By Gregory Hunt
Thanks largely to the best game in the career of running back LeGarrette Blount, the New England Patriots defeated the Buffalo Bills 34-20 Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The victory gave New England a 12-4 record and allowed the Patriots to clinch the number two seed and a first round bye in the AFC playoffs.
Offense Grade: B+
Blount set the tone for the game with a physical nine-yard run on the game’s first play from scrimmage. By the end of the game, he had accumulated a career-best 189 yards rushing with two touchdowns. His final touchdown came on a 35-yard run with 2:40 remaining in the game to seal the win. Not wanting to be completely overshadowed, fellow running back Stevan Ridley made his longest run on the season on a 29-yard gain in the first quarter and he finished with a respectable 74 yards rushing. The Patriots exceeded their per-game rushing average of 119.9 yards by 12:29 of the second quarter, and the team finished with a season-high 267 yards rushing.
Due to the success of the running game, quarterback Tom Brady threw only 24 pass attempts, completing 14 of them for a modest 122 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked only once, and his only interception came on a perfectly thrown screen pass that was bobbled by running back Shane Vereen before falling into the hands of Buffalo linebacker Manny Lawson. Vereen also had one fumble, as did Brady and Blount, but all three fumbles were recovered by the Patriots.
Defense Grade: C
The New England defense gave up three plays of 20-plus yards in the first quarter alone: a 24-yard run by running back C.J. Spiller, a 22-yard reception by wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, and a 24-yard run by running back Fred Jackson. It gave up several more big plays throughout the game, particularly a 37-yard reception by Jackson on a touchdown drive that kept the game close in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots experienced a great deal of trouble containing the one-two punch of RBs Spiller and Jackson, who combined for 165 yards rushing and 81 yards receiving with one touchdown (a rushing touchdown by Jackson). Playing for injured Buffalo quarterback E.J. Manuel, Thad Lewis threw for 247 yards – 100 yards more than Brady – but he was sacked four times. New England defensive lineman Sealver Siliga forced one fumble, but the Patriots failed to get any takeaways.
Special Teams Grade: A-
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was highly accurate on his field goals, making all four attempts despite wet conditions. He finished the season with 34 successful field goals, which is a franchise record. Six of his seven kickoffs went for touchbacks.
Punter Ryan Allen made only two punts, one of them a 53-yarder the pinned the Bills deep in their own territory. On Allen’s other punt, safety Kanorris Davis had a chance to down the kick inside the Buffalo five-yard line but the ball slipped out from under his body and into the end zone for a touchback.
Brady made his second career punt on a quick kick on third-and-32 during the third quarter, but Buffalo wasn’t fooled. Safety Jim Leonhard recognized the ploy and was able to fall back and make a fair catch at the Buffalo 22-yard line. Punt returner Julian Edelman muffed a punt in the third quarter but it was recovered by rookie defensive back Justin Green, who spent most of the season on the practice squad and was playing in his second career NFL game.
Blount’s 83-yard kickoff return in the third quarter set up a touchdown pass to Vereen, and his 62-yard kickoff return set up a Gostkowski field goal. Both returns came in the second half and they were instrumental in holding off Buffalo’s comeback attempt.
Coaching Grade: B
Head coach Bill Belichick is quite adept at creating game plans designed to exploit an opponent’s biggest weakness and this game was a perfect example. Realizing that Buffalo’s defense was particularly strong against the pass but rather weak against the run, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did not put Brady in a position where he was trying to force the ball to tightly covered receivers. Instead, McDaniels stuck with the running game from beginning to end, calling 43 rushing plays and just 25 passing plays. Surprisingly, the Patriots never could get the play-action passing game going in spite of the rushing success, so they simply kept rushing the ball.
On defense, however, coordinator Matt Patricia never could figure out a scheme to get consistent pressure on a quarterback that had started only three games this season. The Bills actually out-gained the Patriots 393-382.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.