Pats clinch home-field advantage with 49-21 rout of Bills

627120.jpg

Pats clinch home-field advantage with 49-21 rout of Bills

FOXBORO -- The playoffs loom, and the Patriots who showed up for the last three quarters Sunday afternoon are going to be a handful for anyone.
As long as the ones who played the first quarter don't mess things up too badly.
They didn't on Sunday . . . try as they might. The Pats were overwhelmed by the Buffalo Bills in the opening 15 minutes, getting outgained 185 yards to 5 and falling behind 21-0.
Then those Patriots left the stage. And their replacements? They had the Gillette Stadium faithful dreaming of Lombardi Trophies.
The defense not only shut out the Bills the rest of the way, but it set up three touchdowns -- two by the offense, and one it scored itself -- with interceptions. The offense scored points on seven of eight possessions until the take-a-knee ending. It all added up to a 49-0 New England advantage over the last three quarters en route to a 49-21 victory that enabled the Pats, who finished the regular season at 13-3, to clinch the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
By the end of the game, the Patriots' horrific start was so far in the rear-view mirror as to be invisibe. Still, the first quarter was a New England disaster that trumped even last week's opening stumble against the Dolphins (when they fell behind 17-0 before rallying to win).
After the Bills kept possession with a fake punt on a fourth-and-one on their own 43, they proceeded to blow holes in the New England defense:
A 47-yard pass interference penalty against Antwaun Molden put the ball on the Buffalo 4, and Tashard Choice scored on a four-yard run. Eight plays, 80 yards, 7-0 Buffalo.
After another fourth-down conversion -- this one on a nine-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Stevie Johnson on fourth-and-four from the New England 31 -- Fitzpatrick hooked up with Johnson for an 18-yard TD. Ten plays, 70 yards, 14-0 Buffalo.
On their next drive, the Bills ran off five straight plays of 14, 14, 21, 12 and 15 yards, the last a touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick to C.J. Spiller. Six plays, 82 yards, 21-0 Buffalo.
"Give the players credit for turning that around," said coach Bill Belichick. "They made plays after falling behind 21-0; they played good."
At this point, the Pats had generated minus-six yards of offense. But it was here that Tom Brady and company proceeded to get it in gear.
"We couldn't do anything offensively at the beginning," said Belichick. "But we finally got it going, made a few plays. That's what it's all about."
BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored on a one-yard run with 12:01 to play in the half, capping a 9-play, 77-yard drive that cut Buffalo's lead to 21-7. Then they went 81 yards in 7 plays, with Aaron Hernandez taking advantage of blown Buffalo coverage to race 39 yards with a Brady pass for a TD that made it 21-14.
"There's no panic," said Brady. "It's really a matter of execution and we started executing better and put points on the board."
The Patriots resumed firing after taking the second-half kickoff. They moved from their 22 to the Buffalo 35 before stalling, and Stephen Gostkowski's 47-yard field goal cut the Bills lead to 21-17.
A 53-yard pass-and-run from Brady to Green-Ellis on New England's next possession set up the Pats at the Buffalo 20. A 15-yard pass from Brady to Wes Welker on a third-and-six from the 16 put the ball on the 1, but the Bills' defense held and Gostkowski's chip-shot 20-yard field goal made it 21-20.
By now, the defense had stopped allowing points. Then it went one step better: It began making plays.
The first was by Sterling Moore, who intercepted a Fitzpatrick pass at the Buffalo 30 and returned it five yards to the 25. It took Brady six plays to cash in, as he found Rob Gronkowski behind the Buffalo defense with a 17-yard scoring pass that gave New England its first lead of the day. A successful two-point conversion run by Danny Woodhead put the Pats in front, 28-21.
Then it was Devin McCourty's turn, choking off a Buffalo drive with an interception at the New England 15 that he returned 38 yards to the Buffalo 47. Brady and Aaron Hernandez hooked up on a 44-yard pass that pushed the ball to the 3, and Green-Ellis ran it in from there to make it 35-21.
The Pats ended whatever suspense was left with a 14-play, 88-yard drive that consumed nearly 7 12 minutes of the fourth quarter, capped by a seven-yard Brady-to-Gostkowski TD pass. Moore put the icing on the cake with his second interception, which he returned 21 yards for a touchdown and the 49-21 final.
"I'd like to see what it's like when we put together 60 minutes of football," said Brady. "Today it was 45. It's better than last week against the Dolphins, when it was 30.
"Maybe we're trending toward that."
The rest of the league better hope not.

