It equaled the Bills worst loss at home in 19 years and it dropped Buffalo to 5-4, a half game ahead of the third place Patriots (4-4) and a game and a half behind the first-place Dolphins (5-2) who played on Monday night at Green Bay.
“We just played bad as a team,” said nose tackle Pat Williams. “I don’t think anybody made any tackles today. We just played bad. The whole team did.”
The Patriots won the game in every major statistical category NFL teams use as their formula to win. They rushed for more yards, passed for more yards, won the turnover battle, had more sacks, controlled the clock and converted more third downs.
And in a game where the focus was on Drew Bledsoe playing against the team that got rid of him last year, it was Antowain Smith, a player the Bills didn’t want two years ago, who upstaged him, scoring three touchdowns in the rout. And for good measure, Smith caught two touchdown passes – an area that the Bills had always thought was one of his greatest weaknesses.
It was as if Belichick was saying, “Take that Buffalo. My player that you got rid of for nothing, did more damage than your player who I traded away for a first-round pick! Look who’s smarter now!”
Tom Brady and the Patriots used a short passing attack and a number of screens to the running backs to carve up the Bills’ defense. Three of New England’s five touchdowns came off screen passes, including the backbreaker – a screen to third-down back Kevin Faulk that turned into a 45-yard score and a 24-7 lead in the third quarter (see “The Big Play”).
“You’ve got to give credit to the Patriots for coming up with a good offensive scheme and then the players coming in and executing that scheme,” said strong safety Coy Wire. “You didn’t see any passes downfield. You saw a lot of screens. They executed the run game well. It was just a totally different offensive scheme that they had (that they never used) prior to this game. They have never shown that offense, so they did a great job of throwing a changeup at us.”
Brady only completed nine passes to wide receivers David Patten, Troy Brown and Deion Branch. The rest went to running backs and tight ends.
Buffalo’s defenders seemed more perturbed by the screens to the backs than the passes to the tight ends, which included a 31-yarder to Daniel Graham that set up New England’s fourth touchdown of the game in the third quarter and badly exposed Bills linebacker Eddie Robinson as a pass coverage liability.
Overall, the Bills’ linebackers struggled getting to the point of attack most of the game.
“They ran a lot of screens, and we got to run to the ball and make tackles. They might get by with six, but we can’t live with 30 – 30 yards on a screen,” said right end Aaron Schobel, his voice filled with disgust. “On the screens, we got to recognize the screen, come back and make the tackle. Help out in front of the D-line (once they make the pass). You know what I mean? Then you get more guys on the ball, you know if somebody’s out of position, we can help them. We didn’t do that today.”
No they didn’t.
New England took a 17-0 lead late into the second quarter before Bledsoe and the Bills got on track and went 80 yards for a touchdown – a one-yard strike to Peerless Price with 10 seconds remaining in the half.
It would be their only score of the game. They would have had more, but Mike Hollis missed three field goals. Nothing went right.
The offensive line was having its share of problems protecting against a weird four-linebacker, seven-defensive back formation that featured no linemen. None!
“They mixed it up with a lot of different looks to try and confuse our protection,” said Drew Bledsoe, who was 28 for 45 for 302 yards, one touchdown and one interception. “Then when we had to change our approach a little bit and go on the attack a little bit more. The Patriots were able to try and confuse our protection a bit … (Defensive coordinator) Romeo (Crennel) did (the four-linebacker, seven-back formation) against me when he was at Cleveland, when they had every one up walking around, trying to confuse your offensive line calls.”
The confusion seemed to work.
The Bills gave up four sacks, including a 14-yard loss on a third down that took Buffalo out of field goal range during their first series of the game.
Down 7-0 at that point, it was an omen that things would not go well this game. New England simply played stifling defense against what was the No. 2 offense in the league. When Buffalo found itself behind by double digits, it seemed hopeless. The Patriots had too many things in their repertoire to allow Buffalo to get up from the mat.
On defense, the Bills fell into the same trap as against the Raiders earlier this season. Oakland would spread them out with three wide receivers and then run the football.
Schobel said, “They’re showing us a passing situation, and they had a good scheme. We were getting ready for the pass. (But) we had more small guys in there as opposed to bigger packages and then they’d run on us.”
The solution would seem to be keeping the big guys, such as Keith Newman and Pat Williams, in a little bit more on third downs. Usually, the Bills go to their nickel package whenever there are three wides in. That means there is more speed on the field, but less bigger guys who are better at tackling.
Schobel agreed to an extent, saying “We definitely maybe could show more things so we’ll see.”
Newman, recovering from a quadriceps bruise, was limited in practice during the week and did not play on third downs. He said he felt fine and could have gone, but understood the coaches’ decision.
“I didn’t practice (in the nickel) that much this week so I can’t say that I should have been on that stuff. Because I didn’t practice it this week, the guys that practiced that, they were more prepared than me. I don’t think it impacted my playing time. What I did in practice is pretty much what I did in the game.”
In general, the Bills were outcoached, and Gregg Williams seemed to acknowledge that in complimenting their execution.
“They executed today,” he said. “They came in with a good, solid game plan and played well. We played a better team today on the field who won the ball game. We didn’t play well enough.”
Yup, they played 31 points worse.
Patriots’ ball, third and 6 from the Buffalo 45, seven minutes, 46 seconds remaining in the game, New England up 17-7.
This was New England’s first possession of the second half. The Bills had the opening possession, and drove to the New England 32, but inexplicably elected to punt there on fourth and 2 instead of try a 50-yard field goal. Gregg Williams said the Bills were playing for field position. Brian Moorman’s 15-yard punt ruined that plan.
Anyway, New England drove into Buffalo territory. The Bills had their best chance to stop the Patriots on this third and long.
If Buffalo got a stop here, it had another chance to pull within three with a touchdown. That didn’t happen.
New England was in a three wide receiver set, with running back Kevin Faulk the lone tailback. Strong safety Coy Wire blitzed from the right. Faulk chip blocked on him, then let him go. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady read it and before getting hit by Wire, threw to his hot man, Faulk. London Fletcher, who had Faulk, got blocked inside. That left a lot of running space down the left sideline. Nate Clements and Ahmad Brooks got blocked downfield by two Patriots pass receivers, with Brooks running into Clements and causing him to fall. Faulk slipped by and into the end zone, for the 24-7 lead that killed any hope of Buffalo coming back. It was the second touchdown of three touchdowns off screen passes.
“We had a blitz called on that play,” said Wire. “I know there were some mistackles. It was just a great individual effort by Mr. Faulk. “The guys in the defense just weren’t executing like they should have on that play.”
“We made some mental errors out there,” said right corner Nate Clements. “We made a lot of mistakes when it came to our tackling. We missed way to many tackles that ended up begin scores.”
“It comes down to one big fundamental – tackling,” said Gregg Williams.