The New England Patriots were stunned by the Buffalo Bills, 34-31, in Orchard Park, New York, on Sunday afternoon. The Bills snapped a 15-game losing streak to the Patriots and came back from a 21-0 first half deficit. It was, essentially, the football version of the 2011 Boston Red Sox—an inexplicable collapse at the end when victory was almost certainly assured halfway through.
I am not that concerned about the loss, although I am not very pleased with the way it went down. No one, realistically, expected this team to go undefeated. It shouldn’t even be expected that any NFL team would lose only one or two games in a season. The Patriots defense was riddled with injuries to key components like Patrick Chung, Ras-I Dowling, Albert Haynesworth, Myron Pryor, and Mike Wright. There were some other troubling issues, however.
A lot of blame for this loss will be pinned on the defense for giving up 34 points to Ryan Fitzpatrick (27-40, 369 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) and the Bills over three quarters. I choose to look at it from a different angle. Believe it or not, the most troubling things to me came in terms of the offense and coaching.
Chad Ochocinco continues to be Chad Outofsynco and it remains to be seen how much more patience the Patriots will have with him. Early in the second half, with the Patriots leading, 21-10, Chad Ochocinco ran an awful, lazy route– absolutely inexcusable for a veteran receiver of his stature. He did not make a sharp cut on a center post resulting in no separation from defensive back, Leodis McKelvin. Brady threw it to a place expecting Ochocinco to be open, but McKelvin beat Ochocinco to the spot and had inside position. Lack of separation has been a recurring theme with Ochocinco– a sign that he has lost his signature quickness and speed.
With the Patriots down, 31-24, and just over eight minutes left in the game, Ochocinco showed he may have lost his hands, too. Tom Brady tried one more time to get the ball to Ochocinco and lobbed him a beautiful long pass . Ochocinco had actually slipped behind McKelvin and was all alone awaiting the ball to come down. This was going to be Ochocinco’s break-out play, a 41-yard TD reception to tie the game. Instead, the ball went right through his hands as he staggered across the goal line. No bobble, no juggle. Right through his hands.
This was a game where Ochocinco needed to step up. Aaron Hernandez, who had been one of Brady’s favorite targets, was injured last week and will miss a few games with a knee injury. In the first half, Brady had a field day tossing the ball, almost exclusively, to Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski. Between those two receivers, they were on the receiving end of 12 of Brady’s 16 first-half completions. Deion Branch had no receptions (and he would end with none), while Ochocinco had only one catch.
In the second half, the Bills made the adjustment on Gronkowski. The 6-foot-6, second year tight end was running roughshod on the Buffalo defense in the first half, looking like a man among boys. Gronkowski had five receptions for 71 yards and 2 TDs in the first half, but was held to only two catches in the second half.
Welker had a record setting day, with 16 receptions for a franchise-record 217 yards, including a huge fourth down touchdown in the waning moments of the fourth quarter to tie the game, 31-31. He carried the team on his back all day long.
Despite the great efforts by Welker and Gronkowski, I kept thinking back to a scene from Bill Belichick: A Football Life which aired on the NFL Network the last two weeks. It was 2009. Belichick was sitting in a board room with his coaches. He leans forward in his seat and said, frustratingly, to his coaches, and I am paraphrasing, ‘If defenses take away (Randy) Moss deep and Welker on the slants, we’re done. We can’t throw to anyone else. We can’t run.’ As he slinks back in his seat, he reiterates, hands thrust to the air, “We are done.”
Well, that’s what happened to a certain extent on Sunday. The Bills took away Gronkowski deep down the middle. Ochocinco and Branch couldn’t step up. The Patriots are falling into a trap of being to reliant on Welker and their tight ends. During the Patriots Super Bowl runs, it was commonplace to see eight, nine, maybe even ten different receivers logging receptions. Against the Bills, only six receivers caught balls, and only two caught more than three.
Another disturbing trend I continue to see is Brady’s stoicism. I can understand the importance of being even-keeled, but when I see Brady not even flinching when Ochocinco dropped his perfect pass, I am unnerved. Not even a gasp, a hand to the helmet. Nothing. No acknowledgement, whatsoever. Bizarre. This is a team that has adopted their coach’s demeanor, but it bothers me when I don’t see the fire that Brady exhibited during his Super Bowl runs. When I think of the passionate, “champion” Brady, I think of the one on the sidelines of Super Bowl XXXVI, pounding Drew Bledsoe’s shoulder pads in exhuberance. Where has that fire gone?
And what is going on with the hurry-up offense? I keep harping on this, but I don’t understand why the Patriots use it early in games or with leads late in games, but not when they’re trailing in the fourth quarter when it is most needed. It is my most disturbing memory from the playoffs last year against the Jets—the Patriots taking their time huddling up, and then running the ball in the fourth quarter while down two scores.
