Running backs ( 4 out of 5)
Bolden’s 27-yard run to jump start the offense on the second drive of the second half showed terrific patience and vision. The hole behind Rob Gronkowski, the lead blocker, was closing and Bolden rode it to the outside of Dan Connolly’s great block on tackle Spencer Johnson, and then had one of his five broken tackles (they accounted for 25 percent of his yardage). Later in that drive, Stevan Ridley ran into a bad carry by not being as patient. On his 20-yarder with 5:53 left in the third, Bolden allowed Gronkowski to get in front of him, and then read the backside blocks of Ryan Wendell and David Thomas well before breaking a tackle. The Patriots ran the same play back-to-back to go ahead, 42-21, in the fourth quarter: a neat little counter-type play during which Brady showed the ball on the right side of the line to get the linebackers going that way, and then actually handed it off on the left where the defense had vacated. They ran that play about six times in the game with great success. Ridley had some very nice plays, but he also made a few questionable decisions and wasn’t as patient as Bolden. And Ridley’s fumble out of bounds reminded one of his fumble last year against the Bills. He fumbled the following week and was sent to the bench. Shane Vereen didn’t do anything wrong in his return, but his plays always seem to work out poorly for some reason.
Receivers (3.5 out of 5)
Two fumbles and a drop out of this group hurts, but there was still some standout play, especially in the run game with Daniel Fells adding to what we already know Gronkowski can do. Want to know the value Welker has in this offense? Watch the 19-yard pass to him with 4:49 left in the third quarter. Welker ran an “S” route during which he went inside the slot corner, outside the linebacker, and then bent back to the middle of the field, and as he flipped his head, Brady hit him in stride. No one else on this team — and few other players in the league — can make that play. Not to mention the ridiculous catch by Welker on third down with 5:47 to play. Speaking of the absurd, the throw by Brady and catch by Lloyd for the final touchdown was perfection.
Offensive line ( 4 out of 5)
Brady was pressured just seven times total (sack, five hurries, knockdown). There was a lot of good work done by this group in the run game, as the focus on inside running behind delayed handoffs worked wonderfully. The Patriots basically doubled the two tackles and worked combinations to the second level, or doubled one and pulled with a guard. The line in order of performance: Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Wendell, and Thomas. Thomas had some standout plays and was far from bad despite giving up a half sack with Wendell, 2½ hurries, and the knockdown. Bills ends Mark Anderson and Mario Williams couldn’t do anything one-on-one against Solder and Vollmer, respectively.
Defensive line ( 4.5 out of 5)
Despite the three sacks, the Patriots didn’t have much of a pass rush with only six additional pressures (four hurries, two knockdowns). But that’s how it goes against the fast-throwing Fitzpatrick. The only negative we saw was a missed tackle by Rob Ninkovich (sack, hurry). Jones (half sack, hurry, 1½ knockdowns), Cunningham (half sack, half knockdown), and Trevor Scott (two hurries) made an impact. Yes, I split Jones’s sack because Cunningham’s pressure made the entire play. On drive following the Donald Jones touchdown, Vince Wilfork set the tone by beating a double team for a run stuff on second down. Ninkovich should give an assist on his third-quarter sack to Arrington for passing off his man and driving on Jackson, whom Fitzpatrick wanted on a shallow cross.
Linebackers (4 out of 5)
Three huge plays out of this group with Brandon Spikes’s two forced fumbles and Jerod Mayo’s interception, but there were some issues. Mayo missed a tackle on a plus-20-yard play. And Spikes blew two gaps on big runs, and failed to get a jam on tight end Scott Chandler’s second touchdown. Mayo set up Spikes’s forced fumble before halftime by taking on center Eric Wood in the hole and forcing C.J. Spiller to hesitate. On both of Spikes’s forced fumbles, he came from the back side of the play.
Secondary (2 out of 5)
Both McCourty and Arrington played well in shutting down the Bills’ outside passing game. But outside of that, this unit had the issues that we’ve already discussed. Against a better team, the Patriots might not have been so lucky. As opposed to his first interception, McCourty was in perfect position on his second. The Patriots were in Cover 3, McCourty stayed over the top of Johnson, and then reacted to the ball.Continued...