Jimmy Football –** Jimmy Garoppolo received the first extensive playing time of his young career and the results were mixed. He was terrific avoiding pressure in the pocket, eluding sacks and would-be tacklers throughout the second half. He also rifled some impressive passes across the middle, specifically to Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola. But he also appeared flustered at times, turning his back to the line of scrimmage and misfiring on a couple of passes toward open receivers. On one he appeared to have tight end Michael Hoomanawanui open behind the defense near the goal line but tried to fire the ball over the defender in front rather than putting air on the throw toward open space. The pass was deflected and fell incomplete. He also put a crossing route to LaFell on the receiver's back hip, negating a potential big play. Garoppolo finished 10 of 17 for 90 yards and was sacked three times. He also scrambled for 16 yards on four attempts, two of which were designed runs.
Jimmy Football II – Garoppolo's playing time also featured some different looks – especially for the Patriots. First Brandon Bolden lined up in the Wildcat formation as Garoppolo motioned out to the left and picked up 5 yards. A few plays later Garoppolo picked up a first down with a 4-yard run on a read-option look to convert a third-and-one. With Tom Brady generally under center these are plays and formations Patriots fans have seen very little of over the past decade plus in New England.
Early offensive struggles continue –** Over the past month-plus of the season the Patriots offense hasn't performed as well as it had earlier in the season. That has especially been true early in games. Last week against the Jets the Patriots managed just one first-half touchdown and that came courtesy of a long Danny Amendola punt return that set up a short field. It wasn't much better against the Bills as Tom Brady & Co. were limited to a pair of field goals and 121 total yards of offense. On Sunday Brady started with a three-and-out, marking the fifth straight game New England failed to score on its opening possession. The slow starts have been a concern lately and that's something Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick will be working hard to rectify during the bye week.
Finesse ground game – One of the problems with the slow starts has been some curious play calling and personnel decisions. The opening series featured a pair of runs from Brandon Bolden that set up a third-and-one. Rather than sticking with Bolden – or the run in general – McDaniels called a pass and Brady's short flip to the flat fell incomplete. Later in the game when facing short-yardage situations McDaniels went with Shane Vereen out of spread looks. Vereen bounced a third-and-one to the outside and appeared to have an easy first down if he simply cut it up and looked to move the chains but he opted to try to bounce it wider and was tackled for no gain. That forced a fourth-down conversion which Brady executed with a pass to Vereen off a well-executed rub play on the outside. The Patriots were without two starters on the offensive line but the short-yardage failures are concerning as well.
Making the most of it – A lot of little-used Patriots saw some action and Brian Tyms was one who took advantage of his chances. He caught four passes for 39 yards in the first half from Brady, showcasing sticky hands and the ability to get open. He also should have drawn an illegal contact penalty on an early double move down the left sideline but the officials let it go. The fact that Tyms was productive with Brady was worth noting and perhaps he's earned some chances to be a deep threat in the postseason should the situation arise next month.
The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 28, 2014.
Springing leaks –** The run defense has been outstanding over the past couple of months but that wasn't the case during the first half against Buffalo. Playing without Dont'a Hightower the rest of the front seven got pushed around a bit by a Bills team that hasn't been able to run the ball effectively all season long. Buffalo attempted 16 runs in the first half and picked up 65 yards for a 4.1-yard average. The Bills were particularly effective between the tackles where Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga were consistently pushed aside as Fred Jackson and Boobie Dixon were able to gash them for solid yardage that allowed Buffalo to stay in favorable down-and-distance situations. Given Hightower's absence the performance was likely more of an aberration but it's still worth noting considering the bulk of the front seven was on the field.
Four corners defense – With Brandon Browner inactive and Darrelle Revis making a first-half cameo covering Sammy Watkins, the Patriots backup defensive backs saw plenty of action. Early it was Logan Ryan starting with Revis as Malcolm Butler came on as the nickel back. Alfonzo Dennard was placed on injured reserve before the game so the Patriots will go into the playoffs with those four cornerbacks. The situation at safety was similar with Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty getting the starts but Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon rotated in throughout the first half. Nate Ebner saw plenty of action in the second half with Wilson and Harmon as the three-man rotation continued without McCourty.
Line depth – Injuries are always a concern but for the Patriots offensive line they seem to be even more significant lately. When the starting five of Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer is intact things seem to operate at a reasonable level of productivity. The protection isn't always perfect but the breakdowns are less frequent. Whenever one of those players is missing, however, things are much different. Josh Kline started for Connolly (knee) last week against the Jets and Brady was sacked four times in the first half alone. Against the Bills both Connolly and Vollmer (back) sat out and the protection was once again spotty. Solder suffered a knee injury and did not play in the second half, leaving Marcus Cannon at left tackle next to Kline with Stork, Wendell and Cameron Fleming at right tackle. That's when the breakdowns really kicked into high gear as Garoppolo spent the entire half running for his life. If Cannon or Kline is pressed into duty in the playoffs things could get real interesting for Brady and the offense given the recent trend.
Kicking it around – Stephen Gostkowski opened the game with touchbacks on his first two kickoffs of the day but sent his next two noticeably shorter. On the first Marcus Thigpen returned it 49 yards into Patriots territory to set up a Buffalo field goal. Gostkowski actually was forced to make the tackle on the play to prevent the touchdown. The coverage was better on the next but Thigpen was still able to get past the 20-yard line to the 21. Perhaps Belichick was trying to give the coverage units some opportunities to cover kicks considering the potential for such work in colder conditions in January, especially if the Patriots are forced to play at night. The coverage as a rule has been outstanding all season long and Thigpen's explosive return was an exception.
Extra points – The Patriots had their 35-game home winning streak against AFC opponent snapped. Prior to Sunday the last time New England lost at home to an AFC team was in 2008 against Pittsburgh. The loss also snapped a 17-gaem winning streak at Gillette Stadium against AFC East teams. … The Patriots defense continued its recent trend of dominant play in the second half. After blanking the Bills after the break the Patriots have now not allowed a second-half touchdown since Indianapolis seven games ago. It's also the third time the Patriots shut out their opponent in the second half during that six-game streak. … New England's 16-game home regular-season winning streak also came to an end. … Gostkowski set a team record for field goal percentage and finished 35-for-37 (.946), topping Adam Vinatieri's 31 of 33 (.939) effort in 2004. He finished with 156 points, two shy of his team record set last year.