Phil Perry's Patriots-Bills report card
The Patriots got a less-than-stellar day from their quarterback, they had really only two consistently viable offensive weapons, they had breakdowns in the secondary . . . and they still won by 21. The coaching staff will have plenty to pick apart when they watch this one again, but reinforcements at linebacker (Kyle Van Noy,), receiver (Chris Hogan) and running back (Rex Burkhead and James White) would all go a long way in helping make a 37-16 win look even better. Even if those players can't get back on the field in short order, the Patriots showed that the overwhelming talent they possess at quarterback, tight end and running back can carry them. Click through for the grades from Week 16.
The only way the Bills could find the end zone was by getting a little help from Tom Brady. On a third-and-seven throw to Kenny Britt, Brady didn't notice safety Jordan Poyer, a free defender, crashing down into the box to undercut Britt's route. Could the pattern have been run more sharply by the newest Patriots wideout? Perhaps. But Brady is the one making the decisions, and he made a poor one there that led to a pick-six. He had a couple of other questionable throws to Rob Gronkowski in the first half, sailing one over his head in the end zone and throwing well behind the big tight end in the second quarter. He also overthrew Brandin Cooks for a would-be touchdown and then underthrew him two plays later. The Patriots picked up a 44-yard pass-interference penalty on the play, but Brady seemed to have issues with his distance control in this one. Brady's sneak to catch too many men on the field was heady, he made pinpoint throws to Gronkowski midway through the second quarter (for a one-handed touchdown) and at the end of the third (over the middle with Micah Hyde in tight coverage), and he completed a whopping 75 percent of his passes. But Buffalo's numbers in coverage seemed to have Brady second-guessing at times, leading to a relatively up-and-down day.
RUNNING BACK: A
With Rex Burkhead and James White missing, the Patriots had little issue with just bumping up the workload for their best running back. Dion Lewis finished with a career-high 129 yards rushing on 24 carries, and he also chipped in with five catches. According to Pro Football Focus, he managed 2.58 yards after contact -- marking his 10th game of the season in which he's racked up more than 2.5 yards after contact per attempt. After Rob Gronkowski, he is the team's most consistent offensive option. Earlier in the season, it seemed like the Patriots wanted to manage his reps as Mike Gillislee, White and Burkhead got more work. But now the coaching staff can't bring itself to take him off the field. The only other back available, Gillislee, performed well in his 15 snaps, rushing six times for 28 yards, and catching one pass for 15. In his first game since the bye week, Gillislee protected the football and provided a steady presence that could earn him more time as the season wears on and the weather gets worse.
WIDE RECEIVER: C+
Brady went to Danny Amendola for the first third-down conversion of the game, and three plays later Phillip Dorsett did well to step out of a tackle and pick up 24 yards. Dorsett held a block to help Dion Lewis pick up some extra yardage in the second quarter, and in the third Brandin Cooks scooted by a tackler to pick up 14 yards. Cooks also was able to beat defenders twice, drawing one 44-yard pass-interference penalty when the Bills devoted more bodies to the middle of the field and briefly left the deep area open. But with Buffalo coach Sean McDermott doing his best to flood the field -- often rushing only four -- it was up to Brady's receivers to beat coverage. Amendola, Dorsett, Cooks and Britt combined for just seven catches.
