New England Patriots: 10 Things We Learned From 34-3 Win Over Buffalo Bills
Most NFL fans knew the AFC East picture would take awhile to work itself out, and now with Week 16 in the books, the 2011 NFL playoffs picture is finally starting to become clear.
The New England Patriots trounced the Buffalo Bills 34-3 at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday afternoon, raising their record to 13-2 on the season and an astounding 15 straight against their division rival.
This rivalry is long and storied, but this game may have helped the Patriots write a new chapter in their history.
Here are a few things to come away from the game with.
Home Field Advantage
With their win over the Bills, the New England Patriots clinched three important things, usually attained one at a time, all at once: the AFC East, a first-round bye, and home field advantage.
Twice in the past decade, the Patriots have clinched home field advantage.
Both times, they went to the Super Bowl. Only once, though, did they win it all.
The Patriots would love to improve on that record, and now they've guaranteed themselves an opportunity.
Weren't the Patriots supposedly "rebuilding" after they traded Randy Moss?
Everyone always says that the best time to peak is at the end of the season. Of course, the Patriots have the seven-game winning streak to their name.
More importantly, though, the team is clicking on all cylinders. With three wins by 29 or more points in the past four weeks, and one gut-check win that came down to the game's final play, the Patriots are proving that they are the team to beat.
In 2007, the Patriots began to struggle around this time of the year. This year, the Patriots are playing their best on both sides of the ball.
This isn't a team anyone should look forward to facing in January.
Defense Stepped Up Big on Third Downs...
Raise your hand if you've heard this statement at least five times this year: "The Patriots defense has been historically bad on third down this season."
So bad, in fact, that they allowed these same Buffalo Bills to convert on five of its 10 third-down tries this fall. On this December day, however, the Patriots defense held them to just 3-for-10 of their third down attempts.
This unit has struggled up to this point, and it's not like they stopped a top-flight offense today, but the swagger was evident in this defense. That confidence could help this defense tremendously in the playoffs, where the competition will certainly be much more difficult than the Buffalo Bills.
...But Turnovers Are Still The Real Strength
The Patriots offense went for a seventh consecutive game without a turnover, while the Patriots defense forced seven turnovers. This helped improve the turnover differential to +27 on the year. That leads the league by a large margin.
Of course, Tom Brady's utter unwillingness to turn the ball over (more on that later) has helped the team to this mark.
A lot of the credit, however, can go to a defense that's intercepted a league-leading 24 passes, while recovering eight fumbles.
The Rush Attack
Tom Brady has ruled the headlines of late, and he'll rule a slide in this slideshow, too.
But on Sunday, it was the duel-headed rush attack of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead that got the job done. Green-Ellis is now sitting at 928 yards on the season, and is just 72 yards shy of becoming the first New England Patriot since Corey Dillon in 2004 to break 1,000 yards.
As a duo, the two backs rushed for 197 yards and an average of 6.2 yards per carry. They each added a touchdown for effect.
Of course, this all came against the woeful Bills' 32nd-ranked run defense, but the Patriots have proven they have two running backs they can rely on in the postseason when the weather outside is frightful.
Darius Butler Has Improved Dramatically
With Fitzpatrick testing him on deep throws, Darius Butler answered the bell. Butler was once considered a major liability after being exposed time and time again against the Jets in their first meeting.
He has faded in and out of the lineup since then, but recently has seen his role increased once again and has come up big for the Patriots. He did some nice work against the Jets and the Bears, and on Sunday against the Bills he was in on three big incompletions.
He is redeeming himself, but still has a long way to go before he can be counted on as a consistent nickel corner, but he is proving himself.
Jerod Mayo Is a Beast
Solomon Wilcots should get checked for an RMI in his jaw from saying the name "Jerod Mayo" all day.
The Bills were smothered in Mayo like a turkey club, as the man in the middle laid one vicious hit after another and was a part of just about every play on Sunday afternoon.
He hasn't made a lot of the "sexy plays" this year, but with a stranglehold on the league lead for tackles with 168, his value is self-evident.
Really, though, it's the hard-hitting mentality he brings to the defense. More important than the tackles, he leads the team in swagger. His attitude spills over to his teammates, and they clearly respond to him as one of their leaders.
Tom Brady. 'Nuff Said
I could go on and on about Tom Brady. So could just about every columnist in New England sports.
319 consecutive attempts without an interception. Eight straight games throwing two or more touchdowns and no interceptions. And both are still going strong.
More importantly, probably even in Tom's mind, is the fact that the Patriots are still winning.
Breaking records is nothing new to Tom Brady, but of course that's of no consequence to him...
'We Haven't Accomplished Anything'
Enough with talking about this team as though they've already won the Super Bowl. "It don't mean a thing if you don't get that ring." As the Patriots so eloquently proved in 2007, all these stats and numbers don't mean a thing if the Patriots don't win it all.
The Patriots fully understand that.
Tom Brady said after the 36-7 win over the Bears, "I know everyone gets carried away at times, but it's our jobs as players not to ride the roller coaster, the emotions of a long season. It's our job to show up every day, to work, to practice and to prepare to play a good game every weekend. This team, for a young team, has been pretty focused and mature in doing that."
Now that home field advantage is clinched, it's time for this team to buckle down and continue to do what they've done every week: prepare like it's the Super Bowl.
In Patriots History, 2010 Stands Alone
Not since 2001 have the Patriots entered the season with such low expectations around them. With a young core group of players and the midseason trade of one of the biggest names on the roster, the Patriots seemed to have ceded the 2010 season.
As they have done so many times before, they exceeded all expectations. Save the Super Bowl talk for the Super Bowl. This team come a long way in a short period of time.
They've already got a big reason to be proud. The best thing about this team, though, is that they won't be proud of any of it unless they win it all.