New England ground down Buffalo 23-3 on Sunday, and in the process might have given us a preview of how the last quarter of this oddly-scheduled regular season will go. With three of the next four games vs. AFC East opponents, we can expect to see tough, hard-hitting tilts against geared-up foes taking their best shot at the defending champs.

The Bills played potential spoiler for a half, keeping the visitors out of the end zone while limiting them to a 9-3 lead. New England came out charging in the third quarter, scoring two Rex Burkhead touchdowns to break out to an insurmountable 23-3 advantage. The Patriots defense achieved a second-half shutout with help from cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who notched one of his many fourth-quarter pass break-ups on a fourth-down attempt to Zay Jones in the end zone.

The Patriots look favored to win their upcoming away contests at Miami and Pittsburgh, then at home vs. Buffalo and New York. But each has the potential to become a slog and test New England. Quarterback Tom Brady passed the exam in the second half as the offense adjusted to the Bills’ D. Tight end Rob Gronkowski failed a mental test, losing his cool on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when the game was already out of reach. How New England’s players do in future tests will help determine how far they get in the playoffs.

Right now, they’ll have to settle for a 10-2 record and the chance to wrap up the division title down in Miami. Maybe not the worst situation to be in at the moment.

You can watch a highlight reel from Sunday’s win here. Some other notes on a challenging game up in Buffalo…

Team/Player Observations

Gronk Donk: Much has been said about Gronkowski’s cheap shot on prone cornerback Tre’Davious White after White’s interception. Not much to add here, other than the obvious: while his frustration was justified, his actions weren’t. A shame on many levels, considering we could be talking about how tough he makes it to tackle him (note his angry tango with safety Micah Hyde for an extra eight yards at the six-minute mark of the fourth), or about his blocking (watch Burkhead’s one-yard touchdown plunge and see Gronk de-atomize his defender). But instead we will be focusing on his dumb, inexcusable play, and that’s a poor situation of his own making. He hurt a fellow human being, his team, and his image. Five seconds he’ll never get back.

Such a productive day up until then. The tight end caught nine passes for 137 yards on Sunday and made himself the go-to receiver during New England’s two touchdown drives in the third quarter, accounting for 50 yards of offense on the 70-yard first drive. During those two possessions, he caught four passes, including a 16-yarder on third and 11. His best effort of the day came later in the same quarter, when he leapt up and snatched a lofted pass away from White, ripping the ball out of the defender’s hands like extracting a pit from an avocado, preventing the interception and keeping the team’s second touchdown campaign going. (That play happens at the 5:21 mark of the highlight reel.)

Tommy Tepid: Quarterback Tom Brady ended up completing 21 of 30 passes (70 percent) for 258 yards and one fourth-quarter interception when the outcome had no doubt. The fact that his performance seemed mediocre overall tells you the height of the expectations placed upon him over the past two months (give or take 17 years). Brady hit eight of his 14 targets (57 percent) in the first half for 96 yards, the lowest number of completions and yards he had thrown for a half this season.

It seems that Coach Bill Belichick frowns on the idea of halftime adjustments, noting that you can’t wait until halftime to tweak a game plan. Still, the difference between New England’s first half and second half on offense demonstrated that a few minutes can change everything (cue “One Shining Moment“). Brady opened up the third quarter completing his first eight passes for 100 yards, making great use of Gronk but also distributing to Burkhead, James White, Brandin Cooks, and Dwayne Allen. The QB ended up 13 of 16 in the second half and, just as importantly, demonstrated the fierce footwork that helps him get more time in the pocket.

One strong example happened with just under seven minutes left in the game. On third and 10, Brady shuffled in a small circle to his right and back, then skipped to an open spot on his left before honing in and firing to Gronk for a 19-yard gain. What stands out about Brady isn’t that he never makes mistakes or that he always avoids bad possessions; what makes him special is his ability to get past a poor performance – be it one game, possession, or play – and improve. This could come in handy down in Miami, where the Patriots (and Brady) have traditionally had some trouble playing their best.

