Danny Amendola was the one to lead the New England Patriots out of the tunnel on Sunday afternoon. But that was just one of the details that made game No. 16 different than the 15 before it.
The top-seeded 12-3 Patriots headed onto the Gillette Stadium field to face the 8-7 Buffalo Bills for a 1 p.m. contest with no playoff implications at the receiving end of it. And with a first-round bye and home-field advantage already in hand, New England did so without six starters.
Out was wideout Julian Edelman, tight end Rob Gronkowski, offensive linemen Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and cornerback Brandon Browner. In was the likes of Brian Tyms, Michael Hoomanwanui, Josh Kline, Marcus Cannon, Jonathan Casillas and Malcolm Butler.
The likes of the defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, second-year linebacker Jamie Collins and six-time Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis were in along with them, though. So was Tom Brady for the first five offensive series.
The 37-year-old quarterback went on to go 8-of-16 passing for 80 yards against a Bills defense with 50 sacks on the season. Another was added in the process, as defensive tackle Stefan Charles powered Kline onto the turf to bring down Brady for a seven-yard loss.
Just as it appeared the Patriots were living dangerously, Brady’s final snap followed suit on the final play before the half. A seven-yard slide in a 17-6 game would be it for him, as rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo buckled his helmet to start and finish the second half.
But Buffalo’s early glimpses would be enough. Rookie receiver Sammy Watkins’ 43-yard catch versus Revis set up a Robert Woods six-yard touchdown catch. And later, running back Anthony Dixon powered in for another touchdown from the doorstep of the goal line.
Those plays set the tone of a game unlike any other one since August. The outcome was a Bills victory, 17-9.
1. Wilfork Hits the Mark: It’s hard to believe Wilfork was on injured reserve with an Achilles injury at this time a year ago. The 6-foot-2, 325-pound defensive lineman showed no signs of wear playing in his 16th game of his 11th Patriots season. Wilfork started the game and remained a regular along the front well into the third quarter, reaching his $1.25 million playing-time incentive. The 33-year-old has been on the field for over 70 percent of snaps this season; a testament to his longevity and value to New England’s point of attack.
2. Tyms Catches Up vs. Buffalo Secondary: A former San Francisco 49er, Miami Dolphin and Cleveland Brown, Tyms made his way onto the field for the Patriots in Week 6 and caught his first NFL touchdown. The 43-yard fly route transpired against Buffalo, and in Week 17, he added to his fortune in the second meeting. Tyms caught his second pass of the season from Brady in the first quarter and finished with four catches for 39 yards. The 25-year-old had two NFL receptions for 12 yards before this season.
3. Collins, Ayers Give Orton Chase: An A-gap blitz sent Collins past Bills running back C.J. Spiller’s pickup and into quarterback Kyle Orton. The 2013 second-round Patriots linebacker, in turn, forced a fumble and recovered it himself, notching his first career sack along the way. Each on has come through the A-gaps. And through the A-gaps would be where his teammate, edge-rusher Akeem Ayers, traveled on a stunt in the third quarter. The byproduct was Ayers’ fourth sack of the season and his first since Nov. 23. Acquired at the deadline from the Tennessee Titans, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Ayers carved purpose in the absence of Jones. And now, he’s looking to carve a more consistent role as a third-down rusher alongside him. Ayers concluded Week 17 by aligning across from rookie sixth-round pick Zach Moore.
4. Garoppolo Gets Up to Speed in Sixth NFL Game: The second-round draft pick by way of Eastern Illinois entered Sunday’s game having gone 9-of-10 for 92 yards and a touchdown on the season. He had not thrown a pass in a game since the Patriots routed the Chicago Bears on Oct. 26, however, and when he did so against the Bills, it was clear the game was a closer one. The Bills generated pressure on a Patriots offensive line that saw left tackle Nate Solder replaced by Cannon as rookie Cameron Fleming kicked over to right tackle. From the inside out, there was little time for Garoppolo to find passing windows. The 23-year-old was sacked three times over his first two series in result. Yet he was resilient, showcasing the mobility elude rushers as he climbed the pocket. From there, he was succinct and accurate in his passes. It was about processing and delivering the passes under duress that showed the learning curve. But that learning curve looked well on its way on Sunday. Garoppolo finished 10-of-17 passing for 90 yards against the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL. He also rushed four times for 16 yards, spinning out of tackles with an eye on the sticks.
5. Bills Snap Streak at Gillette: As Garoppolo and the Patriots’ two-minute drill ended with a turnover on downs, Bills head coach Doug Marrone did something that the five head coaches before him could not do – win a game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots had gone 12-0 against the Bills dating back to the stadium’s opening in 2002. And the last time Buffalo defeated New England in Foxborough was 2000, when Doug Flutie was the winning quarterback.
Much has changed since then. And now, Buffalo’s season comes to a close with a 9-7 winning record for the first time since 2004, while New England’s postseason will begin with a 12-4 record.