Six observations from the Patriots' 34-3 victory over the Bills on Sunday:
1. Jerod Mayo shows why he's a Pro Bowler. The final Pro Bowl selection results will be announced Tuesday, and the Patriots have some top candidates -- quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Wes Welker on offense, and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo on defense. I also think tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Devin McCourty deserve consideration, even though they are rookies. And you could make a case for offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Matt Light as well, along with others on the roster. But the player I want to focus on is Mayo, who showed Sunday why he deserves to be on that team. Mayo is having a great season. He's leading the NFL in tackles, and although he hasn't had an interception for a touchdown or that highlight moment of the year, I don't see another linebacker in the league who is as consistent as he is. Mayo makes plays all over the field and plays hard every single down, which you saw against the Bills; he pressured the quarterback, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and made multiple plays in pass coverage.
On the fourth-and-12 play in the second quarter, when he broke up the pass to receiver Steve Johnson, the range he showed was impressive. That's the type of range that a lot of linebackers don't have, the ability to cover a lot of ground, not be just an in-the-box guy. It showed how far Mayo has come in coverage with his pattern recognition, looking to the quarterback, getting his read, then looking to the right and finding the in-cut before making a play on the ball. That's a part of linebacker play that takes time to develop, and Mayo has it now. It's hard to break through to make your first Pro Bowl, but Mayo showed Sunday why he deserves it.
2. Rob Gronkowski -- Bavaro-type potential at tight end. Back in April before the draft, I mentioned that Bill Belichick had been searching for the next Mark Bavaro for years. He's always thought very fondly of Bavaro, the former Giants tight end, and Bavaro would come to Patriots practices at times. In Belichick's tenure with the Patriots, he's drafted tight ends high -- Daniel Graham was a first-round pick (21st overall) in 2002, and Benjamin Watson was a first-round pick (32nd overall) in 2004 -- hoping they would make a Bavaro-type difference from the tight end position. It didn't turn out that way, as Graham was a physical blocker but never caught on as a pass-catching threat, while Watson was more of a receiving threat off the line of scrimmage who wasn't the most physical blocker.
Bavaro was an all-around tight end, and that's closer to what you see with Gronkowski, who has delivered crushing blocks across the line of scrimmage and also has caught nine touchdown passes, which is tied for second among all tight ends in the NFL this season.
One other thing Bavaro did with the Giants, in addition to being a top blocker and catching touchdowns, was provide a lot of energy in sparking the team, firing up teammates. Teammates would gravitate toward him, and he would help get the offense going. It seems Gronkowski has a bit of that infectious energy, because he's having fun with what he's doing. He's very intense and emotional. He is one of five brothers, and you can tell he extends his brotherhood to his teammates on offense. Is he the next Mark Bavaro? Only time will tell, but you definitely see similarities.
3. What Bill Belichick means when he talks about complementary football. You often hear Bill Belichick talk about the importance of playing complementary football with the offense, defense and special teams playing in conjunction with one another. A great example of this came in the first quarter. After the Bills scored a field goal on their opening drive, the Patriots got the ball at their own 23 and drove to the Bills' 46, where they were stopped. But when an offense is stopped, it doesn't mean the drive is over and you start from scratch when you get the ball back. With good complementary football -- with special teams and defense -- the offense can get the ball back in the same exact field position from the previous drive, or maybe even better. In this situation, the special teams did the job, with Zoltan Mesko having his punt downed by Sergio Brown at the 13-yard line. The Bills opened their drive with a false-start penalty and were then pushed back to their 8-yard line. After an 8-yard pass, there were two incomplete passes and then a 32-yard Brian Moorman punt. So the Patriots got the ball back at the Buffalo 48-yard line. When you look back, the Patriots "lost" only 2 yards on that exchange because of good complementary football. The result: a short drive that culminated in a 29-yard Danny Woodhead touchdown run.
4. Tom Brady and his interception record. Some fans might have been thinking, "Now that Tom Brady has broken the NFL record for consecutive passes without an interception, let's get it over with and have him throw a pick." The idea would be that you don't want to see that first interception in a playoff game. Brady has been on fire, but he's also had luck on his side, as the Bears and Packers both had multiple chances for interceptions. Will that luck run out in the playoffs? At first, I was thinking along those lines before changing course and remembering the guy we are talking about.
I have been around Brady a lot throughout his career, all the way back to when he was not starting and was the scout-team quarterback. He strives for perfection in everything he does. His mindset is that he shouldn't lose at anything -- cards, golf, you name it. In his mind, he should never throw an interception, so I don't think this streak is a big deal to him. He looks at it as doing what he is supposed to do -- his job.
5. Defense a top unit from turnover perspective. Much has been said this year about how bad the Patriots' defense is. It entered Sunday's game ranked last in the NFL on third down, 28th in total yards allowed per game, tied for 30th in passing yards allowed per game and 32nd in first downs given up. But the argument could be made that it is one of the best defenses in the league because of what it is doing turnoverwise. That's the No. 1 stat on defense, and when I played, that was the stat that you cared about more than anything else. Assistant coach Pepper Johnson would chart all the takeaways, and in our defensive meetings on Mondays, he would stand in front of the room and tell the entire defense how it did in ball disruption. The other stats would be mentioned, too -- passing yards, rushing yards, penalty yardage, red zone efficiency -- but the turnover battle was what was talked about most. The Patriots have a plus-27 turnover differential, easily the best in the NFL. So the Patriots are doing what every defense wants to do, and that's take the ball away.
6. Bills' offseason takes on a different outlook after "reminder game." The Bills came into the game having won four of their past six games and they have played hard throughout the entire season, especially in close losses. There are players on that team I really respect, guys like running back Fred Jackson and linebacker Paul Posluszny, and you see things on film that show how coach Chan Gailey has creatively been able to use his weapons in an efficient way. But this was a "reminder" game by the Patriots, who have now beaten the Bills 15 straight times. In that sense, it was important for the Patriots to win this way, because if they didn't, it could have given the Bills hope going into the offseason and into next year that they were closer to competing with the best team in the division. This message that the Patriots sent goes a long way and now puts that doubt back in the minds of the Bills, who have to ask, "How can we do anything if we can't compete with the New England Patriots?"