» Grading the Bills
RUNNING GAME: B+
The Bills’ strategy was to run as much as they could. The Patriots’ defense was ranked 29th against the run and 24th in average per carry. The Bills were successful, but it still wasn’t enough. The Bills rushed for 169 yards. C.J. Spiller had 19 carries for 105 yards. Fred Jackson had 14 carries for 60 yards and a TD. In a soaking rain, Bills runners had no fumbles.
PASSING GAME: C
Backup quarterback Thad Lewis was OK, I suppose. He didn’t commit any turnovers, which is the most important thing. He completed 16 of his 29 attempts for 247 yards and a TD to T.J. Graham. Lewis throws a pretty deep ball, hitting Robert Woods for 27 yards in the first quarter and Graham for 41 yards in the third quarter. But Lewis misfired on several throws. His receivers dropped some, too. The Bills surrendered four sacks.
RUN DEFENSE: F
Sure, Marcell Dareus’ first-half absence made it harder for Buffalo to stuff the run. But any group of professional humans should keep a player under 100 yards with 12:14 still left in the second quarter. LeGarrette Blount had 101 yards after ripping off a 36-yard TD and finished with a career-high 189 yards and two scores. Buffalo yielded 267 rushing yards, its worst all year by 85 yards.
PASS DEFENSE: C
Manny Lawson corralled a bobbled pass for the game’s only turnover – and Buffalo’s only pass breakup. Tom Brady wasn’t moved off his mark all day and barely had to flinch. New England dominated on the ground so much that Brady passed 24 times for 122 yards. Backup defensive tackle Stefan Charles notched his first career sack. Buffalo hit Brady just one other time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Blount, all 250 pounds of him, looked like Gizmo Williams when he scorched the Bills’ kickoff coverage unit for an 83-yard return late in the third quarter. He added a 62-yarder in the fourth quarter. The Bills’ longest kick return this year has been just 28 yards. Dan Carpenter made both of his field goal attempts, including one from 51 yards away.
Doug Marrone deserves credit for disciplining Dareus’ repeated tardiness. But when behavior like that happens at the end of a season in which “accountability” was preached as a core organizational tenet, something’s wrong. Marrone took blame for his team’s lack of focus with two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, the second one coming before the first one was marked off. Mike Pettine’s defense got undressed.
» Grading the Patriots
RUNNING GAME: A+
The Patriots aren’t known for this area, but they pulverized the Bills’ defense. Blount’s 189 yards were the most by a Patriots running back since 1998 and the fifth-best rushing performance in club history. The Patriots had 173 rushing yards at halftime, a team record for most in the first half. Stevan Ridley added 74 yards and averaged 6.2 a carry.
PASSING GAME: B
The Patriots were playing for the No. 1 seed, so they couldn’t afford to rest their star players. They did the next best thing for Brady, asking him to throw only when necessary. He has thrown fewer than 24 times twice in his past 73 games. He connected with Shane Vereen for a fourth-quarter touchdown and then Julian Edelman on the two-point conversion.
RUN DEFENSE: B-
New England had a bend-but-don’t-break approach to Buffalo’s running backs. New England stopped them behind the line of scrimmage four times. Buffalo had only eight rushing first downs. But there were some big gains. Spiller popped a 24-yard run on the opening drive, and Fred Jackson had a 16-yard run off tackle in the second quarter.
PASS DEFENSE: B+
The challenge was made easier by EJ Manuel’s knee injury and Stevie Johnson’s missing his second game because of his mother’s death. The wet ball was like an extra defensive back, with the Bills dropping too many throws. The Patriots broke up one pass, but they got to Lewis four times for losses of 23 yards.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A+
The Patriots did everything well. Blount became the first Patriot with two kick returns of at least 20 yards since 2008 and set the team record for all-purpose yards. Stephen Gostkowski made all four of his field goals to set a club record for season scoring. Ryan Allen punted twice, with a 53-yarder downed at the 7-yard line and the other one traveling 52 yards. Brady punted once for 32 yards.
It was a quintessential Patriots performance. They never trailed and played sound situational football. Just as you’d expect. Although the game got chippy, the Patriots were penalized only four times for 31 yards. They weren’t careless or sloppy. They pounced when the Bills made mistakes.