On Sunday, due to the Cincinnati Bengals easily defeating the Baltimore Ravens during the early-afternoon slate of NFL games, the New England Patriots needed a victory to secure the second seed in the AFC playoff bracket and a first-round bye; they did exactly that, defeating the Buffalo Bills 34-20 in a downpour. The victory marked the Patriots' 12th of the season and the fifth where the margin of victory was double digits so while I have criticized the Patriots for not being more dominant, Sunday's performance showed that the Patriots are still dominant enough to win most of their games, even if they do not do so in more exhilarating fashion.
Unlike in last week's blowout victory over the Ravens, the Patriots did not deliver a quick death blow to the Bills' chances of winning. Instead, the team adopted a different approach, but nonetheless, one that proved to be incredibly effective. As the win probability graph for the game displays, the Patriots seized control of the Bills' win probability early in the contest and then slowly strangled the life out of it until there was nothing remaining but another victory for the Patriots. While the outcome was inevitable for most of the game, the Bills did manage to show some signs of life during the strangling, kicking their legs just enough to make it a one-possession game for a total of 22:37 of game time, not that it made much difference to their win probability.
While the victory was a relative easy one for the Patriots to obtain, one cannot explain the victory by simply looking at the performance of the usual suspect, quarterback Tom Brady. Brady will one day find himself in the Hall of Fame, but his candidacy will definitely not benefit from the way he produced, or rather did not produce, during Sunday's contest. Modest might even be too kind of a word to describe Brady's passing numbers as he ended the day completing 14 of 22 passes and gaining just 4.6 net yards per pass attempt; he also threw an interception that gave the Bills a short field, which the Bills then transubstantiated into a field goal. Seven of his completions gained enough yardage to give the Patriots first downs, but Brady was definitely not at his most efficient against the Bills.
What did propel the Patriots to their win was a combination of LeGarrette Blount's all-purpose contributions and advantageous field position throughout the contest. Blount ran the ball 24 times for a career-best 189 yards, hitting on long runs of 36 yards and 35 yards to score two of the Patriots' three touchdowns. Not only did Blount flash big-play capabilities in the running game, but he was also a consistent runner, with Advanced NFL Stats recording 60 percent of his plays on Sunday as being successful ones.
A rushing performance alone of that caliber would have been enough to garner Blount MVP of the contest, but he also ripped off an 83-yard kickoff return that gave the Patriots the ball on the Bills' 20-yard line; they would score a touchdown on that possession. Later Blount rumbled his way down the field en route to a 62-yard kickoff return, a return that set up the Patriots to take over on the Bills' 40-yard line; from that starting position, the Patriots would later score a field goal, one of four kicker Stephen Gostkowski sent through the uprights.
Those two long kickoff returns represent a couple of chapters in what was a recurring theme for the Patriots on Sunday when it came to field position. To put it simply, the Patriots offense had less work to do to score points than did their Bills counterparts. For the game, the Patriots offense averaged a starting line of possession on their 41-yard line, with five of their 12 possessions starting at midfield or better; they scored on four of those five possessions and would have scored on all five if they had not just run out the clock on the fifth possession.
On the other side of the coin, the Bills offense found themselves in unenviable starting field position after unenviable starting field position with their average possession beginning on their 22-yard line, thanks in large part to the Patriots special teams coverage units. Six of Stephen Gostkowski's seven kickoffs were touchbacks and even the other kickoff, which Marcus Easley returned for 28 yards, only gave the Bills the ball on their 30-yard line. Additionally, the Bills failed to return a single one of the three punts boomed off the legs of Patriots punter Ryan Allen and quarterback Tom Brady; well, only Allen did any real booming since Brady's punt only traveled 32 yards.
Since the Bills have to travel such great distances to score the 20 points, they did manage, it should not come as a great surprise that they actually outgained the Patriots in yardage on Sunday, 393 to 382, and still lost the contest. Despite outgaining the Patriots, the Bills only gained 46.1 percent of the yardage they would have needed to score a touchdown on every possession while the Patriots were able to gain 53.7 percent of necessary touchdown yardage. Poor field position also kept the Bills from capitalizing on their multiple big plays, six of their 68 plays gained at least 20 yards, as it proved impossible for the team to string enough together to sustain the lengthy drives they would have needed to score more often.
There has been no one winning formula for the Patriots. They have won with efficient offensive play, stalwart defensive performances, impressive special teams play, and a combination of all three. On Sunday, the Patriots were just doing what they have done best throughout the season: win another game. While the process might vary slightly from contest to contest, the outcome has usually been the same and now, the Patriots will be hoping for similar outcomes as they embark on what they hope is a long postseason run.