The New England Patriots won a massive divisional matchup in Buffalo on Monday night, maintaining the top spot in the AFC, and earning some breathing room over the rest of the conference and division.
Let’s get into my takeaways from their 14-10 victory over the Bills.
1. The weather was wild. Let’s start off with the top story from the game, the weather. The wind was whipping, with gusts of up to 55 mph. It made punting and kicking very difficult, resulting in a terrible 15-yard punt by Jake Bailey and a missed 33-yard field goal by the Bills’ Tyler Bass. The weather made it challenging for both teams to pass the football, and they mostly didn’t try until Buffalo was down late and needed to score.
The Patriots made the most of it, though, demoralizing the Bills defense on the ground and basically refusing to deviate from their plan. Bill Belichick said after the game that the wind in the 2008 regular season finale was worse, and he may not be lying — New England only attempted eight passes in that game while, fun fact, LaMont Jordan had 20 carries — but last night was one of the most unique games in recent memory.
2. The Patriots’ unique game plan pays off. Because of the weather, the Patriots were committed to the ground game all night long. So committed, in fact, that they only attempted three passes on the night — the lowest total in franchise history. The Bills loaded the box, consistently attacking New England, but the team still finished with 222 yards rushing.
There aren’t many teams that are able to consistently run against boxes with nine-plus players in them, but the Patriots did just that. I do think that Mac Jones deserves some credit here as well, by the way: here are not a lot of quarterbacks in the league that will basically step aside and completely allow the offense to run without them. That’s just what he did, though.
The elements, combined with the rushing success, made the game plan what it was, but Jones could have still tried to check out of runs into passes to get more involved. He never did, and that was huge. He also had two key sneaks, one of which went for four yards on 3rd-and-5, which is not something you see everyday.
Meanwhile, the loss has to be a demoralizing one for the Bills. This was a big-boy game. Everyone knew what was coming, and the Bills still could not stop it. The Patriots imposed their will, and, in the end, celebrated an impressive win.
3. The run defense bounces back. Take out Josh Allen’s long run in the fourth quarter, and the Bills had only 78 rushing yards on 24 carries, good for 3.3 per attempt. Davon Godchaux was the dominant player in the run game; he finished with 10 tackles and seemed to be in on almost every play. Godchaux is yet another free agent signing that has played well, and this was definitely his best game.
On a night where it was very difficult to throw, being able to stop the run so effectively was key to shutting down the Bills offense.
4. J.C. Jackson dominates again. The Bills were not able to throw much, sure, but when they did Jackson shut down one of the best receivers in football. The only real pass that Josh Allen was able to hit when targeting Stefon Diggs was an insane back-shoulder snag iin the fourth quarter. Jackson, meanwhile, came oh so close to a pick-six, and was in Diggs’ hip pocket all night long.
We keep saying this, but he’s going to see a massive pay day this offseason. Let’s just hope that it’s from the Patriots.
5. N’Keal Harry was put in a difficult spot. Some people are going to try to throw dirt on N’Keal Harry’s name after his muffed punt. The issue is simple, though: the coaches should have never put him in that situation. Sure, he returned some punts in college, but he has never done it in the NFL, and it was not fair to throw him back there for the first time ever on a night like Monday’s.
The Patriots could very well have had another Chris Harper moment, but they were ultimately able to win the game. Unlike Harper, though, N’Keal has a role on this team, and he did a very good job blocking last night.
Is he a first-round bust? Yes. Should the Patriots have gotten more out of him? Yes. What they do have, however, is a player who plays a real role, and can help them win games. Some people may not be happy that he is so limited, but you still need to get the best out of him in order to try to win some tough games down the stretch.
6. Rhamondre Stevenson shines on a national stage. The Patriots went into this offseason with a stud running back, and seemed to be in the market for a passing back. Instead, they drafted Stevenson, a big, tough back, in the fourth round. That pick has really paid off, as the rookie continues to stand out.
His size is not what is most impressive, it is the fact that he almost never goes down on the first hit. His contact balance is already elite, and he does a great job making himself skinny to avoid tacklers. If Damien Harris, who had a great game himself on Monday, has to miss some time due to his hamstring issues, the Patriots’ running game looks like it will be in good hands regardless.
7. Nick Folk is a weapon. The Patriots’ kicker is simply one of the best in the NFL. He still has not missed a kick under 50 yards this season — in fact, he has made 52 straight, just four shy of the all-time record — and not even the Monday Night Football crew trying to jinx him could make him miss. He only kicked with the wind at his back, but he hit those kicks in very tough conditions.
On a night where Tyler Bass missed a huge field goal try that forced the Bills to score a touchdown to win at the end, having a kicker who is as reliable as Folk is a massive advantage for New England.
8. Matthew Judon plays well, but… Judon had another sack on Monday night, and continues to disrupt plays from his edge linebacker spot. His night, however, was not all good. He had an offsides penalty that turned a third-and-long into a third-and-short, and he had two plays where he did not properly hold his edge and let Josh Allen easily get out to his right.
Those are plays that simply cannot happen, and they have happened a bit in the last few weeks. Judon has been great, of course, but those are little things that can make a big difference in close games such as Monday’s.
9. Josh Allen is really good. Allen only finished 15-for-30 with 145 passing yards, but he made some amazing throws. On a night where the Patriots simply refused to pass the football, the Bills put the game in Allen’s hands and he almost came through, regardless of the weather.
He definitely made some mistakes, but his arm and legs make him a very dangerous player. Beating him on the road is huge for the Patriots, and gives them some breathing room over a talented Bills team in the division.
10. The bye week is next. The Patriots are getting the latest bye in NFL history, and it is coming just in time for them. With a few guys like Damien Harris and Adrian Phillips banged up, having an extra week before heading to Indianapolis could be very helpful.
New England is on a seven-game winning streak, and some might think that taking time off right now could kill some of the momentum that they have right now, but I see it differently. Getting an emotional primetime win could make for a tough turnaround to next week. That’s something the Patriots do not have to worry about, since they won’t be playing next week.
The Patriots better get some rest, because the schedule the rest of the way is very tough. While they are in the top spot in the conference, there’s not a huge gap between them and the teams below them.