While only 24 points were eventually put up on the scoreboard against the Buffalo Bills, the New England Patriots’ offense still played one of its best games of the season in Week 16. The attack was well-balanced, the team rushed for 145 yards on 33 carries and also moved the football well through the air, and eventually had almost 39 minutes of possession when all was said and done. Overall, it was an encouraging performance by the unit.
One aspect playing into all of this and allowing the Patriots to control the clock was their ability to keep drives alive. This had been a problem for the club entering the game against the number two scoring defense in football: through its first 14 games of the season, New England’s offense converted only 37.7% of its third down attempts into a new set of downs — a number that went down to only 34.2% after the Patriots’ bye in Week 10.
Against Buffalo, however, Tom Brady and company were able to find success on half of their 14 third down plays. This helped especially on the team’s three drives — two in the first half, one in the second — that took more than six minutes off the clock and eventually ended with a touchdown and two field goals: New England converted five of eight third down attempts on the series and also was successful on a fourth-and-one run by Sony Michel.
“They’re one of the top defenses in the league, and I think they might be the best defense in the league on a long field — or, they’re first or second, whatever it is,” head coach Bill Belichick said during his postgame press conference about the Patriots’ ability to string positive plays together. “I think it’s a real credit to the offensive staff, the game plan that Josh and the coaches put together, and just the players’ execution.”
“Whether it was making plays on first down, second down and some third-down conversions in there — a lot of our third-down conversions were shorter yardage, which is more success on first and second down, which that’s a good thing. So, that makes the third-down situation better, certainly for Tom. He’s got more options then when it’s third-and-3 than when it’s third-and-13,” Belichick continued. “All that went into it.”
New England’s offense was not alone in finding success on third down: the team’s defense also was stout in this area and surrendered only two conversions against the Bills on 11 attempts for a rate of just 18.0%. Despite all the success the Patriots and their top-ranked scoring defense have had so far this season, this third down number is actually even lower than the team’s season average of 23.3% — a recipe for winning football.
The team’s defensive third down success proved to be vital in the second half, both in terms of momentum and putting Buffalo in difficult situations: on the first drive of the third quarter and after the Bills had just scored a game-tying touchdown to close out the first half, New England’s defense was able to get off the field on the first chance it got: fueled by a 12-yard sack from Lawrence Guy on first-and-10, the unit held on third-and-12.
It also delivered positive plays on third down twice on the final drive of the game. The first — a two-yard run by Devin Singletary — set up the Patriots defense with a potentially game-deciding fourth-and-one, the second came after the conversion and forced Buffalo into making a fourth-and-15 to keep their hopes at winning alive: on third down, Dont’a Hightower and Adam Butler were able to sack Josh Allen for a loss of six yards.
Overall, the Patriots have a lot to feel good about when it comes to their performance on third down on both sides of the ball. With the playoffs and a first-round-bye-clinching game against the Miami Dolphins on the horizon, this is an encouraging development that should not go unnoticed.