Edifice Rex: Looks as though New England has found yet another cast-off on whom they can build for the future. Former Bengal Burkhead started his day by tackling Brandon Tate on the opening kickoff, then spent the rest of the afternoon picking up 78 yards rushing on 12 carries (a hefty 6.5 average) and catching three passes for 65 yards. Burkhead measures 5-10, 210 pounds, yet he runs in a style that makes him about as easy to tackle as manually stopping an industrial mixer. He pounded and spun his way to two rushing touchdowns, gaining his second score on a 14-yard jaunt where he twisted through the grips of defensive backs Hyde and Jordan Poyer to hurl himself toward the end zone.

Running cohort Dion Lewis broke out for an impressive 44-yard prowl in the second quarter (2:22 of the highlight reel) ripping through a pair of defenders and stiff-arming Poyer, leaving the safety grasping at nothing but the sideline. On his 15-yard run in the third quarter that set up Burkhead’s one-yard pop, it took four Buffalo players to get him down. Lewis the Lizard burst through a hole in the line, contacted cornerback E. J. Gaines at the 12, collided with corner Lafayette Pitts, and spun away from both. Poyer then grabbed him at the five but needed help from end Eddie Yarbrough to pin Lewis down at the one. Burkhead scored two plays later for a 16-3 lead. On the day, Lewis ran 15 times for 92 yards, a 6.1 average.

Everybody’s Movin’, Everybody’s Groovin’: Who doesn’t love Shaq? Right guard Shaq Mason pulled on more blocks than a stevedore, helping New England gain over 190 yards rushing. Like a fork lift on rocket fuel, Mason sprinted up and down the line to open up gaps in Buffalo’s defense. On Lewis’ aforementioned 44-yard second-quarter run, for example, Mason shoved linebacker Preston Brown aside. Later in the same quarter, on Burkhead’s 31-yard gallop along the right sideline, Mason loped around the right end and buried White to allow the running back room to roam. Both runs set up field goals.

The guard stood out on a day where many of his line mates committed penalties and/or got beat in one-on-one match ups. It’s impressive when an offensive lineman gets noticed for the right reasons.

Also: tiiiiinn roof… rusted.

Step By Stephon: For whatever reason (self-hatred, maybe. I hear that’s big up there), Buffalo continued to throw at Gilmore, who consistently got a hand on the football. On the Bills’ last, best chance to score in the fourth quarter, quarterback Nathan Peterman targeted Jones on three out of four plays with goal to go; Gilmore swatted away both fade patterns, reading his receiver about as well as could be to find the ball and prevent Jones from scoring. It seems that, after dealing with a start that most called ignominious (which means bad: I looked that up) and an injury, Gilmore has settled into his stopper role on defense and performed quite well. It will be interesting to see who draws his assignment down in Miami next week. Jarvis Landry again, perhaps? We shall see.

Diligent Lee Working: Who had a better day than edge defender Eric Lee? The man ended up with his own personal highlight reel for the game, literally. He stopped Buffalo’s opening drive by dropping into coverage, possibly performing some kind of zen invisibility trick, and securing a pass tossed right at him by QB Tyrod Taylor. Lee then sacked Taylor on an attempted run around the right end by diving and swatting the quarterback’s ankles. Lee added a tipped pass on the line of scrimmage, another half-sack, and a quarterback hit to his quickly-accumulating stats. It seems that he has taken over the role that Cassius Marsh was supposed to play (he’s even got the same jersey number) and has been able to deliver for the most part.

He hasn’t performed perfectly, however. One example: early in the fourth quarter, Lee shed the tight end, only to see the pulling guard hook him as LeSean McCoy ran around his end for a 13-yard gain. This played looked Marsh-like, as the former Patriot had the tendency to get hooked more often than a speckled trout at an Orvis exhibit. On the positive side, Lee weighs in at 260 pounds and has arms long enough to make an appearance in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.  He’s only played two games, but he seems like a solid addition to the defense.

Pleased To Meet Me: Who are these guys? I don’t know. Besides Lee, the Patriots welcomed two others to the game day roster, punt returner Bernard Reedy and special teamer Nicholas Grigsby. Reedy returned one punt for 11 yards. Grigsby did not register a tackle, but had a notable hit on a kickoff. Hey, players who can save receiver/returner Danny Amendola from a couple of contact plays each game, or who can take up reps for, say, linebacker Marquis Flowers, always get warm welcomes. With some time, we could see their team roles expand. (Cut to: Reedy and Grigsby on the waiver wire, then back to me shaking my head.)

