For the second time in a month the Patriots found themselves in a dogfight with the Bills.
For the second time in a week, New England was involved in a game with a critical replay of an opponent’s would-be touchdown.
Yet again, though, both the game and the call eventually went the Patriots (12-3) way Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium as New England pulled away from a 13-13 halftime tie for a 37-16 victory over Buffalo (8-7) to take another step toward the postseason and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture.
Tyrod Taylor and Co. made things difficult again, fighting for their own postseason berth.
An underamanned group of running backs – without Rex Burkhead and James White – contributed in a big way. Dion Lewis led the way with a pair of touchdowns, while Mike Gillislee returned from a six-game stretch on the inactive list to score once.
Tom Brady didn’t have his best day, throwing an interception for the fifth straight game – this returned 19 yards for a Jordan Poyer pick-six touchdown – but he was good enough to hit a pair of passing scores, including a pretty Rob Gronkowski grab in the second quarter.
There were still issues to work on heading into the postseason, but Bill Belichick’s team took care of business in a way few others around the league seem to be able to down the stretch, even when they aren’t playing their best football.
Sure, there was the good fortune of an apparent Kelvin Benjamin 4-yard touchdown being overturned by an extended replay review late in the second quarter. But New England took advantage, especially as the defense turned up the heat on Christmas Eve for six sacks as Taylor himself couldn’t answer the call when his team needed it most.
Buffalo had its chances but couldn’t take advantage. As is so often the case, Brady, Belichick and the New England rest did more than enough to pull away for the win.
“We played a good second half,” Brady admitted. “12-3. One game to go. 13-3 would be a pretty great year.”
Before opening Christmas presents and moving on to the New Year’s Eve finale at Gillette against the Jets, here are some of the personnel highs and lows from New England’s latest victory.
*Offensive line – *With left tackle Nate Solder added to the injury report with an illness and the Patriots continuing to rely on a backup at right tackle, there could have been reason for concern about the line against the Bills. But the group put up one of its best performances of the year in the win over Buffalo. On the ground the group opened up some big holes for both Lewis and Gillislee, turning 36 attempts into 194 yards. It helped pick up short-yardage conversions and a touchdown. And for most of the afternoon Brady had the time to get the job done through the air, the one real negative maybe Kyle Williams’ sack allowed by Solder. New England’s line was solid throughout.
Dion Lewis – Lewis was not only the lead back against Buffalo, but a big part of the scoring attack. The veteran notched career highs with 24 catches for 129 yards as well as one ground score. Lewis also caught all five passes thrown his way for 24 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown on a screen, one of a couple New England ran in the red zone on the afternoon. Lewis has now averaged better than 5 yards per carry in five of the last six games. He’s had double-digit carries in nine of the last 10 games. He’s the lead back. He’s getting the job done. He’s staying healthy. And he stepped up when his team needed him against Buffalo.
*Rob Gronkowski – *New England’s Pro Bowl tight end continued to dominate against a team he grew up rooting for. Gronkowski’s biggest play of the day was a twisting, one-handed catch inside left pylon for a 17-yard touchdown in the second quarter. He finished tied for a game high with five catches for 67 yards and also drew a 29-yard pass interference call in the end zone to set up the Gillislee touchdown run. New England’s passing offense continues to be a little hit-or-miss, but when Brady throws to Gronkowski far more often than not good things happen for the Patriots.
Defending running backs – There is no question that linebacker may be the most undermanned position in the New England roster. The group has struggled on edge runs and dealing with opposing running backs as passer catchers. That continued against the Bills and LeSean McCoy, even though some of the tackle statistics would indicate otherwise. McCoy ran it 17 times for 71 yards (4.2 avg.). He also tied for a game high with five catches for 76 yards, including a 39-yard long on which he cut back to leave Elandon Roberts in his dust. It’s not just on the linebackers, but that group and the rest of the defense need to find a way to better defend opposing running backs.
*Malcolm Butler/Stephon Gilmore – *New England’s top two cornerbacks struggled much of the afternoon to deal with what is actually a pretty lackluster Bills passing attack. Butler was beaten badly by Deonte Thompson on a post-corner boot play early on, giving up 46 yards. Taylor then found the receiver again for 33 yards down the right side to set up a field goal at the end of first half. Butler also got a holding call later against Thompson on a play where a better Taylor throw could have been another big gain. Gilmore wasn’t much better, though he was more competitive. He struggled with Benjamin’s size, the big target catching five balls for 70 yards. The Patriots secondary has the bodies and talent to be better than it has been playing.
Big plays allowed – Buffalo hit four pass plays of 33 yards or longer, which would be four of the 15 longest plays allowed by the Patriots this season. Overall there were too many chunk plays both on the ground and through the air against Buffalo. Allowing big plays was a problem early in the year, one that disappeared during the team’s eight-game winning streak that held eight straight opponents to 17 points or fewer. But big plays have crept back into being a problem in recent weeks, one that the back end of the defense knows it has to get cleaned up heading toward the postseason.
What do you think of our lists? Additions or alterations? Let us know with a comment below!