Report: Patriots asked Seahawks about a trade for Richard Sherman

Report: Patriots asked Seahawks about a trade for Richard Sherman

PHOENIX -- The Patriots pulled off what many considered a surprise free-agent signing when they acquired corner Stephon Gilmore. As it turns out, before they picked up the former Bills cover man, they inquried about a separate move that would have been even more eye-opening. 

According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, ahead of coming to a deal with Gilmore, the Patriots were among the teams that spoke to the Seahawks about a potential trade for Richard Sherman.

MORE PATRIOTS

During the NFC coaches breakfast on Wednesday morning at the Arizona Biltmore, Seattle coach Pete Carroll acknowledged that multiple teams have contacted the Seahawks about Sherman. But, Carroll said, "I don't see anything happening at all."

Sherman, who turns 29 next season, will make $11.431 million for 2017. He's due $11 million in the final year of his contract in 2018.

Rivera: Ealy 'a gifted young man,' can reascend 'if he listens'

Rivera: Ealy 'a gifted young man,' can reascend 'if he listens'

PHOENIX -- The Patriots picked up Kony Ealy, who a year ago put together one of the best defensive performances in Super Bowl history, by exchanging a second-round pick for a third-rounder earlier this offseason.

MORE PATRIOTS

How exactly was a 25-year-old defensive end with loads of talent available at that price? Apparently he had some trouble listening to the coaching staff in Carolina.

During the NFC coaches breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore on Wednesday morning Panthers head coach Ron Rivera praised Ealy for his ability, but he acknowledged that Ealy's production waned in part because the Carolina coaching staff had a hard time getting through to the player involved. 

"I think sometimes when you have success, you kind of fall back into a little bit of something," Rivera answered when asked if Ealy had difficulty taking coaching. "But at the same time, for us, we looked at [the trade] as an opportunity -- as [general manager] Dave [Gettleman] said -- to find some gold. We moved up in the second round. We have two picks in the second round . . . We feel we'll be able to fill a need so we're pretty excited about that opportunity."

Ealy, who has one year remaining on his rookie contract, figures to factor heavily into the rotation at defensive end for the Patriots since Bill Belichick and his coaching staff watched both Jabaal Sheard (Colts) and Chris Long (Eagles) depart via free-agency, leaving Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich as the primary holdovers on the edge from last year's Super Bowl-winning roster. 

In Super Bowl 50, Ealy tied the Super Bowl record with three sacks. He also recorded an interception and forced fumble in the game -- becoming the only player in Super Bowl history to record multiple sacks and a pick -- and he did it all in 23 snaps.

Last season Ealy started the first six games of the regular season for the Panthers, eventually coming off the bench for the final 10. He saw 58 percent of Carolina's defensive snaps and recorded five sacks as well as an interception. He had nine regular-season sacks combined in his first two seasons as a pro.

So what kind of player will the Patriots be getting in Ealy, I asked Rivera? A good one, he replied, if he's willing to learn everything Belichick throws at him.

"I think they got a guy that has the skill set, that's flashed in opportunities to show people what he's capable of doing," Rivera said. "And at the end of the day, if he listens and does things that coach asks of him, I think he's got an opportunity to reascend and be that type of player. I mean, he is a gifted young man."

Rivera added: "There's nothing physically that kept him from being [more consistent]. You saw the flashes. If you watch the tape, you see these flashes throughout. Sometimes when you see those, you wonder, 'Eh, did we make the right decision?' But at the end of the day, the proof will be in the pudding. We'll know -- once we get through this draft, as to what we were able to accomplish -- whether we did or didn't."

Will Ealy be able to turn those flashes into more consistent production? Will the Patriots coaching staff be able to reach him in a way that those in Carolina apparently could not? 

All that remains to be seen, but Belichick may have had an opportunity to hear a little more about his new defensive end Wednesday when he spoke to Ealy's college defensive line coach for about a half-hour while scouting prospects at the University of Miami pro day, according to the Palm Beach Post's Matt Porter.