Patriots vs. Bills: 11 Things We Learned from New England's 52-28 Victory
New England's defense was dominant in the first two quarters, but the offense couldn't convert opportunities into points. They allowed the Bills to hang around, practically begging them to sneak back into the game and steal the victory.
In the second half, the universe straightened itself out. Tom Brady put on his scrubs and carved up the Bills like a surgeon, attacking Buffalo by land and by air with equal fury.
After Devin McCourty captured his second pick and Brandon Bolden cashed in New England's fifth unanswered touchdown, Buffalo's stadium started thinning out. From there, it was smooth sailing for the defending AFC champions.
Here are 11 things we learned from New England's outstanding 52-28 victory.
Run Game Is the Blueprint for Success
Power football is all about the run game. It exhausts defenders. It wears down their patience, weakens their resolve and loosens their coverage.
The Patriots played power football on Sunday. Stevan Ridley had 106 rushing yards. Brandon Bolden plunked down 137 ground yards.
The Bills were run over. They were cooked. Their defenders were tired, which enabled Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Lloyd to wiggle free in the second half and make explosive plays.
New England's wide receivers and tight ends will always be there for deep options and dramatic circus catches, but the bread and butter of this offense needs to be invested in the ground game.
The writing is on the wall: Less finesse, more power.
Belichick Deserves Some Blame
Despite dictating the tempo of the first half, the Patriots made a ton of mental errors and headed into halftime with a deficit of their own making.
Slow starts have become a nasty habit for this team. They played like this last year, and the pattern has trickled into the new season.
Despite their obsessive preparation throughout the week, the Patriots often start their games in a scattered state, as if they need to gradually ease into the situation. That habit might not seem like a bad thing, but a team like the Giants will take that opportunity to punch you in the mouth.
The coach deserves some blame for this pattern.
It's Bill Belichick's responsibility to make sure his players are ready to play during the coin toss. It's his job to get the troops on the same page before the first quarter, not before the third quarter.
Belichick Deserves Some Credit
As much blame as Bill Belichick deserves for the first two quarters, he deserves an equal amount of praise for the last two quarters.
He pressed the right buttons, turned the right knobs and massaged the right pressure points. The Patriots came out of halftime looking sharp, focused and hungry for blood.
Defense Refuses to Be Everyone's Punching Bag
It's easy to look back at last season and slam New England's defense. They gave up way too many yards through the air and they let Mario Manningham make a breathtaking championship catch.
While the defense often bears the brunt of the blame, we often forget that the offense drastically underperformed in the last two Super Bowls, too. It's an even split.
This season, the Patriots defense is changing. They're refusing to be anyone's punching bag.
Their talent was on full display in Buffalo. Brandon Spikes, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, Jermaine Cunningham, Devin McCourty and Jerod Mayo played lights out.
This defense deserves some serious credit.
Offensive Line Also Unwilling to Be Everyone's Punching Bag
New England's offensive line has been critiqued to death. Some of the criticism was well-earned considering how often Tom Brady got hit between preseason and regular season.
Nevertheless, the offensive line took a stand on Sunday. They took it right to Buffalo's defensive line, punching them in the mouths over and over. They protected their quarterback and consistently carved out space for the running backs to flourish.
Overall, a strong, prideful step forward for New England's offensive line.
No More Blind Faith in Gostkowski
Stephen Gostkowski missed two big field goals in the first half of Sunday's game. Those misses had uncomfortable echoes of Week 2 in which Gostkowski missed the game-winning field goal against the Cardinals.
Gostkowski is a good kicker, but his reliability now has multiple dents.
The genetic makeup of our trust in his abilities has altered.
When he prepares for a field goal, we can no longer turn to the person beside us and say the kick is "money in the bank." Now, we actually have to hold our breath and wait for him to kick it.
That's a bad seed of doubt.
Brady Still the Best Quarterback in the NFL
Heading into Buffalo, the Patriots were fresh off two ugly defeats and owners of a losing record. In the first half of the Bills game, the Patriots had a total meltdown on offense. Everything that could've gone wrong, went wrong.
Looking back on this game, it isn't Tom Brady's final numbers that stick out. Yards, touchdowns, percentages and ratings mean nothing.
What matters is the look in his eyes during that game. Throughout the countless errors in the first half, Brady never looked rattled. He never looked affected or broken.
He looked patient.
Right now, in a very quiet way, this first-ballot Hall of Famer is actually getting better. He's a newer version of himself, wiser, stronger and more trusting of his teammates than ever before.
Easily the best quarterback in the game.
Noise Aside, Welker Still the Most Reliable Man on the Team
Wes Welker struggled through a rough offseason without a new contract and endured several games of reduced productivity.
And yet somehow, he's made it seem like everything's totally cool. His exceptional performance on Sunday (129 yards on nine receptions) felt completely normal, run of the mill and tedious.
That's the mark of a truly great player.
Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Lloyd can generate all the excitement they want, but when push comes to shove, nobody is more reliable than Wes Welker.
Superstars Aren't Defining the 2012 Patriots
MVP candidates for Sunday's game: Brandon Spikes, Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley.
To the casual football fans out there, these guys aren't household names.
Neither are the other standouts of this game: Sebastian Vollmer, Chandler Jones, Tavon Wilson, Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty and Marquice Cole.
The further we get into New England's 2012 season, the clearer it's becoming that Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are not going to be the main story here.
This season is being defined by the rookies and the unknown guys.
Gotta love that.
Nothing's Changed in the Neighborhood
Bills fans need to be a little horrified here.
Mario Williams was Buffalo's trump card. He was their biggest move of the offseason. He was arguably their biggest acquisition of all-time.
But New England just made the addition of Williams feel totally irrelevant.
Now what? Well, now nothing.
This was a top-down, total thrashing of the highest magnitude. The Patriots put a soul-crushing beatdown on the Bills. It's over.
So really, nothing's changed in the AFC East.
Being 2-2 Isn't so Bad
To be honest, being 2-2 feels liberating.
There's no pressure of a flawless season, there's no aura of invincibility, no glitz, no glamor, no mass media attention.
Every guy on this roster is working double-time, putting full effort into every play. Guys are fully embracing a blue-collar status, grinding the gears on defense, building top-to-bottom muscle, sweating it out, working tirelessly for every scrap of yardage.
I like this situation. It's far from perfect, but it feels great. It's refreshing.
Only four games into the season, this is a team to be proud of.