Foxborough, Mass. — This game was supposed to show how much Doug Marrone had changed the culture of the Bills. Marrone insisted that the season finale mattered, that beating the Patriots and finishing on a three-game winning streak would lay a foundation for the future.
Instead, they laid another egg.
As usual, just when you had begun to believe the Bills were closing the gap on the Pats, they turned in a sorry performance that made the distance between the two AFC East rivals look like a yawning abyss, like the Grand Canyon.
On a rainy, miserable day at Gillette Stadium, the Bills played another in a long line of road disappointments, falling by 34-20 in a game that never really seemed in doubt. This makes 12 straight losses at Gillette and 20 of 21 overall against the divisional overlords.
Considering the history, I didn’t expect them to win here. But you figured that the Bills defense, with its shiny new Pro Bowlers and gaudy statistics, would stand up to Tom Brady and give the Pats a healthy scare to get them ready for the postseason.
But the defense wasn’t up to it. By now, we should expect this sort of thing. These guys are great front-runners. But put them in a meaningful situation – at the Steelers and Jets, against the Falcons in Toronto, fill in your own game – they come up small again.
They played soft, it was as simple as that. The defense added to the steaming pile of stinkers over the past decade or so. When it really matters, the “D” can’t stop people. Grab a second-tier running back, wind him up, and watch him have a career day against Buffalo.
This time, it was LeGarrette Blount, a talented but troubled back who has struggled to find a place in the league. Blount carried 24 times for 189 yards, the fifth-highest rushing total in Patriots history and the most ever by a back under Bill Belichick.
Talk about a Blount-force instrument. He added 145 yards on two kickoff returns, giving him a franchise-record 334 all-purpose yards. And as you know, we’re talking a pretty successful AFL-NFL franchise here.
The Pats laughed in the Bills’ faces. Belichick and his assistants had their way with Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, using their patented stretch run plays to take advantage of the Bills’ over-pursuing defense.
You’d have sworn that Dave Wannstedt was running the defense again. The Pats shredded the Bills in much the same way they had a year ago in Buffalo, when they rushed for 247 yards. This year, they did even better, piling up 267 yards (173 in the first half).
“It’s definitely upsetting to give up that many yards,” said linebacker Jerry Hughes, “especially in the first half. We have to do a better job of tackling. Hopefully, that festers in the offseason and it’s something we can use to motivate us. It was disgusting.”
This was a defense that put three players (Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, Jairus Byrd) in the Pro Bowl, and had several others considered worthy. It’s amazing that a defense with all that talent could get run over by so many marginal running backs.
The fact is, they went 0-8 against teams that ranked higher than 25th in total offense in the NFL entering the weekend. They played against one running back who finished in the top 15 in the league. But they set a team sack record! Send them all to the Pro Bowl.
This isn’t a very good Pats team. Of course, we’ve been saying that for the last few years. All they do is win the division and get a bye. Belichick must laugh when he sees the Bills, Jets and Dolphins flounder , trying to find a franchise QB and make a serious run.
Belichick showed little respect for the Bills. He played conservatively on offense, settling for field goals. He even had Brady punt on third down. But why respect a team that shows so little respect for itself?
How do you respect a team whose players can’t show up on time for practice and meetings? Marcell Dareus was disciplined for being late and was held out of the first half – one week after sitting out the first quarter against Miami for the same reason.
Two years ago, in the finale here, Chan Gailey benched Stevie Johnson after Johnson got penalized for excessive celebration. You can talk all you want about culture change. But it’s embarrassing when these things continue to happen to the Bills. At least Marrone is willing to put his foot down.
“He’s establishing what he wants to get established, holding guys accountable,” said Fred Jackson. “We’ve harped on it all year long, being accountable for your teammates. If you’re sitting on the sideline, you’re not accountable. That’s one of the things we’ve got to get changed and one of the things we’re working on.”
Dareus stood up afterward and said he was sorry for letting down his team. Sources said he was late by only a few minutes. But after last week’s discipline, the guy should have been the first one in practice and meetings. It was an inexcusable, immature mistake on his part.
Marrone talked about these last games being critical to the team’s future. He needed to back it up with Dareus. He could have sent a stronger message and left Dareus back in Buffalo – the way Gregg Williams did with Ruben Brown in the ’03 finale here.
Anyway, Marrone needs to sort some things out before next season. He has to continue to define the competitive culture.
“I think that Coach Marrone has had a pretty good finger on the pulse of the team,” said Kyle Williams. “He maybe recognized the kind of guys he, A, wants to keep around, and B, that he wants to build the team around.”
For one thing, Marrone has to decide if Stevie Johnson is the kind of player he wants to be the leader for a young receiving corps. Johnson has been a distraction for much of the season. I hate to seem callous, but it was a little odd for Johnson to miss two games after the death of his mother. That’s one-eighth of a season.
Something tells me Johnson has played his last game in Buffalo. Benching Dareus was a powerful gesture. But by cutting the team’s top receiver, Marrone would send an even stronger message that the culture had changed at One Bills Drive.
The losing streak at Gillette reached a dirty dozen Sunday. Despite all the talk, it proved that the culture hasn’t changed nearly enough.