The story leading into today’s contest with Buffalo was newly-signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s return to team and how the home crowd would react to their former top corner’s decision to sign with their division rival. And Gilmore was not the only Patriot to return to Buffalo; wide receiver Chris Hogan and running back Mike Gillislee were both barred from the game. Hogan has been dealing with a bad shoulder, while Gillislee was a healthy scratch.
The decision to sit Gillislee makes clear that the Patriots are satisfied with their pass-catching tandem of James White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead at running back. The trio were the main difference-makers on offense, combining for 245 total yards and two touchdowns, both from Rex Burkhead on the ground.
The offensive line was a hot topic as David Andrews returned to play center, while Shaq Mason filled in at right guard.
On defense, Pro Bowler Trey Flowers was ruled out with injury, and Eric Rowe returned.
The Patriots struggled in the first half by leading long drives on offense and leaving with field goals. Tom Brady was sacked four times after Nate Solder and Joe Thuney lost battles with Buffalo’s pass rush, Brady was visibly frustrated on the sidelines as a result, ending the half with a 9-3 score.
The secord half unleashed the Patriots’ offense and Rob Gronkowski, for better and for worse. The Patriots knew that like last week against the Dolphins, the Bills had no answer for Rob Gronkowski. The Bills matched the tight end up with linebackers, defensive ends and corners, and none of the matchups worked in Buffalo’s favor.
Gronk was Brady’s go-to target, finishing with nine catches for 147 yards. He set up both of the touchdown drives with catches for huge chunks of yards and on key third downs.
The Patriots defense carried the weight for much of the game when the offense was struggling. Defensive end Eric Lee, signed off the Bills’ practice squad earlier this week, pressured Tyrod Taylor and the Bills all game long and left Taylor with difficult throws that he could not hit. Lee ended Buffalo’s first drive of the game with an interception deep in New England’s own territory, saving a touchdown.
The defensive gameplan revolved around negating Taylor’s ability to tuck and run, a plan dusted off from earlier in the season against dual-threat QBs such as DeShaun Watson and Cam Newton.
Buffalo’s standout rookie receiver Zay Jones was stifled by Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore, who played his usual brand of rough, hands-on coverage. Gilmore sealed off Jones and much of Buffalo’s offensive strategy with his tight coverage.
Bills running back LeSean McCoy was expected to have a big game against New England’s Trey Flowers-less defense, and he finished for just under 100 yards rushing on the day.
The second half rendered McCoy useless as Tyrod Taylor and the Bills were forced to make passing plays to come back in the game. To make matters worse for Buffalo, Taylor left the game with what looked like a serious knee injury. This brought Bills rookie backup QB Nathan Peterman to the front lines, who threw five interceptions in his only NFL start.
The gap of coaching experience between Bill Belichick (in his 400th NFL game), and rookie head coach Sean McDermott was also a factor in the result.
McDermott’s hasty decision to go for it on 4th & 1 at the Patriots’ one-yard line caused a poor throw from Nathan Peterman to Zay Jones, with a key pass deflection from Stephon Gilmore to save a touchdown and prevent Buffalo from cutting the lead to under 14 points.
Gilmore broke up a potential touchdown on the previous Bills drive, swatting the ball from Zay Jones before he could land in the end zone.
The game was all but sealed with under five minutes in the 4th quarter, and this was when tempers flared. Tom Brady’s pass to Rob Gronkowski was intercepted by Bills rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White, who appeared to holf and push off of Gronkowski to intercept the pass. Elsewhere in this play, Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks appeared to be held and received no flag.
Gronkowski let out his frustration with the no-call on White, elbowing the defender while he was on the ground. This prompted a scrum between Gronkowski, White, Bills linebacker Preston White, and an referee who tried to break it up. Four different flags flew on this play for unsportsmanlike conduct, contact with an official, and oher extracurricular activity. A suspension for Gronkowski is expected for his body-slam and elbow, and for White and Brown’s involvements in the scrum.
New England faces a two-game road trip against the Dolphins and Steelers. The Patriots will travel to Miami for a Monday night contest on December 11th, and to Pittsburgh for a late afternoon game on December 17th, their final road game of the regular season.
Rob Gronkowski is expected to miss at least the Miami game for his conduct against Buffalo, and the likely suspension and fine will be announced in the coming week.