The Buffalo Bills’ defense held off the Tom Brady passing onslaught better than anyone could have expected Monday night.
The Bills forced Brady & Co. to settle for four field goals before finally cracking 50 minutes into the game and yielding a touchdown.
The 25-6 outcome wasn’t indicative of how well the Bills’ defense played.
This was a New England Patriots team that had scored 17 touchdowns in the previous four games and had averaged 39.25 points a game over the past month.
But the Bills showed why they’re one of the best defenses in the NFL at preventing big plays.
The Bills allowed just 17 pass plays of 20-or-more yards the first seven games, which was tied for first in the NFL with Dallas.
The Patriots managed five pass plays of 20-or-more yards in the game, a meager total given the fact the Bills’ offense didn’t offer much support in the way of ball control.
A couple of Pats’ big passes top the plays that shaped the game:
1. All-world Gronk. Rob Gronkowski has terrorized the Bills throughout his nine-year NFL career, yet this was one of the best defensive games the Bills played against him. Still, the All-Pro tight end made one big play. He caught a 22-yard fade pass down the left sideline to set up a field goal that put New England ahead, 12-6, late in the third quarter.
Gronkowski was lined up to the far left in a one-on-one matchup against cornerback Phillip Gaines, who had good coverage. The pass from Brady caromed off the outstretched arms of both Gaines and Gronkowski, and Gronk caught his own tip while getting both feet in bounds at the Buffalo 7. Very few tight ends in the NFL make that catch.
Gronkowski was held to three catches for 43 yards. In 14 games against the Bills, Gronkowski has 69 catches for 1,060 yards and 12 touchdowns.
2. Turkey-hole perfection. The Bills were clinging to the six-point deficit early in the fourth quarter when Brady marched the Pats 85 yards in 10 plays. On a third-and-7 play from his own 18, Brady hit Julian Edelman for a 26-yard gain down the left sideline in the hole just behind the cornerback and in front of the two-deep safety coverage. Maybe Gaines could have backed up a little more down the sideline to squeeze the hole between himself and safety Micah Hyde. But the throw was superb.
3. Back-shoulder perfection. Six plays later, the Pats got a 20-yard back-shoulder pass from Brady to Chris Hogan to the Buffalo 1. Defensive end Eddie Yarbrough had chucked Gronkowski hard at the line to throw off the tight end’s route.
Gaines was in man coverage down the left sideline. The pass was perfect and virtually impossible to defend. It doesn’t hurt that Brady has been working with Hogan for three years.
James White plunged over from the 1 on the next play and the Pats had an 18-6 lead.
4. Nearly a great catch. The Bills almost pulled within 18-13 with 6:09 left when Jason Croom appeared to make a one-handed catch in the end zone on a 25-yard pass from Derek Anderson.
It was one of several trick plays the Bills ran. Buffalo lined up with both offensive tackles split out with the wide receivers on the outside of the formation and just a center and two guards in the middle of the field. Then tackles Dion Dawkins and Jordan Mills shifted back to a traditional five-man line, and there were two receivers on each side of the field.
Croom ran a fade against safety Patrick Chung and almost made a great grab. It was correctly ruled incomplete on video review.
5. Nail in the coffin. On the next play from scrimmage after the Croom incompletion, safety Devin McCourty returned an interception off Anderson 84 yards for a touchdown. The Pats appeared to be in two-deep coverage, which is why Anderson threw down the middle.
But McCourty had no other receivers to worry about coming down the middle – Stephon Gilmore had Kelvin Benjamin locked up going down the left sideline – and was jumping the route all the way. He had an easy pickoff at the New England 16 and raced down the sideline.
It put the Pats ahead, 25-6.
6. Key Bills stop. The Bills stopped the Pats on a third-and-3 play from their own 12 to force a punt early in the third quarter. Buffalo turned it into a field goal.
The Pats ran a toss sweep off right end to Cordarrelle Patterson. Safety Jordan Poyer read the plan and dove into the backfield to slow Patterson’s momentum, then Julian Stanford swooped in for the tackle. Stanford was subbing for the injured Tremaine Edmunds, who went out in the second quarter with a concussion.
7. Key pressure. The Bills forced a field goal with a third-and-goal stop from the 7 late in the third quarter. Jerry Hughes beat Trent Brown with a speed move, and Kyle Williams burst up the middle on a twist to force a throw-away by Brady.