» Grading the Bills
RUNNING GAME: C+
LeSean McCoy was able to gain the corner and break free for a 27-yard touchdown run. Other than that? He was below average. The Buffalo Bills’ star averaged only 2.9 yards per carry on his other 19 carries. His backup, Karlos Williams, mustered just 1.8. New England sold out on the run most of the game and it paid off. McCoy wasn’t able to bounce many runs wide — the Patriots funneled all action inside.
PASSING GAME: D-
For Buffalo to make the playoffs — at some point, with a game on the line — Tyrod Taylor will need to make teams pay deep. He did not Monday night, under throwing receivers and failing to fluidly shift from his first to second to third reads. He can dazzle. Taylor shook off a defender over his head before drilling one pass to Robert Woods early on Monday. But he struggled seeing the whole field as the game progressed. And if he hits on one or two of the deep balls, Buffalo leaves New England with the upset win.
RUN DEFENSE: B
LeGarrette Blount wasn’t a 250-pound problem for Buffalo this night, averaging only 3.5 yards per carry. He’s a load to bring down but, for the most part, Buffalo gang-tackled him on his 16 attempts. Especially impressive considering the Bills were decimated by injury on the defensive line. Kyle Williams was out. Mario Williams left. Marcell Dareus was in and out. Now, they’ll need to make Kansas City one-dimensional on the road next week. Alex Smith isn’t quite Tom Brady.
PASS DEFENSE: B-
On one hand, Brady threw for 277 yards after the 466 spot in Week 2, cornerback Stephon Gilmore had an interception, and pressure — at least for stretches — got to the MVP candidate. At one point, Manny Lawson was pretending to throw an axe after a sack. On the other, Brady still burned Buffalo underneath to Danny Amendola and made enough plays late to win despite an injury-riddled receiving corps. Buffalo’s missed tackles were alarming again, turning intermediate gains into back-breaking gains.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
The Bills probably shouldn’t have cut Marcus Thigpen. While he hadn’t broken free for a long gain, Thigpen was mostly reliable in the return game. Leodis McKelvin, meanwhile, fumbled. At Gillette Stadium. Again. Six years after his epic fumble led to a Brady comeback, he coughed it up and it led to a Patriots field goal. It’s never good to field a jittery return man as the weather turns. Dan Carpenter also had one kick hit off the upright.
Give Rex Ryan credit for his game plan. He had Brady frustrated in the first half. Cameras caught the quarterback shouting on the sideline and the third-down heat was making him uneasy. Players appear to be more comfortable in Ryan’s scheme. But that decision to punt on fourth and 2 at midfield in the fourth quarter? Odd. Eerily similar to his predecessor, Doug Marrone. Ryan said he thought about going for it, but didn’t want to lose the game on that play. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman should’ve made a point to get Sammy Watkins and Charles Clay (zero combined targets in the first half) more involved.
» Grading the Patriots
RUNNING GAME: B-
The Patriots will miss Dion Lewis and his versatility but appear to have enough to get by as they usually do. James While, while not overly explosive or powerful, had enough juice to stiff-arm Corey Graham on a 20-yard touchdown (off a swing pass) and 6-yard score. The 22 total attempts provided the Patriots just enough balance, but they’ll probably need Blount to take on a larger role with so many injuries.
PASSING GAME: B
Sure, Danny Amendola (117 yards) had a big night as the No. 1 threat in New England’s offense. But this Patriots offense hums along much better when Julian Edelman is on the field. A juggernaut looked pedestrian most of the night. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, superhuman games past against the Bills, was corralled and doubled and neutralized on his seven targets. While undefeated, there are question marks in New England. Losing Amendola and Aaron Dobson on the fly hurt. Yet, of course, Brady found a way to beat Buffalo again.
RUN DEFENSE: A-
As everyone says, Belichick has a knack for eliminating your top threat from the game. McCoy finally busted free for a touchdown in the second half. But the Patriots’ No. 2-ranked run defense got the best of Buffalo’s No. 2-ranked run offense. Even without rangy linebacker Jamie Collins, New England swarmed to the ball with six tackles for loss. There might not be star power on this defense, household names. But by January, chances are people will get to know this group a lot better.
PASS DEFENSE: A-
Opponents rave about how much Malcolm Butler battles one on one with receivers. He didn’t disappoint Monday night. While Taylor’s inaccuracy and indecision helped, he held the Bills’ best receiver to only three receptions. The Patriots took a risk in letting Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in the offseason. They saw something in Butler, beyond the Super Bowl heroics. It appears Belichick was right again.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Maybe the most under-appreciated element of Belichick’s dynasty is his kicking game. Adam Vinatieri hit a slew of clutch kicks in the early 2000’s and now this combo of Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen is arguably the best in the game. Allen pinned Buffalo inside its 20-yard line three times. Gostkowski did miss his first attempt on the season but is a ridiculous 96 of 102 the last three seasons.
It wasn’t pretty, but Belichick wins the ugly football game more often than any coach in the league. He adjusts, adapts and doesn’t make apologies for wins like this. How many coaching staffs are able to turn James White and Brandon LaFell into key contributors? Both will probably end up playing critical roles for the Patriots into December. Defensively, New England again forced Taylor to be a pocket passer.