In 2018, the New England Patriots headed into their Week 16 meeting with the Buffalo Bills very much in search of an offensive identity after losing three of their last six games. Eventually, they did find it and were able to carry themselves not just to a victory against the division rivals and AFC East title but the Super Bowl. How? By going back to the drawing board and finding out what the most consistently successful part of the offense was.
“One of the things that I’m so thoroughly impressed with Bill on is his ability to adapt and evolve,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels about the late-season turnaround. “If you keep holding to what you’d rather be — no-huddle, spread formations, 34 points a game — then you’re probably end up regretting a lot of things at the end of the year. What are we really good at? What’s the most consistent part of our team offensively? And then you commit to it.”
The Patriots answered those questions by shifting into a ground-and-pound mentality against Buffalo and later heading into the playoffs. The plan worked well and in combination with some solid defensive play helped New England win its sixth Lombardi Trophy, behind an offense averaged 162 rushing yards per contest while playing a tempo-controlling game. Looking forward to this season, it appears as if a similar development is at least theoretically possible.
After all, the Patriots entered their Week 16 showdown versus the Bills under similar circumstances: they were again very much in search of an offensive identity after losing three of their last six games, and trying to kickstart and offense that had been inconsistent for most of its last few games. Against Buffalo’s second-ranked scoring defense, however, New England flipped the script a bit and produced some good-looking drives while leading the club to a 24-17 win.
“We knew we were going up against a pretty good defense and they played well; they’re hard to move the ball on,” said quarterback Tom Brady after the game. “I don’t think too many of us thought about the season or much. It was really just one game, and what we needed to do to try to move the ball and score points against a pretty good team. I think all of those evaluations and stuff take place after the year... we’re just trying to grind our way through it.”
While they were far from perfect — New England had a turnover on its first possession when Rex Burkhead lost a fumble, and later gave the football away again on an unsuccessful fourth-and-one rushing attempt — the Patriots certainly ground their way through the Bills’ talented defense. The team rushed for 145 yards and controlled the clock throughout the game, eventually finishing with almost 39 minutes worth of possession.
According to Brady, however, sustaining drives and holding onto the football for prolonged periods of time were not the only keys behind the Patriots’ best offensive performance since at least the bye week: the team also was able to get its skill-position players better involved and as such was much more balanced in its attack — McDaniels ended up calling 33 rushing plays compared to 33 passes.
“In a good offense, everyone has to be able to produce,” Brady said about New England’s offensive approach. “And if you can get both tight ends involved, and all the receivers involved and all the backs involved, it’s hard to defend. So, we just did a good job of that today. You’ve got to make them defend everybody, and a lot of guys came up big. It was a big game for us. We needed it, and happy to come from behind in the fourth and win.”
“I think it was more balanced than we’ve been, and we ran the ball good and effectively against a really good defense,” the future Hall of Famer added. “So, that’s always good. I think one game doesn’t always necessarily lead to the next, so I think you just have to keep building week-to-week on some things that maybe we did good that worked out, and the things that didn’t, you kind of move on from them.”
Brady, who finished the game with his best passing performance since the early parts of the season and completed 78.8% of his pass attempts for 271 yards and a touchdown, was not the only member of the team to feel good about its offensive performance after the 24-17 victory against Buffalo — once that also clinched the AFC East for the Patriots and created some much-needed momentum for a unit looking to find some for the last few weeks.
“It felt good. I think obviously we were able to run the ball pretty good and that sets up other things. Everyone played a great game,” said tight end Matt LaCosse, who caught Brady’s lone passing touchdown of the day. “We played extremely well [on Saturday] but there are still a lot of things we can do to get better. There are a lot of little things we can do to get better. We have a week to practice and get ready for Miami.”
“I think early on we were trying to find what we were supposed to do,” added starting center Ted Karras who led a unit that blocked well in the running game and did not surrender a sack for the first time since Week 7. “We had some shake-ups and I think everyone is kind of settling in and obviously this a good time to do it. We are going to need our best, and I am just trying to focus and do my best to help the team. I guess we will see what gets dialed up from here on out.”
Based on last year and the recent performances by the Patriots offense as a whole, seeing a similar development is certainly within the realm of possibilities: the team’s three-headed rushing attack of Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White performed well against Buffalo which in turn allowed the passing game to settle in as well with some misdirection concepts feeding off the consistently successful ground game.
This approach is basically the same that powered New England’s championship run last year, and the Patriots showed on Saturday that they are capable of playing this game in 2019 as well — even without key players such as Rob Gronkowski, David Andrews and James Develin in the lineup. The team therefore can feel good about where it stands at this point of the season, as it is building some considerable momentum heading towards the playoffs.
And as the 2018 Patriots showed, sometimes that is all it takes to get going.