Bills' challenge: Stop Patriots' ground game, not just Tom Brady

Dion Lewis rushed for 92 of the Patriots' 191 yards in the first meeting against the Bills. Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- On the surface, the Buffalo Bills' 23-3 loss Dec. 3 to the New England Patriots had the feeling of a down game for the Patriots' normally prolific offense.

Tom Brady threw for only 96 yards in the first half, his second-lowest total of the season. It was one of only two games this season in which Brady was held without a passing touchdown. The Patriots' 23 points were the fourth-fewest they have scored this season.

Yet when Bills coach Sean McDermott was presented Wednesday with the theory that he had figured something out to slow down Brady and the Patriots' second-ranked offense, McDermott dismissed any sense of accomplishment with his team's defeat three weeks ago.

"We lost the game," he said. "It’s about winning and losing. It’s about winning football games, that’s what we’re here to do. We’re not here for moral victories."

The Patriots (11-3) won by 20 points, their third-largest margin of victory this season. They did it by playing a different brand of football -- rushing for 191 yards, their second-most in a game this season -- and had little reason not to be content with the victory.

The onus remains on the Bills (8-6) to find a way to stop New England's offense when the teams meet again Sunday. As McDermott suggested, it would be overrating the teams' Week 13 meeting to say Buffalo discovered any blueprint to doing so.

The Patriots were not having much trouble moving the ball in the first half; they simply gained more yards with the run (130, a season high) than the pass (82, a season low).

If the Bills are to hang their hat on anything from that loss, it would be their red-zone defense in the first half. The Patriots advanced to the Bills' 20-yard line or better on three of their four drives before halftime but emerged with only three field goals. New England's nine points were its fewest in a first half this season.

Two of Buffalo's stops came as the result of sacks by defensive tackles Adolphus Washington and Kyle Williams against Patriots left guard Joe Thuney, a potential weakness the Bills can try to exploit again Sunday. The other came on a third-and-11 in which Brady misfired to an open Brandin Cooks on a play that had Brady barking at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on the sideline. It had more of the feeling of an unforced error and missed opportunity for the Patriots than the direct result of Buffalo's defense.

The Patriots turned back to the running game to advance the ball a total of 163 yards on their only two drives of the third quarter, scoring touchdowns each time. That gave New England a 20-point lead and firm control of the game entering the fourth quarter.

It might not have been the fast-paced, precision-passing attack that buried the Bills when Brady threw for 466 yards in a 2015 victory in Buffalo, but the slower-paced, ground-based offense still got the job done. New England averaged 30 seconds of possession per play, its second-highest rate of the season.

The Patriots can turn back to that formula this Sunday, although they are not expected to have running back Rex Burkhead because of a knee injury. Burkhead ran 12 times for 78 yards in the Patriots' first meeting with Buffalo, scoring two touchdowns. In his place, the Patriots could tap Mike Gillislee -- a healthy scratch the past six games -- to contribute alongside Dion Lewis and James White.

The Bills continue to show vulnerability against the run. Since Week 8, their first game after trading defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, the Bills have allowed 4.64 yards per rush, fifth-worst in the NFL. They have allowed 150 rushing yards per game over that span, worst in the NFL.