ORCHARD PARK – Maybe he was trying too hard to impress his counterpart, Tom Brady, the gold-standard among NFL quarterbacks. Perhaps the single-digit wind chills were making it difficult for him to get a good grip on the football. Or maybe, just maybe, Ryan Fitzpatrick was due for a clunker of a game and just chose a terrible time and team in which to play like Rob Johnson, J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards.
Whatever the reason, the Buffalo Bills quarterback stunk up the Ralph Sunday, turning it over five times on three interceptions and two fumbles as New England extended its win streak in the series to 15 with a 34-3 thumping.
“I killed the team today by turning the ball over,’’ said Fitz, who had three turnovers that led to Patriot touchdowns and one that denied the Bills a touchdown of their own. “You can’t do that on any day when you play a team that is that good and that efficient on offense.”
No you can’t. On a day when the Bills needed to play flawlessly just to have a chance, they turned it over seven times, committed several drive-killing penalties and reverted to their old selves, yielding 217 rushing yards and three touchdowns by – you guessed it – tight ends. Giving Brady and the Patriots seven turnovers is akin to giving Michael Jordan a trampoline in a dunk contest.
While the Bills were treating the football like a Christmas present to be given away, the Patriots continued to protect it as if it were the Crown Jewels. New England has gone seven games without committing a turnover, paced by the perfectionist Brady, who is now the NFL’s all-time record-holder for most passing attempts without an interception (319).
Brady wasn’t as sharp as he normally is, having badly underthrown tight end Rob Gronkowski on the Pats first play from scrimmage, costing New England an easy 77-yard touchdown. And later, the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback badly overthrew an open Brandon Tate in the end zone. Two touchdowns squandered.
But even when he’s not at his best, Brady is still a force to be reckoned with. Although he completed just 15-of-27 passes for 140 yards, he fired two 8-yard TD strikes to hometown boy Rob Gronkowski and a four-yard score to Alge Crumpler. Brady was quite content to take what the Bills were giving him, which meant plenty of handoffs to BenJarvus Green-Ellis (104 yards) and Danny Woodhead (93 yards, 1 TD).
“We knew coming in that we had to establish it, get things going on the ground, possess the ball, and we sure did,’’ said Brady, who now had 33 touchdown passes and just four interceptions this season. “I think that takes a lot of pressure off the pass game when you can hand it off all the times that we did and gain those yards.”
For Brady, the victory clinched his eighth divisional title in 10 years.
“It never gets old,’’ he said. “We never get tired of winning, that’s what we have been preparing for all offseason and training camp.”
The losing, though, certainly has gotten old in Buffalo. This will mark the 11th consecutive season the Bills have failed to make the playoffs and the 10th time in that stretch without a winning record. The sad thing about this loss was that Buffalo had been building a little momentum, having won four of its previous six games. The Bills needed a signature win against a quality team like the Patriots. That hasn’t happened in eight years against New England.
Fitzpatrick’s putrid performance (18-of-37, 251 yards, 0 TDs, 3 picks, 2 fumbles) certainly didn’t aid his cause to be the Bills quarterback for at least the next few seasons. But he probably was due for a game like this.
The Bills will take a 4-11 record into the Jersey Meadowlands next week against a Jets team that already has clinched a wildcard berth. There’s a good chance Buffalo can bounce back, aided by the fact the Jets will be resting many of their starters. Interestingly, a 5-11 record could wind up costing them several slots in the NFL draft.
SCOTT’S REPORT CARD
COACHING: For one of the few times this season, the Bills played uninspired football. It didn’t help that it came against their division standard bearer, New England. Grade: D
OFFENSE: The only number you need to know is 7. That’s the number of turnovers the Bills committed, five of them by Fitz on three picks and two lost fumbles. Three of them were cashed in for touchdowns, another one denied the Bills a score. Fred Jackson ran well early and finished with 81 yards on 13 carries. Former University at Buffalo star Naaman Roosevelt had four receptions for 74 yards. Grade: D
DEFENSE: After their best effort of the season against the run, the Bills reverted to the bad, old form, yielding 217 yards on 41 carries, a 5.3-yard average. Once again, they couldn’t cover tight ends in the red zone as hometown boy Rob Gronkowski scored twice and Alge Crumpler once. Grade: D.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Brian Moorman averaged just 34 yards on two punts, C.J. Spiller fumbled away a punt and made a lackluster effort attempting to retrieve the ball. Grade: C-minus
OVERALL: Disappointing showing against the AFC East opponent that has owned them for more than a decade. Bills could catch a break against the Jets, who may rest many of their starters next week in the regular-season finale. Grade: D
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills since 1985 and has written five books about the team, including the recently published, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons, which is available at any book store, the Bills team stores and Amazon.com. You can read Scott’s weekly column on Syracuse University basketball on this website and more of his work at www.scottpitoniak.com .