New England’s 20-10 handling of Buffalo can be summarized by their first and last offensive drives: a fast start and a slow finish. The Patriots took just over three minutes to go up 7-0 on their opening drive; they ran more than nine minutes off the clock to seal the game in the fourth quarter. As the awkward guy said to the cute librarian, “Nice bookends.”
The defense deserves plenty of credit here, too. Shaking off some early missed tackles, the Phalanx of Foxboro held the Bills to 3.3 yards per rush. They picked off Trent Edwards twice and held him to 120 yards passing. The visitors could muster only 168 yards of offense overall, holding the ball for all of 22:20. Offensive, yes, just not in the way they wanted.
Much like New England’s opening drive, Buffalo’s helped set the tone for the day. After Marshawn Lynch ran up the middle for seven yards, the Bills decided to pass on the next two downs. Edwards threw incomplete in the face of pressure from linebacker Jerod Mayo, and he got sacked by Richard Seymour.
The home team took advantage of a couple of calls to extend their first offensive possession. Matt Cassel threw deep to Randy Moss to open the drive, a sign of things to come (long incompletions, that is. Hey, it’s not like we haven’t asked for them). The incompletion didn’t count because safety Ko Simpson’s 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness pushed the Patriots up to their own 44. After medium-range passes to Jabar Gaffney and Moss, BenJarvus Green-Ellis got his first of 26 runs (Green-Ellis scuttled, plowed and swept for 105 yards on the day). Cassel found Wes Welker (10 catches, 107 yards) along the left sideline for a 21-yard gain to Buffalo’s 17. Replays showed that Welker failed to get his second foot inbounds, but, really, when do replays matter in the NFL, right? Anyone?
On second and six to go from the 13-yard line, Cassel saw the defense part up the middle and sprinted toward the goal line, avoiding contact until he got bumped into the end zone. New England went up 7-0 with 10:39 left in the first quarter and would never lose their lead. On the drive, Cassel hit all three of his passes (to three different receivers); he also got the benefit of a penalty and a defense that failed to consider him a threat to run.
Think about that for a second: the Bills depended on Cassel not running. Remember 2007 preseason Cassel? “Feets Don’t Fail Me Now” Cassel? He’s grown so much it’s like the summer between his eighth and ninth grade years. I’m surprised his voice doesn’t crack during interviews. The Other California QB hit 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards and ran nine times for 22 yards and a touchdown.
If the opening drive looked good, the final one should consider modeling. This was old school Patriots (“old school” as in 2004, not 1990. Heaven forbid). They held the ball for over nine minutes, from the 11:05 mark leading 13-3, to 1:52 remaining, up 20-3. Nineteen plays, five third-down conversions. On third and nine, Cassel found Sam Aiken (Sam Aiken!) for 19 yards. On third and eight from Buffalo’s 19, he connected with Gaffney crossing underneath, who cut upfield for a first down at the nine. New England ran the ball, forcing the Bills to call their final timeout with 4:02 left. A defensive holding penalty on monolithic tackle Marcus Stroud gave the home team plenty of leeway, allowing two Cassel sneaks to run the clock down to the two minute warning before Green-Ellis finished off his day with a TD (his fourth game in a row scoring, by the way).
Buffalo answered any questions of how they put the “special” in special teams on the ensuing kickoff, as Leodis McKelvin returned the ball 85 yards to the 14. One play later, Edwards hit James Hardy for the 20-10 final. The Bills even recovered the onsides kick, but were ruled to have touched the ball before it went 10 yards.
Keeping the Bills’ offense on the sideline was a team effort. While the Pats’ offense took 37:40 off the clock, the defense allowed only one substantial scoring drive. That came in the second quarter, when Buffalo took more than six minutes to drive 53 yards. The damage could have been worse, but on third and goal from the four, Lynch tried to sweep left and got swamped by just about everyone wearing a Patriots uniform, with Mike Vrabel and Seymour leading the way. The Bills had to settle for a Ryan Lindell field goal and a 10-3 deficit with 7:09 left in the half. With Stephen Gostkowski’s ensuing 49-yard field goal attempt into the wind hooking like a wiffle ball, that score held through halftime.
Gostkowksi had made his previous kick to help New England convert an Ellis Hobbs interception into points. Hobbs picked off an overthrown Edwards pass at the end of the first quarter. Cassel hit Kevin Faulk for nine yards, but after Green-Ellis picked up ten for the first down at the 15, the team got no closer. (Benjamin Watson should have caught Cassel’s pass off his shoulder. I know, it wouldn’t have been a first down, but Coach Bill Belichick might have considered going for it on fourth. Stranger things have happened.)
The Patriots opened the second half with their second field-goal drive, mixing Green-Ellis runs and Cassel passes to move to Buffalo’s 19. Green-Ellis gained 29 yards on that possession, including a 12-yarder where he popped to the outside on third and one. Cassel hooked up with Welker, Moss and Aiken. Yes, Aiken. Two catches for 22 yards. I’m starting to like that guy.
The defense showed Edwards a number of different looks and pressures, sometimes bringing an entourage into the backfield, at other points dropping the gang back. The Bills got only 10 first downs to the home team’s 24 and had five punts compared to New England’s two. Add the two Edwards interceptions (Hobbs in the first, Deltha O’Neil late in the third) and the 20-10 score becomes much less close.
The big three of Seymour (three tackles, one sack), Vince Wilfork (four tackles) and especially Ty Warren (team-leading seven tackles and one sack) set the tone for the defense. Wilfork actually made a tackle by pushing an offensive lineman into the backfield. Mayo spread six tackles throughout the game and added a breakup of a third-down pass intended for tight end Robert Royal. The breakup was well-timed, not only as far as Mayo’s execution of it, but also because it happened at the beginning of the fourth quarter after New England’s only turnover of the day, a Cassel fumble (we meet again, Mr. Stroud) on the Bills’ 36.
Now at 6-3, New England remains tied with the Jets atop the AFC East as the Bills and Dolphins hover at 5-4. While last week’s loss to Indianapolis gave some Patriots fans signs for optimism, Sunday’s win proved that this team can play with anyone. Take a look at their schedule. Hardly invincible.
The first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season started the “if” debate for New Englanders, as in, “If Tom Brady were still here, we’d really have something.” Now, we can see that the Patriots do have something. No “ifs” about it.
Chris Warner’s ‘Game Day Rear View’ appears after every game on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at [email protected].