On Sunday, the Patriots did it again. After opening the game successfully with the hurry-up offense (they were up 21-0, after all), they huddled up every time in the fourth quarter down by a score, and kept running the ball with rookie running back Stevan Ridley (7 carries, 44 yards). Understandably, Belichick doesn’t have faith in his defense and was in no hurry to give the ball back to the Bills’ offense. Stop and think about that for a second– Afraid to give the ball back to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills’ offense! But time consuming fourth quarter drives doesn’t leave much margin for error. The Patriots longest drive of the day came in the fourth quarter. They burned off close to seven minutes during a 15-play, 71-yard drive. If Brady and Welker hadn’t converted on their fourth down touchdown play, the Patriots would have come up empty and there would have been little more than three minutes left in the game.
It just seems like backwards thinking to me. The Patriots drafted two running backs and have a 1,000-yard rusher in their backfield, but, similar to the Jets last year, they don’t run the ball until the fourth quarter when they’re trailing. Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis, the aforementioned 1,000-yard rusher, only had nine carries, and three of them came on that fourth quarter drive.
Another coaching gripe I have came again on the game tying fourth quarter drive. One thing that bothered me about the Drew Bledsoe Era was Bledsoe’s penchant to burn timeouts needlessly early in halves. The Brady Super Bowl teams seemed as if they always had three timeouts at the end when they needed them. With 3:37 remaining in the game and the Patriots being stuffed on their first two attempts to run the ball into the endzone, Brady was forced to call a timeout to avoid a costly delay-of-game penalty. Mental mistakes. How big would that timeout have been at the end of the game?
To compound things, Brady comes out of the timeout and does some odd dance behind center Dan Connolly. Brady lined up under center, appeared as if he wanted to audible to a shotgun, stepped back, and then realizing the play clock was again winding down, steps back up to Connolly, tapping him on the backside to snap the ball quickly. The result of the chaos was a false start by Logan Mankins. How can they be that unorganized, almost drawing a delay-of-game penalty, coming out of a timeout? The Patriots went from a 3rd-and-goal at the one-yard line back to the six-yard-line. The Patriots would go on to score on fourth-down thanks to a Herculean effort by Welker, but it could have been a costly sequence. As it was, the loss of the timeout could have been pivotal.
Another realization I came to is that, right now, this is a stupid team. Again, the Super Bowl Patriots teams were keen on situational football. These are the Patriots that once intentionally snapped the ball out of bounds for a safety in Denver.
On Sunday, with two minutes remaining in the game (again coming out of a timeout), Fitzpatrick dumped a short pass to a wide open running back, Fred Jackson, at the Patriots’ 35-yard line and Jackson raced easily to the end zone. Cornerback Devin McCourty was in pursuit and managed to chase down Jackson just shy of the goal line. The play was originally called a touchdown, but was overturned on replay. It would have actually benefitted New England to have the touchdown stand so they could get the ball back on offense with plenty of time left on the clock. McCourty should have just allowed Jackson to score. Instead, the Bills were allowed to run the clock down and kick the game-winning field goal as time expired. Brady would never touch the ball again.
Additionally, with the Bills just kneeling on the ball, the Patriots committed a personal foul for driving a Buffalo player’s head into the ground. It wouldn’t have mattered, but it was just dumb. The very next play, the referees could have called another penalty when a Patriots’ player hit Fitzpatrick after he got up from a kneel-down.
The Patriots were called for eight penalties overall, for 93 yards. The most costly one was committed by safety Sergio Brown. With 10:39 remaining, and the Patriots leading, 24-17, it looked like New England had clinched the game when Fitzpatrick threw a wounded duck into the end zone which was intercepted easily by Josh Barrett. But in the back of the endzone, an official threw a flag calling pass interference on Brown who got tangled up with receiver David Nelson as Nelson tried to fight back for the badly underthrown ball. It was a questionable call which moved the ball up 31 yards to the one-yard line, and it was a game-changer.
Much will be written and said about the deficiencies of the defense. I’ll give them a pass, no pun intended, until I see what they do when they get everyone healthy. Last year, everyone was criticizing the defense prior to Thanksgiving. They finished as one of the best defenses in the league in December, however, giving up 7 points or less in four of the last five games. I’ll give them time.
All I will say about the defense, though, is I am concerned about Devin McCourty. Despite coming off an All-Pro rookie campaign, opposing teams have been targeting McCourty and he has not responded well. McCourty was burnt for 29 yards by Donald Jones (only 18 receptions last year) on a simple fly pattern on the very first play of Buffalo’s game-winning drive. McCourty has been burnt by Miami’s Brandon Marshall (7 catches, 139 yards) and San Diego’s Vincent Jackson (10 catches, 172 yards) so far this season. McCourty, along with Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, are suppose to be the anchors of this defense. There are enough question marks as is.
Just like the Cleveland loss last year, this game should serve as a wake up call. The Patriots will be fine, but it concerns me that this team looked a lot like the teams of recent seasons which have ended with frustrating playoff losses—no pass rush, mental mistakes, lack of emotion, Brady turnovers, blowing big leads. I predicted this team (and Ochocinco) would struggle out of the gate, and pick it up late. There is no such thing as a “sure thing” on the schedule. Everyone will blame the defense for this loss, but I blame Belichick and Brady. Anybody doubt those two will bounce back?
Patriots-Bills box score