“What a screwed-up night of plays and officiating this was. Wow.”
That's how ESPN's Mike Tirico ended his broadcast with Jon Gruden of the New England Patriots' 20-13 win over the Buffalo Bills, and it's tough to argue that in a season of execrable officiating, Gene Steratore's crew put on a performance ill-suited for even a Division III battle. From the inadvertent whistle that probably cost the Patriots a touchdown to the blown catch ruling (later overturned) and blown call that ended the game when Bills receiver Sammy Watkins went out of bounds untouched with two seconds left in the game, Steratore's group was awful in a way that will probably get them rewarded with playoff berths.
That said (and complaining about bad officiating in today's NFL is a bit like complaining about snow in Antarctica), the actual game itself was much more interesting and competitive than the Pats' 40-32 win over the Bills in Week 2. In that game, Tom Brady threw for 466 yards, and a Bills defense still not on the same page with Rex Ryan looked completely overwhelmed. This time, we saw one of the best-called defensive games of Ryan's career, which is saying a lot. Over and over, Brady was harassed by Ryan's tendency to lag his defensive fronts and confuse blitzing and coverage—Rex has played Brady enough through the years to know that the one sure way to delay his greatness is to force his protection calls to be incorrect. And for the most part, it worked. Brady spent most of the game under duress, threw away at least 10 balls, and completed just 20 of 39 passes for 277 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Still, with all that great schematic design, the Bills learned what they already knew: once you make a mistake or two, Brady will pounce and he will take you out. And that's what happened. The Bills gave up a 20-yard touchdown pass from Brady to running back James White with 19 seconds left in the first half when the Bills let the front-side flat coverage lag, and White was wide-open on the wheel route, aided by a missed tackle. Bills running back LeSean McCoy had a touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor, but safety Devin McCourty made a brilliant play to break up the ball coming over from mid-field, and Buffalo instead had to settle for a field goal try...which was missed. Leodis McKelvin's third-quarter punt return fumble led to another Patriots opportunity (a field goal in this case), just as another McKelvin return fumble did against the Pats in 2009. Sometimes to Bills fans, these things must seem preordained.
“They say I’m kind of fast on the team, so when the ball’s in the air, I just try to get there," McCourty said of his pass breakup. "Whenever a guy like that [McCoy] is outside of the backfield, you’ve got to have a high awareness. They were trying to get him the ball, so I ran and tried to make a play. I think they ran a play just for him to get him open, so it was a big play before the half because it kept points off the board. It ended up being big for us.”
For every great Bills scheme, there was a Bills breakdown, and those breakdowns started happening more and more often at the worst possible times. It was the 25th time the Bills have lost to a Brady-led Patriots team in 28 opportunities. This win bumped the Patriots' record to 10-0, and added to Ryan's frustrations over a team he just can't seem to solve.
“Difference is, they made some big plays,” Ryan said. “They get a big turnover, they get a touchdown pass and we just have to make a tackle there... we knew we were a better football team; we just weren't good enough. We're just not quite there.”
It's been the story most of the time for Ryan against the Patriots, which may explain why he got a bit testy with the New England media this week. But in his heart, Ryan had to know that even this Patriots team, with its depleted receiver corps and banged-up offensive line, was dangerous. Much of that danger came on defense, the untold story of this year's Patriots squad. Buffalo came into this game with the league's best rushing attack, per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, and aside from one 27-yard touchdown in the third quarter, LeSean McCoy didn't do too much, just 82 yards on 20 carries. It also didn't help that quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who had been one of the more prolific and efficient deep-ball throwers in the league, missed glaringly on several vertical throws. Taylor finished with 20 completions in 36 attempts for 233 yards, no touchdowns and no picks. He targeted his two best receivers, Watkins and tight end Charles Clay, just nine combined times. Watkins caught three passes for 39 yards, and Clay grabbed one for 14 yards.
“Most definitely, but they [the Patriots] dealt with me," Watkins said when asked if he had enough opportunities. "Chris Hogan made big plays. Robert Woods made plays and we ran the ball well. It’s not about getting targets, it’s about winning.”
It was a shame, because had there been a few more big plays, the Bills could have pulled this one out, because their defense played well enough for the most part. Brady was sacked just once, but suffered 10 quarterback hits and openly berated his offensive line after the team's second possession. Still, each missed tackle was a dagger, and every blown coverage was an opportunity for Brady to disassemble Ryan's construction.
It didn't happen often, but it happened just enough to lose. It's a common story to the Patriots' opponents through the Belichick/Brady era, and Ryan has felt that sting more than enough to know the drill by now.
"We’ve come up short many times here," Ryan concluded. "When you think you’ve got them by the ropes... at the end of the day, they find ways to win and that’s what championship teams do. We’re not at that level right now, but I can promise you one thing, we’re going to work our tails off to get there."