The Buffalo Bills played a fine game against the New England Patriots on Sunday. Their offense rolled up 481 yards and 31 points despite committing three turnovers. Though it did not seem as if the defense played well, they played better than the naked eye would suggest against the league's top-rated offense, fighting through penalties and circumstances to keep the game within reach.
At the end of the game, Buffalo came away 15 yards short, mostly due to the aformentioned turnovers and penalties, and failed to finish against the Patriots.
The Good: Buffalo's offense played well enough to win. It's mythology that the Patriots defense is still terrible, at least in part. Bill Belichick's team is allowing 3.5 yards per rush and 88 yards per game on the ground. Buffalo crushed both of those numbers, nearly doubling the ground output with 162 yards and gaining 5.8 yards per carry. Similarly, Buffalo passed for 319 yards, 38 more than the Pats normally allow per game. They averaged 8.4 yards per attempt, where the Patriots allow 7.3 yards per pass. Best of all, the Bills scored 10 more points than normally allowed by New England.
Ryan Fitzpatrick played very well. He completed nearly 68 percent of his passes to seven different receivers, and found previously missing-in-action receiver Stevie Johnson six times for 86 yards. Scott Chandler and Donald Jones each played prominent roles, combining for nine receptions for 139 yards. Chan Gailey didn't forget his running backs, either. Gailey called runs 25 times, gaining 150 yards; C.J. Spiller ran nine times for 70 yards, and Fred Jackson ran 16 times for 80 yards with two scores. Both runners caught four passes; Spiller for 62 yards and Jackson for 35.
On most days, these types of numbers win football games. Moreso, Gailey called a fantastic game that Fitzpatrick executed well. The Pats adjusted, but Gailey seemed one adjustment ahead. Buffalo's first scoring drive came via running and short passing. On the next drive, Fitzpatrick and Chandler gashed the Pats up the middle of the defense. Fitzpatrick went to his outside receivers more on the third scoring drive. Stevie Johnson caught three passes on the next scoring drive, and Buffalo went back to the running backs on their last scoring drive. Gailey, Fitzpatrick, and the offense kept a good defense on their heels all day.
The Bad: Buffalo cannot win against elite teams making mistakes like they did on Sunday. No team beats the Patriots committing 14 penalties for 148 yards. To be fair, some of the calls against the Bills were as real as unicorn farts. The eight-yard pass interference on George Wilson against Rob Gronkowski was laughed at even by color man Dan Fouts. The 17-yard pass interference on Jairus Byrd, on 3rd-and-10, was not the right call despite being a penalty. The 37-yard penalty against Stephon Gilmore, where the ball sailed so far over Brandon Lloyd's head as not to be seen on the replay screen, was a gift from the referee to the home team. All that in consideration, the Bills still committed 11 very real penalties for 86 yards; that's obviously not good.
The same can be said of the three committed turnovers. Fitzpatrick lost a fumble early, setting up a short Patriots touchdown drive. Jackson's fumbling is starting to become a problem. His first fumble came at the worst possible moment, as he was finishing off a good run to get the Bills to the Patriots' one-yard-line. Eric Wood's hustle and off-season bicep curls kept Jackson's second fumble from Patriot hands. Finally, a bad T.J. Graham route caused Fitzpatrick's late-game interception that sealed Buffalo's fate.
When we take away the bogus penalties, Buffalo made about as many mistakes as the Patriots, except in the turnover department. Buffalo gave the ball away three times, and didn't get any for themselves. That's the difference right now between the AFC East's best team and the Bills.
Let's Not Overreact: I sense a lambasting of the defense coming during the next few days. It's mostly undeserved. The Patriots have the league's best offense. They score nearly 33 points per game. Buffalo's performance on defense needs to be viewed in that light.
The Pats run for nearly 150 yards per game, at a 4.3-yard average per carry. Buffalo, who got ripped by the Patriots rushing attack in Week 4, gave up 117 yards at a 4.0 yards per attempt. Tom Brady completes 65 percent of his passes for 7.3 yards per attempt and 301 yards per game; the Bills held him to 61 percent passing for 237 yards and 6.2 yards per attempt.
How did Buffalo give up 37 points? The Patriots drove 48 yards for their first field goal. Then Fitzpatrick fumbled, giving the ball to Brady with only 13 yards to the endzone. The Bills gave up 83 yards on their next drive, ending in a New England touchdown. That was followed by an 82-yard touchdown drive, with 54 yards coming via highly questionable penalties (and another 15 via actual penalty). After Buffalo stopped New England's first second-half drive, they gave the ball to Brady with another short field - this time 39 yards, after Ron Brooks' punt coverage penalty - and the Pats scored a touchdown. Buffalo gave up 60 yards on the Pats' next drive for a field goal, forced a three-and-out on their next drive, and gave up 59 yards on the Pats' last field goal. In summary, New England executed one long touchdown drive all day, which came on their first possession.
The Bills gave away touchdowns with two short fields - one after the Fitzpatrick fumble and one after the Brooks penalty. One touchdown drive came via the refs. For such a dynamic offense, they scored three gift-wrapped touchdowns, really driving the length of the field and punching the ball home just once.
Outlook: We're here, folks. The long, tough first nine games of the season are over. The Bills ended their first "season" having played two games against the league's elite, weren't embarressed, and nearly beat the Patriots. Hope is not lost. Fitzpatrick may be listening to GM Buddy Nix on Friday afternoons, as he put together one of his best games on Sunday. Nix should still pay attention to quarterbacks on Saturdays, of course, but any rookie coming into Buffalo next season won't necessarily need to start immediately if Fitzpatrick can keep up that level of play.
The season comes down to the next three games. If Buffalo can even their record to 6-6 going into the final four games (three of those are at home), the playoffs are still possible. At their current level of play, the Bills are more than capable of beating a reeling Miami team, a young Indianapolis team on the road, and Jacksonville at home. It all starts Thursday night when Miami comes to Ralph Wilson Stadium.