I’ll Get My Kicks From You:  I don’t want to attract too much attention to this, but it’s worth mentioning that Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 50-yard kick in a stadium known for winds that could lift Dorothy’s house. Gostkowski hit all five of his kicks (three FGs, two PATs). Like I said, worth mentioning. That is all.

Monday night in Miami. See you there. And by “there,” I mean I’ll be watching from my couch. Join me! (Watching, I mean. I’m not sharing the couch.)

Random Observations

Lucky Jim: I’m not sure if play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz’ work has improved, but his partner sure has. Another strong week from Nantz and Tony Romo this week, as the former QB stayed in tune with the game. Even when his play-calling predictions went wrong, he clearly explained why he said what he said and what went right or wrong with the coaches’ call. One example of this happened on a Buffalo blitz: before the play, Romo said the linebackers would show blitz but then drop back into coverage. When they didn’t’, they left Gronk wide open for a first down.

It’s funny, but clear, concise explanations don’t seem that difficult to master, especially from a veteran NFL quarterback. Romo continues to do it better than anyone else.

Some other gems from Sunday’s program:

• On Taylor’s interception to Lee, good replay to show defensive tackle Alan Branch’s pressure on the QB, hitting his left shoulder as he threw.

• Always entertaining to see Brady flip out at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, regardless of the bumper crop of media takes that gets harvested as a result. (No links here. Go put “Brady McDaniels exchange” into your local YouTube video finder and see what that spits out.)

• Romo stayed on top of the questionable challenge by the Bills at 11:09 of the second quarter when Brady tripped over Burkhead’s leg. Apparently, seeing the QB’s knee hit the ground made it impossible to resist tossing out the red flag, but, as Romo said, that only works when “it’s not your own guy.” CBS Boston’s Michael Hurley spells out what he calls “The Dumbest Challenge In The History Of The NFL” on his weekly Leftover Patriots Thoughts column.

• At 11:40 of the third, the production crew did great work staying in synch with Romo after Gronk’s 16-yard catch. Romo noted that Hyde held the tight end, but the first replay showed only the reception. The follow-up replay had an end zone view that clearly showed the defensive back grabbing Gronk. Way to illustrate the point, CBS.

• A notable stat displayed by CBS: The Bills were outscored 65-6 in the third quarter over the last five games. So I guess the halftime snack of wings and drafts might not work so well.

• With Romo’s narration, a strong compilation of Mason blocks a little over midway through the third quarter, highlighting the guard and watching him wreak havoc on Buffalo’s would-be tacklers.

Not all was well in CBS land, however. A few bits to tidy up, including…

• Romo quickly corrected himself, but it sounded odd to hear him call Lee by Marsh’s name due to the former taking the same uniform number as the latter.

• Not the first time I’ve heard Nantz refer to Brady’s otherworldly stats as “Star War numbers.” Not the first time I’ve hissed at the television, “It’s Star Warzzz.”

• After the two-minute warning, the pair had a miscommunication regarding defenders on Burkhead’s 31-yard trot down the sideline. Nantz correctly credited Hyde with the tackle, but on the replay Romo pointed out Mason’s block on cornerback White and called him Hyde. It just doesn’t seem possible to get buried by a pulling guard and then push the running back out of bounds 31 yards down the field. Outside the Marvel Universe, at least.

(My superpower would be seeing 30 seconds into the future, and with that power I would head to Mohegan Sun for the weekend. I have short-sighted goals.)

Now, on to the No Replay segment. Good week for CBS, with only two complaints:

• On an incomplete pass intended for Jordan Matthews with 10:53 left in the second quarter, Romo said it had “eyes going the other way,” meaning that Pats corner Jonathan Jones had a chance to intercept it. Very hard to see that in live action. Would have liked to see a replay accompany Romo’s analysis.

