The Patriots' loss on Sunday to the Buffalo Bills was their first to the divisional rival since 2003. They are now 17-2 against the Bills with Brady at the helm of their offense. This game is a unique one to analyze because, as I pointed out so bluntly in my game preview, the Patriots should have easily won the matchup.
They have a mediocre-to-crummy defense, depending on how you look at it. The Bills' is still a little worse, with less big playmakers and a secondary equally as unstable. Although the Bills offense has been on fire this season with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Stevie Johnson and Fred Jackson playing at their highest levels, the Patriots offense is unquestionably the best in the league; both on paper and according to the eye test.
Wes Welker and Tom Brady are the statistical league leaders in their respective positions right now. The Pats are averaging over 100 yards more in total offense than the number two ranked New Orleans Saints. Even the fact that we knew ahead of time that the Bills would stop the minimalistic New England running game shouldn't have made a difference. Welcome to the NFL: A Passing League.
The top three rushing teams in the league are Oakland, Philadelphia and Minnesota. In Oakland and Minnesota, two of the best running backs in the league are playing at such a high level because their teams have dysfunctional quarterbacks and/or a weak receiving core. Neither of those teams will make the playoffs. Philadelphia has largely fallen back on their running game due to Michael Vick's injuries, and the fact that Vick contributes a considerable amount of rushing yards on his own when he is healthy.
The regular season (postseason is a different discussion) NFL is almost completely defined by explosive defensive plays and forced turnovers, and dynamic passing games. The league numbers and trends over the years back this up. A solid rushing game is a perk that can help round out your offense and expand your options. But it is not necessary to have an great rushing core to win regular season games anymore. I can only stack this piece with so many stats so you can take my word for it or look it up yourself.
So why did the best offense with a defense defined by major red zone stops and turnover capitalization lose to a team they haven't lost to in eight years?
Here are five reasons they lost:
1. Law of Averages
These two teams have played 23 times since Bill Belichick became head coach in the 2000 season. The Patriots have won 20 of those games. That means the Belichick Patriots have won 86% of the time against a team that is as familiar with them as any team in the league can be. Although the Bills have been among the worst in the NFL for more than a decade, they are also still a professional team of elite athletes, in a game that saw an 8-8 team go to the playoffs and win in the Wild Card round last year. Any given Sunday.
Besides the 2007 undefeated regular season, the Patriots have lost "this game" just about every year. In 2003 the Patriots lost 31-0 to the Bills in the first game of the season, then went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl. In 2004 the Patriots lost to the four-win Miami Dolphins, then went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl. Last year the Patriots got embarrassed in week eight by the Cleveland Browns 39-26, and went 14-2 to roll through the regular season.
2. Tom Brady made some crappy throws and was intercepted four times
Any time any quarterback is intercepted four times, it is a bad sign. Is there anyone out there that is going to say they can even count on one hand how many times Brady has really blown it? This might be one of those games. Just a fact. He made some terrible throws across the middle trying to force it to Rob Gronkowski, and we saw the return of that atrocious bullet pass we saw a lot in 2009, when he zings it toward the knees of the already -low-to-the-ground Welker; looks like he is practically trying to ground it.
Once his rhythm was broken, he had a hard time readjusting. It obviously didn't help that Aaron Hernandez was missing from the game, and that Chad Ochocinco dropped the most beautifully thrown pass of Brady's season so far. But the fact of the matter is, Brady looked an awful lot like he did in the playoff game against the Jets last season, when he started to throw passes that were just completely indefensible. Only difference this time was that he really wasn't under anything close to the type of pressure against the Bills as he was against the Jets. In fact, the offensive line looked great. Anomaly? Not quite. But a couple fluky tips and a solid pick-six sealed the deal against a shaky second half for TB.
3. Issues with late game clock management
This is also something that seems to have lingered across the past couple of seasons. The Patriots took seven minutes on their final drive in the fourth quarter that included two failed BenJarvus Green-Ellis rush attempts at the Buffalo 1 yard line. When Brady finally converted the TD pass to Welker on 4th and 6, there was just 3:25 left on the clock with the game tied. With the best hurry-up offense in the league, there is no excuse to take seven minutes to tie the game in a must-score possession situation in the fourth quarter.
4. The star of the secondary was Kyle Arrington
Not to take anything away from Arrington, who has three picks on the season already, but Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden have to better on their man to man coverage. Sergio Brown needs to be smarter reading his coverages and making his tackles. If they can't figure out a way to put pressure on a September Bills offense, they are doomed. This secondary couldn't stop their own practice squad at this point, and that was really exposed when their offense couldn't cover up for their mistakes this week.
5. The Bills just played a really good game from behind
In the long term, nobody is betting on the Bills to win the AFC East. They don't have the personnel, depth or consistency to maintain the streak they are on. But yesterday, they were the better team and they took advantage of an uncharacteristic performance by Brady. The Patriots come away from that game with all of their weaknesses highlighted and underlined. Just don't be fooled into thinking it's their offense.