I toyed with taking last year's game story and just re-publishing it. Yesterday's 52-28 loss to the New England Patriots had the same feel to it as last year's 49-21 loss for the Buffalo Bills, with wild swings of momentum the common theme. Timing marked the difference in the two games. Last year, the game came at the end of the season, when Buffalo played for honor only. This year, the division lead and an early two-game lead over the potentially 1-3 Patriots was at stake. In a big early season game, Buffalo came up empty.
The game went back and forth in the first half, with Buffalo eventually snaring a significant amount of momentum by the early portions of the third quarter. Then New England ended Buffalo's bid for victory by scoring still-almost unfathomable 45 second-half points, shredding Dave Wannstedt's defense and recasting the specter of Patriot dominance over the Bills.
The Good: Buffalo looked very good through the first 33 minutes and 42 seconds of the game. Despite numerous mistakes - two Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions and a goal line fumble from C.J. Spiller foremost among them - the team went up by two touchdowns when Donald Jones sprinted through the middle of the Patriots defense for a 68-yard touchdown pass. Prior to that, Fitzpatrick had hit Scott Chandler for two impressive touchdown catches. The defense had trouble stopping the run, but remained opportunistic, forcing two Patriots fumbles deep in New England territory. In the same fashion as last year's game, Buffalo appeared in position to close out the Patriots, with a 21-7 lead.
The Bad: Then the bottom fell out on the Bills. Buffalo had some luck in the first half with Stephen Gostkowski missing two field goals and the two Patriots fumbles. The luck ran out in the second half, and New England put their foot on Buffalo's throat, scoring 45 points in 26 minutes and 18 seconds. The Pats ripped Buffalo for 247 yards on the ground, and Tom Brady was not bothered in the pocket much by the Bills' pass rush. Heck, Brady even registered a rare rushing touchdown.
Buffalo did not help their cause on offense, either. After the Bills extended their lead to 21-7, Buffalo's offense had the ball four times. They got two first downs on those possessions. Fitzpatrick went 1-of-7 with an interception, and missed open receivers on a few throws. Fred Jackson fumbled. The receivers dropped balls. Not exactly the clutch performance needed to keep the team in a shootout. By the time the offensive futility ended, the Pats were up 42-21.
Overall, the defense got steamrolled. The play-calling on offense was predictable after a fashion, and the defense made very few adjustments. Worst of all, it seems like the Pats are back in Buffalo's heads. Buffalo succumbed in another high-pressure game. This level of effort and execution is not going to get Buffalo past the Patriots, or into the playoffs. At some point, the young Bills need to stand up and deliver in a big game.
Let's Not Overreact: Buffalo's defense got ripped in this game, but the sky is not falling just yet. Buffalo played almost all game without run-down linebackers in the game. Two of Buffalo's linebackers, Arthur Moats and Kelvin Sheppard, did not play much. Instead, Wannstedt moved Nick Barnett to middle linebacker, Bryan Scott to weakside linebacker, and played a cornerback instead of the strongside linebacker. The Pats ran against what can effectively be described as a 4-1-6 alignment for most of the game, even if the Bills insist that Scott - a converted safety - is really a linebacker.
We can speculate that this alignment was meant to counter the Patriots passing attack. Early in the game though, New England moved the ball on Buffalo through the air regardless of their personnel, and shredded the Bills on the ground to boot. As the game progressed, Buffalo put up a decent fight against the pass, making some very good plays. These plays were almost always countered by the Pats' ground game, which picked up 6.2 yards per rush. Buffalo never adjusted. They stayed in the hybrid defense, allowing the Pats to both run and pass. Going back to their base defense might have given Buffalo a chance against the run, but they never made the adjustment. I place this poor defensive performance squarely on the coaching staff.
Outlook: The short-term outlook for the Bills looks bleak. Buffalo has back-to-back west coast road games against San Francisco and Arizona. Then Buffalo gets a home "reprieve" against Tennessee before going back on the road for games at Houston and at New England.
It's conceivable that Buffalo ends their first nine games 3-6, leaving no room for failure over their last seven games if they want to make the playoffs. The remedy for this type of season is playing well in the big games. Buffalo plays four big games in their next five, starting next week on the road against the powerful 49ers.