The Patriots offense was in high gear at New Era Field and New England came away in complete control of the AFC East following a 41-25 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots seventh victory of the season.
Going big to get home – The Patriots had a pair of deep touchdowns in the first half, both coming from 53 yards out. Tom Brady took advantage of several coverage breakdowns by the Bills secondary and as a result put 24 points on the board in the opening half. First he found Chris Hogan all alone behind Stephon Gilmore, who was clearly expecting safety help on the play. Later he hit Rob Gronkowski for another 53-yarder to the house, this time catching Buffalo in one-on-one coverage with Nickell Robey-Coleman trailing badly on the play. It was Gronk's 69th career touchdown, moving him ahead of Stanley Morgan for the most in team history. Perhaps surprising, Gronk chose to take a bow before spiking the ball rather than doing something "special" to commemorate the event.
Brady MVP pace – Despite missing the first month of the season while serving his suspension, Brady is lighting up the NFL at an MVP pace. Brady finished 22 of 33 for 315 yards and four touchdowns and had the Patriots in control throughout the afternoon. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels clearly wanted to push the ball downfield and Brady had plenty of success doing so. He also had a terrific 15-yard scramble on third-and-five, a play in which he looked very much like the fastest player on the field that his mother refers to him as. Through his first four games after returning Brady now has 12 touchdowns and no picks, putting him right in contention for league MVP as the Patriots prepare to rest up during their bye week.
Fouts off base – CBS color analyst and Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Fouts was incredulous early in the game when Dont'a Hightower was not flagged for a hit out of bounds on Tyrod Taylor. On first-and-goal Taylor was forced to scramble out of the pocket and used his left hand to throw the ball away as Hightower was bearing down on him. The linebacker tackled Taylor and continued to take him down well out of bounds, but the initial hit took place before Taylor reached the sideline. Fouts criticized the lack of a flag for quite some time, calling it "incredible" that no penalty was called. Fouts was on Hightower's case again late in the half when Taylor was tackled after a short run and Hightower came in after the quarterback was on the ground. Once again Hightower appeared to be in the act of making the play before Taylor was down, and once again Fouts wondered why a late hit wasn't called. Neither play seemed to deserve a flag but that didn't stop Fouts.
Back to drawing board – The Patriots search for an answer at cornerback continued in Buffalo. Eric Rowe got the starting nod for the second straight week in place of Logan Ryan and once again he seemed to struggle. Rowe was often trailing in coverage during the first half and was out of position twice and drew a pair of penalties as a result. The first was a 29-yard pass interference call when he grabbed Justin Hunter down the left sideline to allow Buffalo to convert third-and-12 on a drive that ended in a touchdown. Later he was beaten by Walter Powell on a double move and was called for illegal contact. The Bills did not get points out of that drive as Dan Carpenter's 49-yard field goal hit the right upright. Those plays led to his benching as Ryan and Justin Coleman served as the corners with Malcolm Butler in the second half. Rowe picked up another pass interference late in the game trying to cover Robert Woods. It appears that Bill Belichick might be giving Rowe a long look knowing what he has in Ryan and checking to see if Rowe can potentially be more than a fill-in player or matchup option. Coleman, incidentally, also drew a pass interference penalty trying to cover Powell, and once again the coaching staff is searching for answers.
The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills in a regular season game at New Era Field on Sunday, October 30, 2016.
More tinkering – Belichick's adjustments weren't limited to Rowe and the cornerbacks. Elandon Roberts started alongside Hightower at linebacker with Jamie Collins coming off the bench. Collins seemed to play in run-heavy sets featuring fullback Jerome Felton early on before the Bills were no longer able to run the ball due to the lopsided nature of the game. Collins was removed from the injury list this week after missing a game a couple weeks ago with a hip injury, so his absence wasn't health related.
Not on the same page –It wasn't necessarily the smoothest operation for the Patriots, particularly on defense. It wasn't that the Bills offense was especially difficult to deal with but there were times when the defense appeared to be out of synch. On consecutive plays the group was caught with 12 men on the field, the first resulting in a penalty and the second forcing Belichick to waste a timeout. The Patriots also had 10 penalties for 116 yards including several on defense. The communication seemed to be lacking at times during the game, which is quite uncharacteristic of the typical Patriots efforts.
Special day – New England came up with a few key plays on special teams that may have gotten lost in all of the offensive fireworks. The first came early on and actually managed to avoid a potentially devastating turnover. After the Bills opened the game with a long field goal drive Matthew Slater fumble while returning the ensuing kick. Despite the presence of several Bills in the area, Shea McClellin was able to recover the ball at the 30. Buffalo had an opportunity to take control of the game early and McClellin's head-up play prevented that. Danny Amendola then opened the second half with a 73-yard kick return down to the Bills 24 to set up a Julian Edelman touchdown that pretty much ended the game by putting the Patriots on top 31-10. Finally, Stephen Gostkowski came through with a perfect afternoon, making both field goals as well as all of his five of his PATs. Gostkowski banked a 51-yard field goal off the right upright but after some shaky moments in recent weeks style points were not necessary for the All-Pro kicker.
Extra points – The Patriots have now gone eight games without throwing an interception, setting a team mark to start a season. The NFL team record was set by Cleveland in 1960 with nine. … New England improved to 73-22 in division games since 2001, which is five games better than Indianapolis, the second best team during that time. … Belichick became the fifth coach in league history to record 90 divisional wins. … In addition to the touchdown mark, Gronkowski grabbed the 400th reception of his career. … Brady tossed two touchdowns of 50 yards or more for the 10th time of his career. The last time he managed that feat was last season against the Giants when Gronkowski (76 yards) and Brandon LaFell (54) each turned the trick. … It was Brady's 26th win over Buffalo, which ties him with Brett Favre (Detroit) for the most by a quarterback against any opponent. … Trey Flowers recorded the first two sacks of his NFL career.