• With 6:02 left in the third, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and David Harris shared a sack of Taylor after the quarterback ambled 20 yards deep into the backfield. The mobile Taylor eluded Van Noy’s grasp initially yet continued to circle back in search of open space, resulting in the huge loss of yardage. The sack warranted a spot as one of NFL.com’s “Big Play Highlights” for the week, yet CBS failed to show a replay. Well, that’s just great, CBS.

Anyway, a better-than-average broadcast from CBS, due in large part to their best commentators on the case.

And now, for some commercial messages:

Full Facial: The ad for Apple’s iPhone facial recognition app (or software, or whatever the hell it is don’t bother me) stands out not only for its close-ups of a bunch of tech-savvy mopes but also due to the song “Turning Heads” by NVDES. Speaking as someone who forgets I’ve got the camera in selfie mode and visibly flinches at the sight of my own face, not sure I would go for this. Good song, though.

For Those About To Rock: For whatever reason I find myself noticing all the diamond commercials, which makes me as cynical as ever about spending a hearty portion of one’s salary on a glittery rock. I have come up with the fail-proof business idea involving starting an acting school solely devoted to teaching women how to react to opening a jewelry box: Look. Open eyes wide. Look up at man. Then, make that face. There’s the key: showing actors how to make that face that represents the “aww” sound, like watching puppies snuggle, except these puppies are holding kittens, but with an overriding disbelief that somehow, in a world full of billions of people, she has found a man willing to spend part of your family’s mortgage on a geological oddity set in a mass-produced piece of metal JUST FOR YOU.

So, line up. I will take personal checks.

Jordan MVP: The Susan G. Komen foundation has a commercial based on the story of Jordan Phillips, a young girl who made and sold coffee cozies to support the fight against breast cancer. The video is worth a watch. (By the way, I’m not crying, you are.)

So, this holiday season, maybe get a slightly smaller glittery rock and use the leftover cash to support a cause you think can help people this coming year. Just a thought. I mean, if you don’t care about people with cancer, that’s okay. Forget I said anything.

Really. It’s fine.

Breaking And Entering Dead: I’d like to mention some spoilers this week, as “The Walking Dead” has adhered to the comic so strongly that it offers few surprises to those of us who began reading the books as an alternative look at this world. My main complaint this week, besides the consistent inability to hear what characters mumble to each other, is the over-stylized dialogue of Eugene. His folksy-clever-funny lines work once or twice an episode, but when he goes on long rants, he starts to sound like Hunter S. Thompson trying to dictate an Aaron Sorkin play set in Texas. An example:

Our neck is in a noose of the deceased, and it is tightening with every tick-tock.

Too many words, Eugene.

Now, if you like, skip down to the next subhead if you don’t want to read the *spoilers ahead.*

Darryl’s plan is to crash a truck into the Saviors’ factory/home, thus giving the dead room to roam inside their walls? It won’t work. You know how I know it won’t work? Because the exact same thing happened in Alexandria. The church tower fell, crashing down on the walls and letting the zombies get loose inside the compound. Rick and his group rallied the Alexandrians, who set out on an all-nighter to destroy the invaders. And they did, using axes, swords and knives.

If a small group of survivors can lead a bunch of sheltered villagers to destroy a pack of walkers using hand tools, why on earth wouldn’t a militia armed with automatic weapons be able to defend themselves? Come on, Darryl. Bad plan. Bad.

Man, Rosita had a shot at Negan a couple of seasons ago (maybe less – this thing has gotten dragged out). I wish that bullet had found its mark. It would have at least made the show less predictable.

Upcoming Opponent Mascot Etymology: I defined “dolphin” a couple of weeks ago (scroll to the bottom here), so instead I’ll give you a scientific tidbit about dolphins. Their sonar is superior to the sonar of bats and anything humans have come up with. Also, dolphins often use sea mud as eye shadow. (Only one of those previous statements is true.) See the Dodo website for more fun dolphin facts!

Upcoming Opponent Site Etymology: We did Miami already (Calusa for “big water”), so one fun fact about The Magic City: its tallest building is the Four Seasons Hotel at 789 feet.

Monday Night Football in southern Florida. Wouldn’t mind having Gronk there, but we’ll see how the Patriots prepare for this test.

Chris Warner is really in the mood for wings right about now. You can email him at chris.warner@patriotsdaily.com or tweet @cwarn89.

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