The Patriots winning in Buffalo does not qualify as an upset. The Patriots hanging 40 points and 507 yards on the Bills' talented defense, though, had to come as a bit of a surprise to Rex Ryan on Sunday.
The defending Super Bowl champs recovered from an early 7–0 deficit to run off 37 of the game's next 43 points before hanging on for dear life down the stretch. The explosive offensive performance was enough for New England to score a 40–32 road win, its second straight impressive showing to open the 2015 season.
Three thoughts on the Week 2 AFC East shootout:
1. New England forced Buffalo to adjust, not the other way around: Bill Belichick was asked this week how he prepares his defense when the opposing offense is something of an unknown quantity, as the Bills' attack was with Tyrod Taylor headed into just his second career start.
“I think that's a pretty common situation to be honest with you,” Belichick answered. “Fifteen, 20 plays into the game you should have a pretty good idea of, ‘This is what they're going to try to do.’ I'm not saying it doesn't move a little bit from there, but you certainly know a lot more after 15 plays into the game than you knew going into the game.”
The Bills opened Sunday with an impressive first drive, marching 80 yards in 10 plays for the touchdown. By the time they ran their 15th play two possessions later, New England had tied the game and was well on its way to taking control.
The Patriots began dictating down-and-distance situations right around the time Belichick said they would have a better handle on the Bills' attack. Taylor escaped for a 23-yard run on that opening possession, but the Patriots kept him boxed in for the next two-plus quarters.
The thinking behind Belichick's adjustments: Force Taylor to stick in the pocket and get to his second or third reads. That's not necessarily something Taylor had to do much of while lighting up the Colts last week, nor does it play to his strengths as a quarterback. The pendulum swung back in the fourth quarter, when New England dropped into softer coverages and the Bills found the end zone three times, but Buffalo's comeback came up short.
Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gained an edge on other side of the football, too: Tom Brady and co. all but scrapped the run game in favor of a quick passing attack. New England's first rushing attempt came 14 minutes into the game, and it resulted in a Dion Lewis touchdown. Headed into the fourth quarter, Lewis had seven carries; no other Patriot had more than one. Even when Buffalo rallied to cut the lead to 37–32, the Patriots kept coming through the air. Brady threw on five consecutive snaps to open the ensuing drive before Belichick opted to milk the clock.
By playing to their advantageous matchups, New England avoided the third-and-long spots that might have proved costly against Rex Ryan's aggressive defense.
Buffalo found no answers for Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, who combined for 18 catches, 210 yards and three touchdowns. Just thrice over the final three quarters did the Patriots need eight yards or more on third down. (One of those long-yardage spots came courtesy of an offensive pass interference flag.)
There may not be an NFL coach better than Belichick in terms of week-to-week adjustments. He needed a few extra minutes—15 Buffalo plays or so—to find a sweet spot Sunday. But he got there.
2. The Bills might have been too amped up: Both teams played undisciplined football, and the officials let this one spin out of their control rather early. With a raucous home crowd ready for a potential statement win, though, the Bills appeared to give in to emotion.
Buffalo was flagged 14 times for 140 yards' worth of penalties. Included in that total were two personal-foul penalties on the same punt, which allowed New England to start a possession in the red zone; a taunting call on Aaron Williams after a Patriots extra point; and an unsportsmanlike conduct on the entire Bills bench.
The Patriots finished with 11 penalties for 119 yards—Malcolm Butler drew a taunting foul of his own. More pressing, however, was that Buffalo needed to play a clean, relatively mistake-free game to win. Not even close.
3. How will Ryan's team respond?: The fourth quarter gives us a decent guess at the answer. After trailing by as much as 37–13, the Bills kept scrapping until it was just a one-score game.
Still, Ryan's challenge now is making sure the Bills do not allow one missed opportunity to spiral into a multi-week slump. Their next six games are quite manageable: two with Miami (including a Week 3 road trip), plus the Giants, Titans, Bengals and Jaguars.
An obvious conclusion from Sunday's matchup: New England is still the team to beat in the AFC East. We'll learn a lot more about where the Bills stand over the next month and a half.