The New England Patriots shook off a slow start to win 23-3 at New Era Field against the Buffalo Bills in a hotly contested AFC East match-up. There were more than a few eye-raising observations, in this one.
The Bills, fighting to stay in the AFC Wild Card race, needed a win over the front-running Patriots in order to keep up with the other contenders.
The Patriots needed to keep the pressure on the Pittsburgh Steelers. The task was made more difficult with a glaring hole at right tackle. Starter Marcus Cannon was ruled out and back-up LaAdrian Waddle was also sidelined as a game-time scratch. The Pats were forced to turn to third-string tackle Cameron Fleming. The Patriots were also without top edge rusher Trey Flowers, special teams captain Matthew Slater and starting wide receiver Chris Hogan.
It was a game marred by injuries, penalties and some nastiness at the end.
The Buffalo offense took the ball first and drove downfield on a 13-play drive to nowhere. That ended when quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw an interception to former Bills practice squad player Eric Lee. New England stalled out on all four of their first-half drives settling for three field goals and punting once near midfield.
The Patriots pulled away in the second half with a pair of third-quarter touchdowns sandwiched around a defensive stop with a big sack on third-and-five. That made it 23-3. The fourth quarter saw the Bills lose starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor to a knee injury and turn to Nathan Peterman at quarterback.
The Bills tried to get back into the game embarking on a long drive to the New England seven yards line. The Bills passed three times trying to score on former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore who left via free agency. Gilmore continued his dominating performance by denying rookie Zay Jones.
A Bitter End
The Patriots’ final drive with Tom Brady at quarterback ended in an ugly sequence as Brady tried to find Rob Gronkowski along the right sideline on third-and-seven. With rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White riding Gronkowski all the way down the field with a strong grip on his jersey, White made a strong play to intercept the pass.
Gronkowski, in frustration, slammed his head into White’s. The refs flagged him for unnecessary roughness. It was a move clearly after White was down and defenseless and looked to come from the WWE. Gronkowski probably should have been ejected as it was a blatant and cheap foul.
Another skirmish broke out with Danny Amendola and Micah Hyde. Amendola’s helmet was ripped off by Hyde. Once that all got sorted out, the Bills went four-and-out and Brian Hoyer was in the game to kneel-down. It was an ugly finish to an ugly game.
The Patriots moved to 10-2 on the season and climbed to four games ahead of the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East. The Patriots can clinch the AFC East next week as they travel to Hard Rock Stadium to face the Miami Dolphins again next week for the second time in three weeks.
Before looking into that match-up, here is one last look back at the win over Buffalo with three observations.
1.) Running Game Continues to Churn
The Patriots piled on the Bills on the ground to the tune of 191 yards. They did so one week after they gained 196 yards on the ground against the Dolphins. Dion Lewis again led the way with 92 yards on just 15 carries for 92 yards. Rex Burkhead added 78 yards and a pair of touchdowns (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
The Patriots averaged 5.5 yards on the ground for the day, ripping through a Buffalo defense that bottled-up Kareem Hunt and the Kansas City Chiefs last week holding them to just 55 yards. At halftime, Dion Lewis already had 64 yards and the Patriots were at 130 yards rushing.
For the second-straight week, the Patriots were obviously running the ball to take pass rush pressure off of quarterback Tom Brady. Miami’s strong front was limited in their opportunities to hit Brady as New England’s balanced attack mitigated the injuries to the offensive line. Center David Andrews returned this week, but without Cannon or Waddle at right tackle, the Patriots were happy to run the ball.
2.) Third String Tackle = No Problem
Playing without Waddle and Cannon seemed to be a big problem for the Patriots. Fleming has been released multiple times by the Patriots in his years in Foxboro and his limitations in the passing game handling speed rushers are well known around the league. His biggest strength has been coming on as a tight end in the running game for an extra big body.
The two biggest runs of the game were not coincidently both to the right side of the line behind Fleming. He led the way on Dion Lewis’ 44-yard run making a hole with Shaq Mason. Then, on Rex Burkhead’s 31-yard run he sealed off the right edge allowing Burkhead to get outside and set-up the third score of the game for New England.
Fleming helped keep Brady upright limiting Buffalo to just three sacks on 33 dropbacks by Brady. He had help with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen and the running backs chipping away at the edge rushers. The once highly-touted tackle was expected to be a liability (as almost any third-string tackle would be when pressed into service.) However, he held his own in the passing game only getting clearly beat a few times.
In fact, of the three sacks allowed, two were by interior defensive tackles and Shaq Lawson’s first quarter sack was a coverage sack where Brady nearly negated it by getting near the line of scrimmage while scrambling. Fleming allowed some hits, but no one is going to complain of the third-string blocker’s performance.
3.) Stephon Gilmore Shines in Return to Buffalo
Finally, for former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore it was a sweet homecoming.
Gilmore was a first-round draft pick by the Bills in 2012. He spent five seasons as the number one cornerback in Buffalo. He had 14 interceptions over five seasons and forced three fumbles. The Patriots made an out-of-character signing in the first minutes of free agency this season giving Gilmore $40 million in guaranteed money with a five-year $65 million contract that stunned observers around the NFL.
The Bills were never going to even make Gilmore an offer. New head coach Sean McDermott is neither a fan of man-to-man coverage nor high-priced cornerbacks. Gilmore had played for three head coaches in five years in Buffalo and played under four different defensive coordinators in that time.
His start in New England was not pretty. He seemed out of sync with a secondary featuring players Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon. This secondary had been playing together for a number of years. He seemed to allow a huge play almost every week, as he struggled through the first four weeks.
Gilmore’s Turning Point
He seemed to turn things around in week five. Gilmore locked down the dangerous Mike Evans against Tampa Bay on Thursday night. However, an ankle injury and concussion sidelined him until week ten against Denver. With rumblings in the media, due to the strong play of back-up Johnson Bademosi, Gilmore had a strong game against Demaryius Thomas.
Since then, he has improved each week. He slowed down Oakland’s Amari Cooper. He completely blanketed Miami’s DeVante Parker, including a huge red zone interception. This week, he locked down rookie Zay Jones. Perhaps most rewarding, he gave the Bills fans a look at what they let walk away.
ProFootballFocus.com rated Gilmore with a 92.7 overall grade and named him their recipient of the PFF Game Ball. Gilmore was thrown at six times, per PFF, and allowed just two passes for 22 yards. Gilmore was part of a defense that allowed just 115 yards through the air for the day and no completion more than 14 yards.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer and covers the New England Patriots for Full Press Coverage sports media. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01