The Patriots used a combination of a solid defensive front and methodical offense to change deuling partners for the lead in the AFC East today, leaving behind the Buffalo Bills to tie at 6-3 with the New York Jets, who come to Gillette this Thursday.
If this season is a test of Bill Belichick's effectiveness without Tom Brady, there's been a consistent response to it so far from the hooded one. The Patriots have been more mortal than last year, but have yet to lose back-to-back games and remain atop a division that has been much more competitive in 2008.
You especially have to give credit to the Patriots offense under Josh McDaniels. They are far from a repeat of last year's high-flying fireworks show, but have also come light years from their disastrous preseason, getting there by inching along, step by step, through all the injuries and adjustments.
Long bombs didn't work out for Cassel this week, and his passing yards have slid since two weeks ago against the St. Louis Rams. But the third-down efficiency is creeping up, from 50% vs. St. Louis to 60% last week against Indianapolis as well as today against the Bills.
Cassel was able to improve his mid-depth accuracy, sprinkling in double-digit completions to Wes Welker and Randy Moss almost at will. The Bills tried to play zone defense against Pats receivers but didn't put effective pressure on Cassel, and the Patriots stung the Bills with short passes and screens to Welker and Kevin Faulk.
The QB's passing yardage also took a hit from a highly effective running game this week. New England seems to have struck gold with "Law Firm", BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who contributed a 105 yard rushing performance to a highly balanced offense. He hit the holes opened up for him like a bat out of hell, and was even more effective with some long gains when he bounded out to the left side. Cassel found success with more mobility and better protection in the pocket, especially when he rolled right and hit receivers upfield. Both things point to huge improvement up front, across the board.
These drawn-out, symphonic offensive drives made a high number of points earned with field goals mean more. Even if the complex series didn't result in a touchdown, they mercilessly chewed up the clock while the New England machine rumbled methodically downfield, squeezing the life out of the Bills like a boa constrictor.
On the defensive side of the ball, some of the DBs weren't wrapping up, and each side's running backs and receivers were able to evade numerous tackles today. But New England's defense has its own newcomer laying down the law in Jerrod Mayo. Which turned out to be key, because this week it was Adalius Thomas's turn to pay what has become a customary toll for New England DBs after a solid performance in the first half: an injury that kept him out the rest of the game.
But Ellis Hobbs also had two interceptions, while Deltha O'Neal picked up another one, and the Bills got nothing going on the ground, leaving their
passing game vulnerable to the veteran presence of Mike Vrabel and
Richard Seymour. The Pats D also kept a turnover from turning into
points for the Bills late in the game after a fumble by Cassel.
In the end it was the offense that put the seal on this all-important, multifaceted division win, with a 9-minute, 91-yard, 18-play touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that ended in the first NFL rushing touchdown for "Benny" (another name for "Law Firm"). It was a fitting bookend for Matt Cassel's own first rushing touchdown in the NFL, which was the first of the game.
The Bills came back with an astonishingly quick 15-second touchdown drive, but it was their last gasp. Cassel kneeled on the ball on the next possession, the final score 20-10...and it really hadn't even been that close.