» Grading the Bills
RUNNING GAME: C
Fred Jackson had a forceful performance, but the reason he got so many touches was because starter C.J. Spiller struggled. On the Bills’ second snap, Spiller fumbled on his 16-yard line. That set up an easy Patriots touchdown. Spiller had 17 carries (fifth-most of his career) but averaged only 2.4 yards. Jackson averaged 5.2 yards on his 13 attempts. He had four carries of at least 7 yards.
PASSING GAME: B
EJ Manuel performed admirably in his NFL debut. He completed 18 of his 27 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He wasn’t sacked. But the passing game includes other players, too. Stevie Johnson had a critical third-down drop in the fourth quarter. Marquise Goodwin lost a fumble. T.J. Graham was invisible. Spiller averaged 2.8 yards on five catches.
RUN DEFENSE: C-
Early in the game, Buffalo looked like a brand new team against the run. New England got stuffed a few times, forcing punts. But as the game wore on and New England controlled time of possession, Buffalo wore out. Shane Vereen ran 14 times for 101 yards, and Stevan Ridley had nine carries for 46 yards. The Patriots fumbled twice, but the Bills didn’t really force either of them.
PASS DEFENSE: C-
How much credit should the Bills get for one important Justin Rogers interception? The play was phenomenal and set them up for a touchdown right before halftime. But the Bills failed to stop the Patriots in crunch time. Tom Brady completed seven of his eight third-down throws to Danny Amendola for 84 yards and seven first downs. The Bills did register two sacks and seven quarterback hits.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Bills returners had one opportunity but should’ve had none. Six of Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s kicks were touchbacks. Graham should have downed the other one but brought it out to the Bills’ 12-yard line in the fourth quarter. No punts were returned. Shawn Powell netted 40 yards on his nine punts. Dan Carpenter didn’t try any field goals.
Doug Marrone oversaw an effective game plan. The Bills were winning with nine seconds to play. But they also benefited from fluke plays, a weird fumble that was returned for a touchdown, a rare Brady interception deep in Patriots territory and an even rarer Brady fumble at the goal line. And those 13 penalties, including two for 12 men on the field. Yeesh.
» Grading the Patriots
RUNNING GAME: B
Although Brady gets the attention, the Patriots’ backfield was a major reason they held the ball for 37:43. They had only seven rushing first downs, but their backs ran 30 times for 162 yards, a 5.4-yard average. The Patriots had three runs of at least 20 yards, while the Bills had one gain of 20 yards all afternoon: a Graham reverse with a 15-yard penalty tacked on.
PASSING GAME: B+
Brady wasn’t his usual, sublime self. How much of that can be attributed to undrafted rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins not knowing what to do? Brady targeted him a game-high 14 times, but they connected only four times. Brady otherwise was 25 of 38 for 246 yards and two touchdowns (both to Julian Edelman). Brady completed all six of his throws on the winning drive.
RUN DEFENSE: B
The Patriots wanted to take Spiller out of the game and did so emphatically. Bills running backs combined for 108 yards on 30 carries, a pedestrian 3.6-yard average. The Bills weren’t willing to challenge them. They had third down and 2 yards or shorter to go six times, but ran it only twice. Spiller was thrown for a 1-yard loss on third-and-1. Jackson ran for 2 yards on his third-and-1 attempt.
PASS DEFENSE: B-
Manuel posted a 105.5 passer rating and tossed a pair of 18-yard scoring strikes. The Patriots couldn’t sack him. They hit him four times, but he also scrambled for a 19-yard gain. Patriots defensive backs had only three pass breakups, although cornerback Kyle Arrington did cause Goodwin to fumble in the second quarter. They rose up on third downs, allowing the Bills to convert only three through the air.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
Gostkowski made a pair of fourth-quarter field goals, one from 33 yards to move within striking distance and another from 35 yards to win the game with five seconds left. He made a 48-yarder in the first quarter. Rookie punter Ryan Allen was erratic. He netted 36 yards, with a 19-yarder in the second quarter followed by a 65-yarder on his next try. Edelman averaged 10.7 yards on three punt returns.
The Patriots played an efficient game, especially compared to the Bills. The Patriots converted 55 percent of their third downs. They committed only four penalties. They had the ball for over 15 more minutes. Take out some strange plays and Bill Belichick probably walks out of Ralph Wilson Stadium with a significantly more comfortable victory.