By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- I do not believe in moral victories. I do believe in productive losses.
Moral victories are games that you lose but end up learning something good about yourself. That's poppycock.
Productive losses, on the other hand, are games that you lose and end up learning something bad about yourself. It's far more instructive, and it can lead to rapid improvement. We weren't good enough in this area, we were flat-out weak here, we were outsmarted and outcoached at a critical moment. It's easier to learn things in a hurry when your hair is on fire.
In that sense, I believe Saturday evening was a tremendously instructive moment for the Buffalo Bills, who showed even in defeat that they are going to be a very tough out in the AFC playoffs. Cleaning up their run defense, keying in on the opponent's No. 1 receiving option, and convincing their quarterback to not overshoot receivers by 15 feet half the time will go a long way in getting the Bills a playoff victory or two. The fact that they were all miffed instead of devastated in the losing locker room was an encouraging sign in that regard.
With that in mind, this is New England, so we really can only talk about the regular season so much. And with this game having been over more than 11 minutes, it's time to look ahead to the playoffs.
If the AFC standings hold, it'll look like this.
2. New England
3. Kansas City
The Bills have a realistic shot to actually win in Houston, which would then send Buffalo to Baltimore for a Week 14 rematch. Last time, the Bills held the Ravens to just 24 points, their third-lowest point total since becoming an AFC powerhouse in Week 7. The Bills lost by just seven, which was likewise Baltimore's lowest margin of victory during that time. Could the Bills win in Baltimore? Probably not. But ... maybe!
The Patriots, meanwhile, would have their hands full with a Kansas City rematch in the divisional round at Gillette. While the Chiefs got the better of the Patriots in Week 14, that was also a game where the Patriots did not execute to their ability. Not by any stretch. Could the Patriots win a playoff game at home, even against a somewhat daunting opponent? Of course they can.
It's not out of the realm of possibility, then, that ... the Buffalo Bills could return to Foxboro for a rematch in the AFC Championship Game. That would be ... awesome.
The challenge of beating a playoff team three times in a season would be immense. Contrarily, the incredible weight of two decades' worth of losing to the Patriots would weigh heavily on the Bills. The 42-year-old Hall of Famer vs. the 2018 No. 7 overall pick. Bill Belichick vs. Sean McDermott, with potential control of the division for the foreseeable future on the line.
After Saturday's classic, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn't sign up to watch that one.
But, well, I suppose that predicting an AFC Championship Game matchup is slightly premature. Whatever. Fine. Here are all the leftover thoughts from the Patriots' 24-17 win over the Bills.
--This is an oversimplification, sure. But it's also not. For the Patriots to be the Patriots, they kind of just need Tom Brady to be Tom Brady, and they need Julian Edelman to be Julian Edelman. Kind of a simple game plan, really. It worked on Saturday.
I still don't know how Edelman managed to step off the tracks and avoid the choo choo train that was a-coming through on his first snap back on the field after missing a quarter:
He did a sneak a peek and catch a glimpse of Jordan Poyer as he crossed the Patriots logo on midfield. But still. Making the catch, saving his neck, and turning a 12-15-yard gain into a 30-yarder is something that very few men in this world could have done.
--Oh, and if you like good signs and you think I'm a genius (who wouldn't?), then you might like the fact that I wrote a late-night headline that noted, "Tom Brady Is Still Tom Brady." The last time I did that was Week 17 of last season, when a trying period for Brady and the offense concluded with the unit clicking in the final two games of the year. And we know how that year ended. Just saying.
(You might be saying that geniuses wouldn't need to repeat the same headline twice in a calendar year. In a related story, you might want to keep that thought to yourself.)
--Josh Allen has always been and will always be a wildly inaccurate quarterback. I'll make jokes about it as I please, and I will do so later in this here story.
But! But ... there are times when having an absolute cannon for an arm can come in handy. That was never more clear than it was on the 53-yard touchdown connection to John Brown.
It was a second-and-13 near midfield. Lawrence Guy and Kyle Van Noy broke into the backfield with ease. Allen was in trouble. I knew it. You knew it. And it looked like Devin McCourty knew it. That's at least the best conclusion to draw upon seeing the safety stand flat-footed, potentially waiting for a wounded duck to pick off with ease instead of getting back to cover the speedy receiver bursting behind him.
It looked like McCourty made a calculation that given the ferocity of that pass rush, Allen had absolutely no chance of delivering an accurate deep ball. This was a good assumption! Until ... it wasn't.
That was all arm. Entirely arm. With no legs at all, and with the 315 pounds of Lawrence Guy about to pile on top of his sternum. That is a flat-out awesome throw.
Add in the game-changing deep connection Dawson Knox before halftime, and factor in his real strength as a runner, and Allen was tremendously more impressive in this critical road game than anyone outside of his immediate family could have imagined.
--This throw was my favorite throw.
Playing against Allen in the schoolyard when you'd "kick off" with a throw must have been exhausting. He probably threw it over the school and such.
--That's enough Josh Allen praise, though, because these throws were funny.
That last one? Woooooof. That was the game-tying (or winning, if they went for two) touchdown.
