The New England Patriots’ offense was down its No. 2 wide receiver, third-down back and second-best running back and still managed to beat a team vying for playoff contention by three touchdowns while putting up 37 points.
Yet somehow, the morning after the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills 37-16, there were rumblings of concern about the state of the Patriots’ offense.
The Patriots were missing Chris Hogan, James White and Rex Burkhead, all of whom should be back for their playoff run, and still generated 411 total yards, nearly 200 rushing yards and four offensive touchdowns. Quarterback Tom Brady also was able to draw 73 yards worth of defensive pass interference penalties out of the Bills.
Rather than observing that the Patriots’ offense wasn’t quite as high-powered Sunday as we’ve come to expect, isn’t it more noteworthy that they still have the upside to be much, much better when Hogan, White and Burkhead return?
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at how the Patriots were able to keep chugging along while missing three key components of their offense.
— The Patriots’ offense did start slow, and Brady’s unusual first-half inaccuracy didn’t help. Brady was 9-of-9 passing in the second half, but he was just 12-of-19 with seven inaccurate passes in the first half. However, it didn’t matter that his throw was a little off the mark to tight end Rob Gronkowski on first-and-10 from the Bills’ 17-yard line, trailing 10-3 with 7:12 left in the first quarter.
Gronkowski reached out his pterodactyl wingspan to snag the somewhat errant ball out of the air with his right hand and gained possession with his left all while getting two feet in bounds and “surviving the ground.” In an era when nothing seems like a catch near the goal line, there was no question that Gronkowski hauled this pass in.
— The Patriots’ slow start extended into the second half, at which point running back Dion Lewis really began to go off. Lewis proved he’s just as versatile as Burkhead by getting the job done as a ball-carrier and pass-catcher.
His first touchdown of the game came on third-and-11 after it appeared the Patriots would need to settle for their fourth field goal. Running back Mike Gillislee lost a yard on first down, and Brady was sacked for no gain on second down.
The Patriots’ screen game has struggled all season, and no one seems to know why. The Patriots have athletic offensive linemen who can get to the second level and running backs who can make defenders miss. The screen always has been a strong suit of the Patriots, and it just simply hasn’t clicked this season.
It did, however, on this third-down toss to Lewis.
Center David Andrews got out to the second level first to eliminate Bills linebacker Ramon Humber from the play. Guard Shaq Mason pancaked defensive end Jerry Hughes, and left tackle Nate Solder blocked out Pro Bowl safety Micah Hyde.
Lewis then ran past defensive tackle Kyle Williams and held onto the ball high and tight as safety Jordan Poyer tried to strip him near the goal line.
— Lewis doesn’t get goal-line carries within a yard or 2 of the end zone, but he did from the 4-yard line Sunday.
He used his small stature to his advantage on second-and-goal from the Bills’ 4.
Dion Lewis gets lost on his 2nd TD run. His lack of height is really quite helpful in tight spaces. Nice work by Andrews, Thuney and Solder as well. pic.twitter.com/V2ocCaEfDk
? Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) December 25, 2017
Lewis started outside, cut in, cut back out and then got skinny to dive through the hole for the touchdown. It’s clear that Poyer and other Bills defenders had lost track of Lewis behind the line.
Some other notes from the game:
— The Patriots might have found their second best linebacker, behind Kyle Van Noy, in Marquis Flowers. Flowers had a monster game Sunday with 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He’s by far their most athletic healthy player at the position.
— Gillislee ran hard in his return to the field, averaging 4 yards after contact. He was rewarded with a 1-yard plunge for a touchdown.
— Brady’s throw on his interception wasn’t perfect by any means, but it appeared Kenny Britt, who’s new to the offense, could have come back more for the ball.
— Defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown stood out positively as run defenders and pass rushers. Brown is in the midst of his best NFL season. The Patriots have to decide whether to use their fifth-year option on the 2015 first-round pick this offseason.