Windy conditions plus rookie quarterback plus strong pass defense equals throwback football. That’s the equation the New England Patriots’ coaching staff decided on ahead of its primetime matchup with the Buffalo Bills in Week 13, and it worked.
The Patriots beat the Bills 14-10, thanks in large part due to their commitment to running the football: offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a run on 44 of 47 non-kneel-down plays; New England ended the day with 230 rushing yards on those 44 carries for an average of 5.2 yards per attempt.
It was no secret that the Patriots would rely on their running game to beat the Bills in the two teams’ pivotal AFC East matchup. Not only would it allow New England to move some pressure away from quarterback Mac Jones, Buffalo also showed some weaknesses versus the run two weeks earlier against the Indianapolis Colts. All of that in combination with the weather created a perfect yet utterly predictable storm.
“We knew it was going to be more of a running game and a more aggressive game. And then we went out for pregame, it was all snowy and gusty so we knew what kind of game it was going to be,” said Rhamondre Stevenson after the game.
The rookie gained 78 yards on a team-high 24 carries. He was joined by fellow backs Damien Harris and Brandon Bolden, who added 111 and 28 yards to the equation. Harris also scored a 64-yard touchdown, with Bolden adding a two-point try on the very next snap.
All three of them had productive games on a day that saw Mac Jones drop back to pass just three times.
“Those guys were productive,” said head coach Bill Belichick on Monday. “They ran hard. They ran with good pad level. They got some extra yards after contact. That’s important, too. That’s what a back needs to do. We need to block the play for however many yards we block it for and, hopefully, the player with the ball can add onto that. I thought they did a good job of that. They made some tough yards.
“Buffalo is a good ball-stripping team. They were pulling the ball a lot, as they usually do. Our runners, I thought they did a really good job of taking care of the ball and gaining extra yards, but it was good ball security.”
The Patriots were not perfect on the ground or dominating quite the way the final stat-line made it look like. They did see nine of their runs result in a loss of yardage. They had more effective games running the ball this season.
However, they did not care: they stuck to the plan.
All of that did not come as a surprise for the Bills’ defense. The problem, from their perspective, was that they simply could not do anything against the Patriots’ power running game — at least consistently enough.
“Once they got the run game going, we knew they were going to be running the ball a lot. And then from there, it was just getting into negative situations,” Buffalo safety Micah Hyde said.
“They’ve got good backs. They were running downhill, mixing up a little bit on us and whatever was working for them they were going right back to it. Five yards here and there, broke a few for some first downs. In the second half we were able to get off the field and make some stops. It was just unfortunate.”
Even though they made their stops, the Patriots’ continued willingness to run the ball created opportunities. The Bills were unable to make positive plays consistently enough, and also had to play a game they were not used to playing: New England using big personnel — they used a sixth offensive lineman on 61 percent of their snaps, easily the highest number this season — forced Buffalo away from its standard nickel look.
The Bills faced a tough decision, therefore. Keep nickel cornerback Taron Johnson on the field, or insert an inexperienced backup linebacker to add some size. With nominal LB3, A.J. Klein, on the Covid-19 reserve list, Tyrel Dodson took the field whenever Johnson came out. The Patriots took advantage of his presence, and of Johnson being outmatched against a player like offensive lineman Michael Onwenu or fullback Jakob Johnson.
As a result, New England was able to assert its will in the running game. The Bills won their battles, and at the end of the day held the Patriots to their lowest output since Week 3. However, they still lost the war.
“We understood at some point in the game, ‘Alright, we’re running the football. We need to get some field position. We need to play well on defense, and let them run the football,’” said team captain Devin McCourty after the game. “To me, that’s harder as an offense; when you’re in run formation, they know you’re running it, we know we’re running it, and you still can run the football. ...
“This week our offense morphed into a team that was going to run the football, and it worked. I think we should all be proud of the mental toughness and what we’re able to do as a team. Weather conditions, score, anything that happens in a game, we’ll try to find a way to win.”