On paper, Sunday afternoon's season finale between the Patriots and Bills in Foxborough was a meaningless football game. New England had locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC while Buffalo had already been eliminated from the playoffs.
The fact that Rob Gronkowski was a healthy scratch and other dinged up key teammates littered the inactive list only seemed strengthen the idea that, at least from a New England perspective, the game was a preseason-like exhibition affair.
The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 28, 2014.
But once the action began and the Patriots struggled to the tune of a 17-6 halftime deficit, the meaninglessness of the game seemed to fade a bit. Tom Brady played the entire first half, but struggled to complete just eight of 16 passes for 80 yards and a 64.6 passer rating.
Defensive star Darrelle Revis started the game and took a man-to-man matchup with Bills star rookie Sammy Watkins. The first-round pick beat Revis for a 43-yard catch-and-run early.
Vince Wilfork started along the defensive line, yet he and his formidable defensive line frontmates allowed Buffalo to rush for a consistent 4.1 yards per carry on the way to the halftime lead.
While it was understandable for the offense to struggle without the likes of Gronkowski, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer and Julian Edelman, the defensive struggles that allowed Kyle Orton to put up a 125.4 passer rating in the first 30 minutes were less acceptable. Essentially the unit played the bulk of its key players aside from injured Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Browner.
In the end, the 17-9 loss did nothing to derail any of New England's championship hopes or chances. And it certainly offered a chance to see Jimmy Garoppolo getting extended reps against a solid defense in the second half.
But as meaningless as the game was on paper, the performance didn't exactly breed confidence or swagger in Patriot Nation heading into the bye week. And Belichick will have plenty to clean up and harp on in the coming weeks of practice for the postseason.
The most important factor in the game was that there did not appear to be any real serious injuries in the contest for the Patriots, although Nate Solder (knee), Brandon LaFell and Sealver Siliga all left with ailments at various times.
With two weeks to prepare for an unknown opponent – the lowest remaining seed after Wild Card Weekend will travel to Gillette Stadium on the weekend of Jan. 10/11 – the Patriots can now get ready for truly extraordinarily meaningful games in the new year. The 12-4 regular season is in the rearview mirror. Nothing that happened on the field Sunday afternoon should in any way derail Super Bowl hopes, even if nothing that happened did anything to strengthen those hopes, either.
As Brady himself said, "We didn't make enough plays to win. Hopefully we make them in a couple weeks."
Clearly, championship hopes remain strong and very much alive in New England.
But before turning the page, and the calendar itself, here's a look at the individual highs and lows from the upset loss to the Bills:
Tom Brady/Darrelle Revis/Rob Gronkowski** – New England's star-power made it through the finale with seemingly no injury concerns. Gronkowski was inactive. Revis started and admittedly gave up a big play in his early man matchup with Sammy Watkins. Brady led a pair of three-and-outs as well as a pair of field goal drives. Most importantly all three hit the bye ready to be the centerpiece of the Patriots potential Super Bowl run.
Jamie Collins – No one will question the effort of New England's budding second-year linebacker in the finale. In addition to being the only real experienced veteran linebacker – handling the defensive playcalling duties – Collins had a huge play in the second quarter of the win that displayed his ability and desire. Collins rushed, hit and bounced off Bills quarterback Kyle Orton coming off the right defensive side. He kept his motor going, beat a blocker a second time and when Orton held onto the ball Collins not only got back into the play for the strip sack but also reached out his long arm to make the recovery for the Patriots. It was a highlight reel play among Collins' contributions.
Dont'a Hightower – While Collins impressed with his playing time in the finale, Hightower showed his value in his absence. New England's run defense struggled at times, especially in the first half, despite the fact that the bulk of the front was the starting unit. Buffalo consistently churned out yards early. Jonathan Casillas earned a lot of reps and struggled in both his tackling and coverage at times. The Patriots don't have great depth at linebacker and seeing the unit play without Hightower showed that he's a key, core figure in the team's defense, especially against the run. The run defense improved in the second half, when the unit held the Bills off the scoreboard, but like much of the action for the Patriots it wasn't overly impressive without Hightower.
Josh Kline** – For the second straight week Kline got the start at left guard in place of the injured Dan Connolly. For the second straight week Kline struggled, got Brady hit and was replaced in the lineup by rookie Cameron Fleming in the first half. Kline appeared to be a riser in the developmental program on the line last offseason. Now, he appears to be playing himself out of any future reps, although he did return to action in the second half with Fleming at right tackle and Marcus Cannon sliding to left tackle. Still, that unit struggled mightily in front of Jimmy Garoppolo.
Nate Solder – The Patriots left tackle has struggled down the stretch of the 2014 regular season. Sunday afternoon he earned a holding call after getting beaten by Jerry Hughes. He also injured his right knee on the play. He gutted out a few more snaps, but did not play in the second half. While it's unclear how severe the injury might be, and Solder does have two weeks to recover, it's not ideal for an already struggling left tackle to add a knee injury to his issues heading into the postseason.
First-quarter offense – Whether you place the blame on the game plan, Josh McDaniels' playcalling, the offensive line or Tom Brady, New England's offense has struggled to get going early in games for more than a month. That is not the kind of trend a team wants heading into the postseason. Digging early holes in playoff games can create, literally, no-win situations. The Patriots need to clean things up on offense heading into January to ensure there will be no upsets in Foxborough in a couple weeks.