots defense continues to live life dangerously near its end zone. The Bills mounted several long drives on the first half but were unable to find the end zone and had to settle for a 13-13 tie at intermission. The first long drive went 16 plays and ended in a Stephen Hauschka field goal, and things got really interesting from there. First, Buffalo moved inside the Patriots 10 and faced a third-and-two from the 6 but curiously opted to throw the ball and Tyrod Taylor badly underthrew an open LeSean McCoy to set up fourth down. Bills coach Sean McDermott chose to go for it, but again had Taylor drop back to pass. This time Taylor couldn’t find anyone open and was sacked by Marquis Flowers. The Bills then mounted an impressive drive in the final two minutes of the half and appeared to regain the lead on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Taylor to Kelvin Benjamin. Replays showed Benjamin get both feet in bounds but referee Craig Wrolstad saw it differently, evidently ruling that the wideout failed to gain control of the pass while his left foot was still in bounds. Buffalo was forced to settle for another Hauschka field goal and a tie game at the half.

“When the receiver got confirmed control of the football, he was not able to get both feet down in bounds,” Wrolstad said in the postgame pool report. “So, his back foot was already off the ground and it stepped out of bounds. His firm control did not occur until after he had one foot off the ground. It was clear and obvious that he did not have control of the ball until he brought it all the way down into his chest.”

-Marquis Flowers’ sack to stop the first drive was the first of the linebacker’s career. He came up with a second later in the first half when he chased down the elusive Taylor for a 1-yard loss and finished with 2.5 on the day. Flowers started alongside Elandon Roberts at inside linebacker and saw extensive action.

-The Bills continued their trend and leaving points on the field to open the second half as McCoy’s 39-yard catch-and-run set up first-and-goal from the 10. As was the case in the first half, however, Buffalo couldn’t take advantage and went backward. The Bills lost 8 yards on an ill-conceived screen to fullback Patrick DeMarco and eventually had to settle for another Hauschka field goal. Inexplicably, the pass-challenged Bills refuse to run the ball once they get into scoring position.

-Replay also continued to be kind to the Patriots on their first drive of the second half. New England moved into Buffalo territory and faced a third-and-four from the Bills 29. Dion Lewis was stopped for a gain of 3, and the Patriots chose to hurry to the line and try Lewis again on fourth-and-one. Lewis was stuffed at the line and the officials marked the ball short of the 25, which would have turned the ball over on downs. Again, Wrolstad took a second look, this time at Bill Belichick’s urging, and once again he overturned the decision in the Patriots favor. That drive ended in a Stephen Gostkowski field goal that tied the game at 16.

-McDermott had some trouble making in-game decisions and one really cost his team a chance to win in the fourth quarter. Trailing 23-16 with just over 13 minutes left, the Bills faced a fourth-and-one from the Patriots 32-yard line. McCoy had been running successfully all afternoon, and the first-year coach already went for it on fourth down earlier in the game, but this time he decided against it. It was a peculiar call, especially considering it set up a 50-yard Hauschka field goal attempt, which was promptly missed wide right.

-That drive came immediately after the Patriots defense came up with its first and only three-and-out of the day. That came courtesy of Malcom Brown, who took over the game for a two-play stretch and helped the Patriots take the lead. With the game tied at 16 the Bills took over at their 25, and Brown came up with a huge 15-yard sack of Taylor. On second down, Brown stuffed Mike Tolbert at the line of scrimmage, creating an impossible third-and-25 from the 10, and soon the Bills were punting and the Patriots were marching toward the lead.

-Pass interference penalties also greatly aided the Patriots offense as a pair resulted in big plays that led to points. The first came in the second quarter when Micah Hyde gave New England 44 yards while trying to cover Brandon Cooks. Cooks appeared to initiate the contact and grabbed the safety around the waist, but the officials saw it differently and the call allowed the Patriots to kick a field goal. Late in the third quarter Hyde went out briefly and Tom Brady immediately looked to take advantage of his replacement. Brady went down the seam in the end zone toward Gronkowski and Trae Elston had his back turned and got to the tight end early, drawing a 29-yard flag and putting the ball at the 1. Mike Gillislee scored from a yard out on the next play. Cooks finished with two catches for 19 yards and went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season.

-The offensive numbers look great at the end of the game but the reality is there were some stretches weren’t quite as productive. Brady continues to struggle with interceptions, throwing his sixth in the last five games, marking the first time he’s thrown at least one pick in five consecutive games since 2002. This pick was particularly costly as Jordan Poyer returned 19 yards for a touchdown. That allowed Buffalo to make up for their ill-fated fourth-down attempt moments earlier. Brady also missed on a couple of chances to connect on deep balls with Cooks, but overall managed to move the ball consistently in the second half and put the game away.

-Brady was able to hook up with Rob Gronkowski for an incredible 17-yard touchdown off a one-handed catch. Gronk was able to secure the ball with his right hand and spun around while somehow managing to get both feet in bounds near the pylon. It was the 75th touchdown connection from Brady to Gronkowski, the fifth most for any combination in league history.

-Gillislee returned to the lineup after a six-game absence, all as a healthy scratch. He was pressed into duty thanks to the knee injury suffered by Rex Burkhead in last week’s win in Pittsburgh. He picked up 6 yards on his first carry since October. Gillislee finished with six carries for 28 yards to go along with his touchdown. With James White (ankle) also out of action, Gillislee took on a significant role as the only other ball carrier alongside Dion Lewis. Brandon Bolden saw his first reps out of the backfield of the season as well.

-The offensive line also was in danger of dealing with a last-minute blow when Nate Solder was reportedly dealing with an illness. Solder did not take part in the pregame warmups but was able to suit up and started at left tackle.   Cam Fleming remained the starter at right tackle while LaAdrian Waddle continued in his part-time backup role.

-The receiving corps was once again without Chris Hogan (shoulder) who missed his second straight game and sixth of the last seven. That left Kenny Britt active, along with Phillip Dorsett. On defense, Kyle Van Noy (calf) missed his third straight game, once again leaving the linebacker corps extremely thin. Britt finished with one catch for 16 yards.

-Big plays were a huge problem for the defense early in the season and that was the case once again on Sunday. The normally inept Bills offense turned in plays of 46, 39, 35 and 33 yards on the afternoon. The problems were widespread as Malcolm Butler struggled with Deonte Thompson, allowing 46 and 33-yard completions to the Bills backup wideout. McCoy made linebacker Elandon Roberts look silly with a quick cutback in the third quarter and turned a short throw into a 39-yard pickup. And Stephon Gilmore lost Benjamin near the Patriots sideline and allowed the lanky wideout to gain 35 yards into Patriots territory. If not for the strong play in the red zone, couple with some self-destruction from the Bills, it could have been a different story.

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