Numbers often tell the story. This time, it’s hard to say what they told.
The New England Patriots headed into Sunday’s matchup with the Buffalo Bills with little to gain in the standings. The first-round bye had already been clinched, and so had the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
But Buffalo had something to play for.
The product on the field, in many ways, was a byproduct of that, as the 8-7 Bills outlasted the 12-3 Patriots by a score of 17-9 in Week 17. And as the Bills turned to 9-7 and the Patriots turned to 12-4, it all began to add up.
Here is a look at the numbers that went into the Week 17 finale at Gillette Stadium.
Bills Secure Winning Record for First Time in 10 Seasons: The last time Buffalo finished the regular season with a record above .500 was 2004, when a 9-7 Bills team had Drew Bledsoe at quarterback, Willis McGahee at running back, Eric Moulds at wide receiver and Lawyer Milloy at strong safety. Defeating New England on Sunday set Buffalo back on that side of the ledger 10 seasons later, with Kyle Orton at quarterback, Fred Jackson at running back, Sammy Watkins at wide receiver and Da’Norris Searcy at strong safety. And it was well-earned.
Buffalo Moves to 1-12 at Gillette: The Bills had never defeated the Patriots at Gillette Stadium before Sunday. But Doug Marrone accomplished something that Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron, Perry Fewell and Chan Gailey could not as Buffalo head coach, beating New England at home for the first time since 2000 under Wade Phillips. The Patriots had gone 12-0 against the Bills since Gillette opened in 2002. But that streak ended in Week 17, and so did the team’s 35 straight home wins against conference opponents.
Patriots Go 448 Days Between No-Touchdown Games: The lone points for New England on Sunday came at the leg of kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who accounted for all nine in the final score, as the Patriots went 0-for-4 in the red zone. In the process, the Patriots were held without a touchdown for the first time in 448 days, dating back to Oct. 6, 2013 against the Cincinnati Bengals. That game ended in a 13-6 Bengals victory under the driving rain at Paul Brown Stadium.
Zero Penalties Charged vs. New England’s Secondary: The Patriots’ defensive backfield was not responsible for a single penalty flag in Week 17, while Orton and the Bills went 17-of-23 passing for 176 yards and a touchdown. No Buffalo pass-catcher amassed more than 57 yards receiving on Sunday afternoon in Foxborough, yet nine different ones caught a pass. And that was enough against a Patriots cornerback group that was without starter Brandon Browner and nickelback Kyle Arrington, who was active but played zero snaps coming off a hamstring injury.
Five Passes Thrown to Patriots Tight Ends: New England was also without three-time Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was inactive for the first time this season as part of precautions for the postseason. And in the absence of the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder’s 82 receptions for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, the rest of the Patriots’ tight end group netted five targets. Tim Wright caught one pass for 15 yards over the course of three targets, while Michael Hoomanawanui and Steve Maneri were each targeted once. Maneri, a former offensive tackle for the Patriots in 2010, was re-signed last week.
Tyms Finishes with Seven Career Catches: Brian Tyms entered Week 17 having not hauled in a pass since Week 6 against the Bills, when the former San Francisco 49er and Cleveland Brown caught a 43-yard pass for his first regular-season touchdown in the NFL. The 25-year-old Florida A&M wideout caught four more on Sunday, finishing second to only fellow Patriots wideout Brandon LaFell with 39 yards. Tyms had totaled three career catches over his first 17 regular-season games, but made the most of the opportunity to total more with Julian Edelman inactive for the second straight week.
White Active for Third NFL Game: There were a lot of firsts for the Patriots on Sunday, and for James White, there was a third. The rookie fourth-round halfback had not played since Week 8 against the Chicago Bears, but in Week 17 against the Bills, White was active for the third time this season. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Wisconsin Badgjer did not step on the field until the fourth quarter, yet was able to catch two passes in a row during the team’s two-minute drill to close his rookie regular season.
Former Patriots Running Back Marcus Thigpen Nets 95 Return Yards: Marcus Thigpen was a member of New England’s practice squad in September. And on Dec. 28, he was a member of Buffalo’s return team running against his former team. The halfback-turned-receiver broke off for 95 yards between his five punt and kick returns, with 49 arriving on one kickoff in the second quarter of play. Last December, Thigpen also caught a game-winning touchdown pass against the Patriots as a member of the Miami Dolphins.
New England’s Offensive Line Concedes Four Sacks: Tom Brady played the entire first half for the Patriots under center, behind an offensive line that had Josh Kline at left guard and Marcus Cannon at right tackle. The 37-year-old was sacked once over that span, and when the 23-year-old Jimmy Garoppolo stepped in for him in the second half, another three were compiled. Starting left tackle Nate Solder left the game with a knee injury, was ruled questionable, and did not return. And in turn, fourth-rounder Cameron Fleming headed on as the team’s right tackle while Cannon moved to left. The pass protection has allowed four sacks in each of the last two games.
Casillas’ Nine Tackles Lead Patriots Defense: New England’s linebacking corps did not feature its green dot in Dont’a Hightower on Sunday, calling upon midseason aquisition Jonathan Casillas to fill the vacancy. Casillas, who was a core special-teamer for both the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, did so to the tune of a team-leading nine tackles. The 6-foot-1, 221-pound weak-side linebacker was responsible for a 15-yard penalty and a couple missed tackles, which he was critical of himself for afterwards, but he handled the responsibilities tasked for him.
One A-Gap Sack for Collins: Jamie Collins would leave for the sidelines as the second half of Sunday’s game wore on, calling upon Casillas to take over calls and checks, yet he would leave having got to the quarterback. Collins jumped through the Bills’ A-gap to sack Orton and force a fumble with a second effort. The second-quarter play would be recovered by the 2013 second-round linebacker, but even before then, it would be his fifth career sack. All five have been registered since last January, and all five have been registered through the A-gap blitz.
Wilfork Logs 70-Plus Percent of Snaps: The 33-year-old Vince Wilfork didn’t have to play in the regular-season finale. But he did. And in doing so, the 11th-year Patriots defensive tackle reached his $1.25 million incentive for playing more than 70 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season. Wilfork played 38 snaps versus the Bills, sending him well over the threshold just one year after playing 177, according to Pro Football Focus. An impressive feat for a 6-foot-2, 325-pound vet coming off a torn Achilles.
Patriots Go Six Straight without a Second-Half Touchown: New England’s defense did not allow Buffalo’s offense to get on the board in the second half of Sunday’s game. And as a result, the group has not allowed any team to score a second-half touchdown for six consecutive contests. The last one to be scored against the Patriots was on Nov. 16, when Indianapolis Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo reeled in a TD pass as an eligible receiver.