Things may not have began the way the Patriots had hoped, but a dominant second half performance would lead to a 52-28 victory over AFC East division rival Buffalo. Here are the five most important things that we learned from New England's 24-point win over the Bills.
1) Devin McCourty turns things around..... for now
After a performance last Sunday in Baltimore that he would have loved to erased from his memory, Devin McCourty bounced back strong against the Bills. In the first half, McCourty would intercept Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who severely under-threw his wide receiver. In the fourth quarter, the Patriots' cornerback would show some impressive ball skills, beating Bills' wide out Stevie Johnson back to another under-thrown ball from Fitzpatrick for his second interception of the afternoon. He would finish the day with five tackles, including one for a two-yard loss. Like defensive-minded defensemen in hockey, cornerbacks are lucky enough to have a job in which their name is only called when they make a mistake. On Sunday, we didn't hear a lot of Devin McCourty, who spent most of the afternoon matched up against Johnson. That, in itself, is a huge step forward for the Patriots.
After using Danny Woodhead as the featured back against the Ravens -- which amounted to less than 35 yards on 15 rush attempts, the Patriots went back to Stevan Ridley against the Bills, while introducing rookie Brandon Bolden to an increase in playing time. On 22 carries, Ridley ran for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Bolden would set or meet career highs across the board with 16 attempts for 137 yards and a score of his own.
Both backs are capable of exploiting defenses with their size and strength and I don't see a huge difference in their playing styles. However, the advantage of being able to rotate a fresh runner in throughout the course of a game is something that could be invaluable for the Patriots as this season goes on.
3) Stephen Gostkowski's struggles continue
After failing to convert on what would have been a game-winning field goal in week two against the Arizona Cardinals, faith in seventh year place kicker Stephen Gostkowski took a major hit throughout most of New England. Gostkowski is typically a reliable player, but has never really been put into a pressure-packed situation like he was that afternoon against Arizona. As Ravens fans will attest, having a kicker with ice water running through his veins for big-time field goal tries late in playoff games is paramount to success in the NFL. Whether or not Gostkowski has that trait is yet to be determined.
Just as Pats' fans may have been ready to move on from the disappointing week two defeat, Gostkowski came out and missed a pair of field goals from make-able distances (49 and 42 yards) in perfect weather conditions on Sunday in Buffalo. There could be an injury there, or it could be all in the player's head. Whatever it is, the Patriots will need stronger efforts from their handsomely compensated place kicker (four years/$15 million) as the intensity increases and this season progresses.
4) Pass defense still a major problem
Six takeaways will typically mask any and all defensive problems that a team may have encountered in a given contest. However, a closer look at each of Buffalo's turnovers will reveal much more about Sunday's game. Devin McCourty's first interception came on a severely under-thrown ball from Fitzpatrick. Jerod Mayo's was a free-for-all after the ball was deflected at the line of scrimmage by Vince Wilfork. Rookie Tavon Wilson's fourth quarter pick was on perhaps the worst and most uninterested play I've seen from an NFL quarterback in quite some time. It looked as if Fitzpatrick just tossed the ball up there without bothering to see if he even had a wide receiver in the area. Regardless of all this, the Patriots' defenders do deserve credit for making these plays. After all, you cannot control how easy your opponent makes the game for you.
If you look past the Bills' six turnovers in your evaluation of the Patriots' defensive performance on Sunday, you'll notice another questionable effort from the secondary. On 22 completions, Fitzpatrick threw for 350 yards and four touchdowns, often exploiting the New England safeties, Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory. This will have to improve in a hurry if the Pats hope to shut down Peyton Manning next week when his Broncos come to Foxboro for a showdown at Gillette Stadium.
5) Front seven neutralizes Buffalo's tailback tandem
All of the hype this week surrounded the two stars of the Buffalo Bills' backfield. Power runner Fred Jackson (knee) and explosive youngster C.J. Spiller (shoulder) were both recovering from injury and their status for the game against New England was questionable all the way up until kickoff. If either were to see action, most believed that they would be able to gash the Patriots' defense.
In the end, both men were able to play on Sunday, yet neither was able to enjoy any type of success against New England, whose front seven played strong all afternoon. On 21 attempts, the two tailbacks combined for only 62 yards on the ground, good for just a 2.9 yards-per-carry-average. Inside linebacker Brandon Spikes was especially impressive, recording seven tackles (three solo) and forcing a fumble from each of Buffalo's two running backs. It was a solid response for the Pats' front seven after a forgetful performance against Ray Rice and the Ravens in week three. Despite the NFL turning into a passing-oriented league, a stout run defense will become very valuable in December and January when the playoffs begin to inch closer.