That's a rough one.
And that is how a quarterback goes 13-for-26. And that is why he now has 14 starts with a 55 percent completion rate or lower. As in, 14 of his 26 starts. Not great.
Maybe not the guy you take out of Wyoming with the seventh overall pick. Just a thought.
--Kind of a tough break for Julian Edelman on the OPI, don't you think? On the one hand, he ran directly into Jordan Poyer, thus preventing the defensive back from pursuing the intended receiver. But also ... Edelman was running a slant, which is a legal thing to do.
In that situation, it seems the more legal thing to do would be to recognize the safety speeding at your face and then trying to sidestep the contact instead of bracing yourself for impeding impact. That's easy to say when you're looking at a replay. In real speed, I imagine it's a tick more difficult.
(Though Edelman passed his concussion evaluation, it is good to know that NFL officials are not above chucking flags at a potentially unconscious player's face.)
--You could spend a lot of time talking about Tom Brady's start in the passing game. He was 10-for-10 with a touchdown, and his first incompletion was a throwaway, and his second incompletion hit Edelman in the fingers. He was good at passing.
But what stood out equally to me was the command that Brady demonstrated as the engineer of the offense. That football mastery has been missing somewhat during the stretch of listlessness, but it came back in a big way in this one. Take, for instance, the simple decision to check this play into a run to convert a third-and-2:
The success of the running game also allowed Brady to display his elite play-faking ability. He sold this jet sweep to Mohamed Sanu so well that he inspired a Zero Humans coverage for Burkhead to break off a 31-yard gain:
Watch that again, as the entirety of the Buffalo defense falls hard for the play fake to Sanu.
It was just all-around mental and physical dominance of the sport on display from Brady, who calmly told the world that he's not quite done yet.
--Was it a good two-play stretch for Sanu when he didn't run to the sticks/didn't extend the ball and then didn't get a finger on Kevin Johnson on the resulting fourth-and-1?
Why no, it was not.
With all due respect to the winning organizations of the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons, perhaps a focus on details is not preached as heavily in those places as it is in New England.
--Rex Burkhead, though, showed that it is possible to break the curse that is getting drafted by the Bengals. He obviously powered through two tackles to score from the goal line, and he also did this to convert a third-and-5.
It is possible to remove the stripey stink associated with Cincinnati. It just takes time.
--I will not look this up. I will simply assume that this coach who got jacked up by Isaiah McKenzie trucking Patrick Chung is the strength and conditioning coach.
Feels like a safe bet.
--I have got a sports take for you: An NFL officiating crew should not miss a blatant facemask committed against the quarterback when he's running a QB sneak on a critical fourth-and-1.
Just my politics!
(I'd say that plays like this should be reviewable, but we all know that Al Riveron would just choose not to enforce the rules, for whatever reason.)
--It's time for the Obnoxious Facts portion of the program. Here goes.
The Patriots have won 19 division championships since 1994, most in the NFL. The Steelers rank second, with 13, followed by Green Bay, with 12.
They've won 11 straight division titles, extending their own streak for the longest of all time. The 1973-79 Rams rank second, with seven. The 2003-07 Patriots rank tied for seventh with five straight division crowns.
The Patriots have 16 division titles since realignment in 2002, most in the NFL. Green Bay ranks second, with nine.
In all three of those categories, the Patriots are closer to having twice as many division titles than the second-best team as they are to having the same amount as the second-best team. That's a terribly written sentence, but give it another gander. I swear, it's crazy.
There will be always be the "It's only because the AFC East is terrible crowd," even though the AFC East has been middle of the pack at worst during the run. Yet even if the AFC East had been the worst division in football since 2001, that wouldn't explain away:
A) How the Patriots have avoided a slump for two full decades, and
B) How the Patriots are twice as successful as any other team in the NFL during that span.
--One more obnoxious note: Tom Brady is now 32-4 against the Bills. Even one of those losses wasn't real, as Brady left at halftime in a meaningless Week 17 game. (That didn't stop the Bills from pretending it was a real win.)
--Also noteworthy: Julian Edelman now has the most receptions from Tom Brady, with 568. He passed Wes Welker (563) on Saturday, and passed Rob Gronkowski (516) earlier this season.
--Last year's Patriots team, you'll surely recall, had some major issues throughout the year. They lost five games for the first time since 2009. After the Miami Miracle and a loss in Pittsburgh, things looked grim.
But then against some bad teams in Weeks 16 and 17, they got their act together and started doing things correctly. The team played against the Chargers in the divisional round looked nothing like the team that entered December. They rounded into championship form just in time to outscore Kansas City in the championship round and then completely stifle the Rams in the Super Bowl. It was an impressive turnaround.
We obviously lack crystal balls and Magic 8-Balls that can foresee an identical scenario playing out this year. But they started to do a lot of things right last week in Cincinnati. This week, they kept those positive steps moving forward, this time against an actually potent football team. And if they can build some more by continuing the progress against a very bad Dolphins team next weekend? Anything can happen, but you'd be awfully foolish to count out the Patriots from looking a lot more like the Patriots than they have for the past two months.
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