Patriots aren't what they've been, but they're still pretty good
The Patriots handled the Bills on Sunday, as they should have. The Patriots’ ability -- after weeks of struggling -- to handle an opposing running game, Josh Allen’s “this could go anywhere” style of quarterbacking, and a devastating and creative running attack from the Patriots delivered New England its 10th straight AFC East title. All that wasn’t enough to quell consternation about the fact the Patriots’ passing game was a shambles in its first game post-Josh Gordon. But the fact is the team is 10-5 with a home game against the lame-duck Jets next week. They are the second seed in the AFC and will remain there with another win. They aren’t what they’ve been. And after years of making it look easy it’s unsettling to see them struggle like the other 31 teams often do. But it is what it is.
When the Patriots ran
The first time these teams met, the Patriots got just 76 yards on the ground. On Sunday, they rolled up 273 against a run defense that was 10th in the league coming into the game. The bulk of the yards came from rookie Sony Michel (pictured), who had 116 on 18 carries, but the biggest plays came from Cordarelle Patterson, who ran for 66 on four carries. The attention the Bills had to pay when he came in motion also helped just a bit on James White’s 27-yard touchdown run before the half. It was a third-and-2 and Patterson -- in motion right-to-left -- drew attention and helped set up White to hit a crease. Michel is up to 765 yards (4.32 YPC) and while there’s been plenty of second-guessing about the Patriots offseason roster-building and the way the future looks at key positions like wide receiver and tight end, they’d be screwed if they didn’t have Michel. White, whose touches have been down in recent weeks, is still seeing the ball less than Rex Burkhead while producing more but there’s no easy way for Josh McDaniels to draw things up with an offense that’s been inconsistent.
When the Bills ran
Finally, after getting run over by running back after running back, the Patriots bowed up in the front-seven and stopped a ground attack. The reinsertion of space-eating Danny Shelton to help gum up the line of scrimmage paid dividends, as did the activation of Ufomba Kamalu (pictured) from the practice squad. Bills running backs combined for 42 yards on 13 carries. While the Bills aren’t a potent running team, neither were the Dolphins and Steelers and they went for 189 and 158 against the Patriots. Whether it’s sustainable or not remains to be seen but it was absolutely a step in the right direction.
When the Patriots passed
It just looked bad. Tom Brady was 13-for-24 for 126 yards with a touchdown and two picks. The first pick came when Rex Burkhead peeled off from a route over the middle when Brady thought he’d keep going. The second came on the first play of the second half when Brady tried to hit Rob Gronkowski short and had it bounce off Gronk for a ricochet pick. Brady didn’t complete a pass to Gronk. Or Phillip Dorsett. Or Chris Hogan. The latter two weren’t targeted. Brady completed one to Cordarelle Patterson for 3 yards. James White had two catches for 13. Rex Burkhead caught four for 40 and on one of those, he fumbled at the end of the play. Only Julian Edelman put up decent numbers – six catches for 70 yards. Thirty-two of those came on a fourth-and-4 slant when Edelman rolled off the bodies of would-be tacklers and alertly scooted into the end zone. There was pressure involved that caused some incompletions but there was also just plain disjointedness and inaccuracy as well, almost a resignation that the passing game is half-busted. The absence of Josh Gordon hurts the offense. Plainly. And while the effectiveness of the running game lessens the impact, as Bill Belichick said this week, “It’s a passing league.”
When the Bills passed
Josh Allen’s gonna put an eye out. Allen went 20-for-41, making this the fourth time in five games since returning from injury he was at 50 percent or worse on his passes. Several didn’t have a prayer but there were two big ones that were drops from receivers as well, one negating a decent gain, the other a would-be touchdown. Be that as it may! This was not a surprise development that the Patriots held down Allen and the Bills passing attack. They also came up with a pair of picks – one from Jason McCourty, the other from J.C. Jackson.
The Patriots blocked another punt, this one late in the game, and Bills kicker Steve Hauschka missed a 43-yard field goal on which he hit the crossbar. Stephen Gostkowski made his long field goal attempt (dicey from 24 yards) and the Patriots coverage teams were solid. One point of concern was Cordarrelle Patterson leaving with a knee injury after being upended on a kickoff return in the second half. He appeared to bang his kneecap.
The Patriots close it out against the 4-11 Jets, who blew a 35-20 second-half lead to the Packers and lost 44-38. Head coach Todd Bowles is on his way out. If the Patriots win that game, they’ll gain the No. 2 overall seed in the AFC -- and they still have an outside (albeit extremely unlikely shot) at overtaking Kansas City for No. 1 -- get a bye and then host the highest-seeded team that survives the Wild Card round.