ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – It really came down to three mistakes. One massive one, the other two subtle ones.
All three conspired to ensure the Buffalo Bills would not be hanging with the Patriots on this Sunday. Even though they had a plan, even though they had chances, even though they knew they had to play almost perfect and hope the Patriots weren’t, they still lost by 20.
The final result was dwarfed by conversation revolving around Rob Gronkowski’s dirty hit on Bills corner Tre’Davious White and whether Gronk deserved to be fined, jailed, suspended and made to read “Infinite Jest” or whether he should be fined, jailed, suspended and made to read Dan Shaughnessy.
Everybody has an opinion there.
There are fewer opinions on the game because, well, it was the ass-booting we anticipated though some (me) went the “You never know…” route and prophesied moments of doubt.
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Those moments lasted until Tyrod Taylor capped a masterful opening possession by the Bills with a goal-to-go pick thrown to Eric Lee fewer than eight minutes into the game. Lee is a player you may not know because, 12 days ago, he was a member of the Bills practice squad.
The Patriots, in essence, went to the Bills, saw Lee leaning up against the shed out back and said, “You using that? No? Mind if we use it for a while?” New England then proceeded to ruin their day with their newfound tool.
The two other mistakes I alluded to – Tyrod Taylor overshooting Travaris Cadet for a would-be touchdown in the second quarter and the Bills failing to cover Gronk on a third down early in the third quarter – were harmful, nothing could top the poison pill that was Taylor’s day-ruining turnover on the opening drive.
Despite what social media kept insisting, the Patriots didn’t take Buffalo lightly. The Bills are a tough matchup on the ground because they have a mobile quarterback in Taylor and a gifted runner in LeSean McCoy. They get you in space and beat you with shiftiness and speed. The Patriots are a lot of things. Off-the-charts athletically isn’t one.
So the Bills confirmed the Patriots fears on the first drive. And on New England’s first few offensive drives, the Buffalo defense was enough of a nuisance to have the Patriots’ blood pressure up.
But this was big brother-little brother all day long. No matter how much the Bills schemed and hoped and psyched themselves up to try and take the Patriots into the fourth quarter, they couldn’t hang. When the second half started the Patriots started pounding the ball to Gronk. That was when the game really felt like one kid firing futile fists at the stomach of his brother who laughs and holds him off with just a palm on the little dude’s forehead.
Which brings us to the running game and how that’s become the Patriots’ ultimate weapon in 2017. With three dual-purpose running backs, a Hall of Fame tight end, one of the league’s best downfield threats and third-down conversion machine Danny Amendola, the Patriots are so loaded they can only beat themselves. Truly. There is a mismatch somewhere every time Tom Brady is behind center. They either find and exploit it or user error prevents them from doing so.
Adding in the potent threat of a ground attack in which the Patriots are going heavy while other teams are going light means New England has something else up its sleeve. They could throw it every down if they wanted to and still win plenty. But running the ball is so much easier when it comes down to it. Running also adds the extra dimension of saying, “We are tougher than you…” And that still matters in football.
“In a lot of ways, holding onto the ball, being able to run the ball helped us control the game,” said Nate Solder after the Patriots ran for 191 on 35 carries a week after running for 196 against Miami. “The better we can run it, the more our play-action opens up, the more our passing game opens up. Honestly, for me, if I don’t have to deal with a great pass-rusher like Jerry Hughes on every down, that’s OK with me. (Running the ball means) a little less risk, it relies a little more on our effort and technique and less of going against a great athlete in space.”
Between the offensive line, tight ends and fullback James Develin, the Patriots are bare-knuckling in a velvet-glove league.
“The more balanced we are offensively, the better we’ll be,” said tight end Dwayne Allen. "To be able to go from, ‘Let’s spread ‘em out and throw it…” to “Let’s pack it in here, let’s run the ball, let’s control the game, it just makes us a more effective offense.
“The fullback and the tight end position are two dying breeds in terms of blocking,” he added. “There are plenty of tight ends with the title ‘tight end’ but there are very few doing it the way Rob Gronkowski is. He’s able to dominate the blocking game, dominate the edge of the line of scrimmage and then do what he does in the passing game, that’s what the position is all about.”
Develin also personifies what the fullback position’s traditionally been about. He’s a battering ram in a sport that, for a century, has centered around violent, head-on, human collisions. We’ve got a better understanding now that those collisions sometimes lead to dire health consequences for some, so few weep for the fading of the fullback. But the Patriots have taken the market inefficiency that’s resulted from teams going skinny and fast on defense by getting big again.
“It’s a selfless position,” Brady said of Develin’s role. “It’s all dirty work. He’s not getting carries. … (But) being the lead blocker really sets the tone for the offense. I think those guys love running behind him and I think the line really appreciates a guy that takes that to heart. We went away from fullback for a while and then everyone else did as well so we went back to fullback. It’s a very valuable position and anyone that can create holes … that physical style in the run game is valuable for us.”
The football will take a back seat to the sexier storylines Monday.
There will be clucking because Brady yelled at Josh McDaniels. “How come Brady gets to…?!”
The quest to prove who’s most outraged by Gronk’s dirty hit began Sunday night with virtue signalers upping the ante by the minute. Of course it deserves punishment – a one-game suspension wouldn’t be ludicrous and neither would a $50,000 fine. But it was not – as a Twitter follower claimed to me – aggravated assault nor – as another fella on Twitter said – should it result in a suspension for the rest of the regular season.
But the football part, it wasn’t uninteresting. For the second straight week. The Patriots lined up and steamrolled a team on the ground. Nearly 400 yards on the ground in two weeks time? For an offense that was already daunting? That’s a development.