FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 1: Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the Buffalo Bills throws against the New England Patriots in the first half at Gillette Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The Good: The Game's First 21 Points. Buffalo started the game shot out of a rocket. The Bills clearly knew exactly what they wanted to do with the Pats' defense. Chan Gailey dictated the game by going up-tempo early on, and maintained control of the football by getting larger chunks of yardage and staying out of third down situations. Gailey also called a fake punt which led to a Buffalo touchdown. Even after Stevie Johnson's benching, Buffalo drove 76 yards for their third touchdown, courtesy of C.J. Spiller. The extra point after Spiller's touchdown was the last moment of "good" in the game.
The Bad: The Game's Last 49 Points. The Patriots didn't panic. They began a comeback that rattled the young Bills into disarray. The Patriots believed because they have a franchise quarterback who is calm under pressure, and a coaching staff that makes great adjustments. Buffalo saw the train coming and cracked. The Bills also delivered some self-inflicted wounds. The second quarter 4th-and-12 play on the Patriots 36 was not needed. The game was still 21-14 Buffalo, and taking a five-yard penalty and punting might have been a better call. Nick Barnett intercepted Tom Brady a few plays later. On the ensuing drive, Buffalo wasted time by not calling their second timeout. Brandon Coutu's missed 45-yard field goal deflated the Bills going into half-time. The first Ryan Fitzpatrick interception; throwing slants to Tashard Choice; the pass that deflected off Spiller's hands for an interception; the second half was a large pile of Bills errors that the Patriots made them pay for.
Let's Not Overreact: The Gailey/Johnson Situation. Gailey had enough after Johnson's antics after the Jets game. Apparently, it was clear to all parties involved that another 15-yard penalty was going to result in a benching. Say what you want about the lack of consistency in calls from this game to last year's Bengals game. It doesn't matter. The bottom line is that Johnson is a known offender to officials, and anything he does is going to get called. Johnson should have known better, and kudos to Gailey for sticking to his word.
For those stuck on Johnson's importance to the offense, here's a comparison of two receiver's 3rd and 4th years, who both had their breakout seasons in their third year:
Johnson: 158 catches, 2,077 yards, 19 touchdowns, long of 55 yards, 755 yards after the catch, 13.1 yards per catch.
Receiver X: 151 catches, 1,934 yards, 11 touchdowns, long of 62 yards, 664 yards after the catch, 12.8 yards per catch.
Receiver X is T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Johnson is a fan favorite, and we all commend him for playing hurt. At some point, Johnson has to grow up. Or move on. Though re-signing Johnson could have been accomplished this season, was GM Buddy Nix wrong for being hesitant to commit? Would you overpay for Houshmandzadeh, who wouldn't listen to the coach and kept getting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties? Would you pay market rate for Houshmandzadeh with the same problem? For me, it's a non-issue whether Johnson stays or goes. Maybe he re-signs for less now. Gailey, and Nix, have made the right calls.
Outlook. Imagine being asked in August if you'd be happy with a 6-10 Buffalo finish. That's really the question to ask yourself. The 5-2 Buffalo team elevated expectations beyond what the roster was capable of. The team isn't as bad as their 1-8 finish. They're somewhere around their actual finish. Had Buffalo won a game and lost two all season long, I think 6-10 would be easier to swallow.
Buffalo has a lot to build on. When Buffalo finished just below .500 season after season, they never had this many young, talented players on the roster. With Spiller producing, the first two Nix drafts look pretty good now. Buffalo has an above-average quarterback to build around in Fitzpatrick, and have improved lines. Depth is a lot better. This is more than Buffalo has had since Drew Bledsoe was quarterbacking the 2005 Bills. Buffalo made some questionable off-season moves that tore apart that team. It's unlikely that Buffalo will do anything to tear apart what they currently have. It's a pretty good roster to keep building on for 2012.