TIGHT END: A
What more is there to say about Rob Gronkowski? He probably won't reach his statistical incentives to hit his maximum contract value for 2017, but he should still earn his money by being named a First Team All-Pro. There isn't an offensive weapon in the sport -- certainly not at his position -- who can impact a game the way he does. His stat line -- five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown -- doesn't jump off the screen, but he barely came off the field (66 of 71 possible snaps), and he was a force in the running game as the Patriots ran for nearly 200 yards. His block on Ryan Davis late in the first quarter helped open things up for a 13-yard Dion Lewis run. Plus plays like his one-handed touchdown catch, and his juggling grab over the middle that ended with Micah Hyde injuring himself trying to tackle Gronkowski by the boots, go to show just how physically dominant he is compared to his opponents. Jacob Hollister had an opportunity at more time with the Patriots banged up, and he took an end-around five yards. Even Dwayne Allen showed some pep in his step, making one athletic-looking 22-yard catch-and-run. James Develin, always mentioned with this group, gets credit for opening up some space for Gillislee's goal-line touchdown run.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
Any time the Patriots running game churns out yardage the way it did on Sunday the big bodies up front deserve a boatload of credit. The averaged 5.1 yards per carry even without many explosive runs. Their long jaunt of the day was 16 yards, meaning that average figure wasn't fluffed by one big Bills breakdown. In pass protection they were rock solid, allowing just three pressures on 32 pass plays. Shaq Mason (who was very good in the run game again), Cam Fleming and Joe Thuney all had clean sheets to celebrate their Christmas Eve. Nate Solder was impressive as well. Though he allowed a sack to Kyle Williams looping around the left edge, Solder played after coming down with an illness on Saturday night, and Belichick lauded Solder for his toughness going against pass-rusher Jerry Hughes for the majority of the day. Hughes did pick up a sack, but he did so after Adolphus Washington beat David Andrews and moved Brady off his spot. Can't exactly pin that one on Solder.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
The Patriots got a pair of solid second-half punt-returns from Danny Amendola to give them starting field position at the 35 (after a ten-yard return) and the 46 (after a nine-yard return), but they were otherwise quiet in the return game. Stephen Gostkowski had a strong day, making all seven of his kicks (three field goals with a long of 40 and four extra points) -- always worth a nod at this time of year. And Patriots kick-coverage units were solid against occasionally-dangerous return units featuring Brandon Tate. Brandon King had the play of the day when in the fourth quarter he tracked down Tate for just a 13-yard pickup on a Gostkowski kick that got the Bills started at their own 19.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Slot this in among the best games this unit has had all season. It started with a run stuff by Ricky Jean Francois. It ended with a Deatrich Wise sack (which he split with Marquis Flowers). In between there were overpowering moments that featured Patriots linemen crushing the pocket to pressure Tyrod Taylor, quarterback hits, sacks and blown-up runs that prevented Buffalo's offense from getting going. Malcom Brown was a force throughout, coming up with a hit on LeSean McCoy behind the line of scrimmage and helping to ruin a shovel pass on the first Bills drive alone. In the third quarter he personally ruined a Bills drive by sacking Taylor and then stopping Mike Tolbert for a loss. Trey Flowers had a big day as well, pressuring Taylor into a Marquis Flowers sack on fourth down, stuffing a Travaris Cadet run, ruining a screen for a loss of eight and gobbling up McCoy twice on the same drive near the line of scrimmage -- once at the end of the third quarter and once at the start of the fourth. Wise was in on a pair of sacks, and Adam Butler checked in with two pressures on 34 snaps.
The Patriots only used two linebackers in the game, Marquis Flowers and Elandon Roberts. Players like Patrick Chung and Jordan Richards also chipped in on the second level, but in a game where Belichick wanted as much speed on the field as possible to deal with Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy, someone like David Harris (who was in uniform but did not play) was obsolete. Flowers checked in with the game of his career, playing in 55 snaps and recording 2.5 sacks -- the first official sacks of his career. (Though he'll tell you he should've split one in Week 12 with Trey Flowers.) His speed was a factor, getting in the way of a shovel pass as he tore through the middle of the Bills offensive line in the first quarter. He was also able to use his athleticism to get to Taylor on fourth down early in the second quarter, and he spied Taylor for another sack later in the quarter. Flowers finished with a flourish, stuffing McCoy for a loss of two in the fourth and then later sacking Taylor with Deatrich Wise. Elandon Roberts was shaken by McCoy, which led to a 39-yard gain, but he made a pair of loud sticks that earned him compliments in the locker room from assistant Ray Ventrone after the game.
With the front doing its job to shrink Tyrod Taylor's pocket, and with defenders at the second level doing their job to spy Taylor and prevent him from doing too much damage with his legs, it was up to the secondary to hold up when Taylor threw from the pocket. That's always the goal with the Patriots see Taylor, but even from the pocket, he hurt them with accurate throws early. Deonte Thompson twice beat Malcolm Butler for big gains, and Butler lost track of Thompson again near the goal line on what might have been a touchdown had Taylor ever looked in Thompson's direction. Stephon Gilmore also had issues on the opposite side trying to contain Kelvin Benjamin. Despite dealing with injuries that have slowed him for much of the season, Benjamin made five catches on seven targets for 70 yards -- all with Gilmore on him. The safeties helped this overall grade, though, as Patrick Chung was tremendous in coverage, allowing just four catches on 10 targets for 19 yards. Devin McCourty saw only two of six passes in his direction completed, and Jordan Richards was valuable as a Taylor spy.