If Sunday's production against the Bills in any indication, then the Patriots offensive adjustments down the stretch and into January could be an emphasis on the ground game.
In its first game without Josh Gordon – and with Tom Brady throwing a pair of interceptions among the home team's three turnovers – New England utilized a consistent Sony Michel-led ground game to pull away from Buffalo for the 24-12 win.
It was ugly at times and Bill Belichick's team was certainly fortunate that Josh Allen's receivers allowed at least three would-be touchdowns to go uncaught, but it was good enough for Brady to give way to backup Brian Hoyer with 6:39 to play.
The win improves the Patriots to 10-5 on the season, clinched the AFC East title for the 10th straight season (ho hum, another NFL record!) and in conjunction with an Eagles win over the Texans pushed New England back into the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture.
All things considered, it may not have been pretty but it was a good day in Foxborough.
"It was a great win all the way around," Brady said. "I thought the defense played great and gave us a bunch of chances. Just happy we won. It's a tough team."
"Good to enjoy this one for a day or so," Belichick said of the playoff-clinching win. "To be able to win the division is certainly a goal we have at the beginning of the year. To be able reach that I'm so happy for the people that worked so hard to make it happen. Now we have to continue to play better and coach better."
Before getting to the Christmas celebrations and turning the page to next Sunday afternoon's season finale against the Jets, here are some of the personnel highs and lows from the win over the Bills.
Sony Michel – The rookie has been up and down this season and was more down than up in recent weeks since returning from a knee injury. But right from his first 5-yard run on the second series, Michel was one of many productive runners against Buffalo's No. 10 rush defense. He ran it five times for 43-yards on that drive, concluding with a 4-yard touchdown. He kept things rolling and had his fourth 100-yard game, finishing with 18 attempts for 116 yards (6.4 avg.) with the one score. Other than being absent from the field late with Rex Burkhead/James White running the ball to close out the game, Michel had an impressive day.
Overall run game/blocking – While Michel was the lead dog on the ground, the guys up front for what was the second most productive rushing performance of the Belichick era deserve some love. All told New England churned out 45 carries (minus kneel-downs) for 275 yards (6.1 avg.) and a pair of rushing scores. It wasn't just traditional runs, either, as Cordarrelle Patterson (4 carries for 66 yards) and Phillip Dorsett (2 for 13 yards) hit for chunk plays on Jet sweeps. Each New England ball carrier had a run longer than 10 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown for White. Fullback James Develin and the offensive line pushed the Bills around up front most of the afternoon.
Patrick Chung/Jason McCourty – Chung led the Patriots with seven tackles including five solo stops. He brought Allen down for a 6-yard scramble on third and long in the first quarter. He tackled LeSean McCoy for no-gain on a catch in the flat. He stopped Allen for just 2 yards on a cutback third down run later. Chung tackled well all day. McCourty was involved with two of Buffalo's three turnovers. He had a nice strip to force the takeaway against Jason Croom in the red zone and added a toe-tapping interception later. Chung was solid and McCourty, along with J.C. Jackson's interception, made the big plays for the back end.
Defensive edge – Even with veteran Adrian Clayborn as a surprise healthy inactive, New England's edge defenders kept the dangerous rookie quarterback Allen hemmed int. Allen had been running all over opponents in the last month-plus, including long runs and 100-yard days. The Patriots held him to just 30 yards on five runs, including forcing him to scramble up the middle rather than to the edges. It was a solid performance against a young player with plenty of game-changing potential.
Tom Brady – It wasn't all his fault but Brady and the passing game just weren't efficient or effective enough. Brady completed just 13 of 24 throws for a mere 126 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a 48.3 passer rating. It marked season lows in attempts, completions, yards and a rating. It wasn't all Brady's fault. He was under some pressure. He hit Gronkowski in the hands only to see it go right through for an interception. He threw an in-cut to Burkhead only to see the running back, who was also seemingly being held, break to the outside. But, he also threw behind Julian Edelman early for a missed big play. He threw it in the ground on a number of throws to the outside. It was an ugly day for Brady and the passing game.
Rex Burkhead – The veteran running back was responsible for two of the three turnovers. Burkhead fumbled when he took a big hit while spinning out of contact late in the first quarter. He then had the miscommunication with Brady leading to the interception. Burkhead was also the least effective of all the Patriots ball carriers, picking up just 39 yards on his 13 rushes despite a long of 10 yards. But it's the two turnovers that get Burkhead on the sell list.
Rob Gronkowski/Chris Hogan – In the first game since Gordon's removal from the passing game, two of New England's top cogs from the past were non-factors against the Bills. Gronkowski, who was off the field on many first down snaps, was targeted three times for no catches, including the deflection to the interception. Hogan was not targeted a single time on the afternoon and reportedly showed some frustration on the sidelines. The Patriots passing attack struggled, including going just 3-for-12 on third down, and the lack of production from Gronkowski and Hogan against the NFL's No. 1 pass defense was a part of the problem. With Gordon out of the picture, and even with good rushing production, New England is going to need more from Gronkowski and Hogan moving forward.
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