The New England Patriots’ plan against the Buffalo Bills on Monday night was a simple one: run the football to control the clock and limit Buffalo’s possessions, and play good defense and special teams to avoid the game turning into a shootout.
It was perfect to beat a talented opponent in challenging conditions, and while it may not have earned the Patriots any style points it earned them a win. The team traveled back to New England with a 14-10 victory in its pocket.
Running the football was a key component of the Patriots’ plan, and one that garnered a lot of attention due to the team’s historically lopsided run-to-pass ratio of 46-to-3. However, the unique offensive approach — at least as far as the NFL of the 21st century is concerned — would not have worked with the other two phases doing their part as well.
Head coach Bill Belichick said so himself on Monday.
“If the situation had been different, we’d have to look at what that was,” he said. “The way the game played out, playing from ahead, and with the conditions being what they were, and the game unfolding the way it did, I thought we played a pretty good, complementary game. All three units made plays that significantly impacted the game.”
The kicking game delivered only partially, though. While Nick Folk made both of his field goals despite wind gusts of up to 55 mph, the usually consistent unit looked sloppy at times. N’Keal Harry muffed a punt for a turnover. Jake Bailey had a 15-yard punt at one point.
The defense, on the other hand, played consistently solid football against one of the most potent offenses in the league.
When all was said and done, the Patriots had held the Bills to just 10 points and an average gain of only 4.0 yards per play. They also stopped them on three of four red zone trips — the lone exception coming after the muffed punt — and were able to get off the field on 10 of 14 third- or fourth-down plays.
New England was able to accomplish all that despite the field position battle working against the unit: the Patriots started their average drive on their own 23-yard line, whereas the Bills, on average, began at their own 40.
However, the three drives starting on the plus-side of the Buffalo 40-yard line went as follows for the defense: punt, fumble recovery, touchdown. Holding the Bills to seven points on drives starting at the BUF 48, NE 40 and NE 14, respectively, was a major win for the defense — one that enabled the Patriots to stick to their clock-control approach on the offensive side of the ball.
“We have to be ready for whatever,” said linebacker Matthew Judon immediately following the game. “If that’s us running the ball for the rest of the season, or if that’s just punting on first down and letting our defense play, we have to be ready for whatever. When our number’s called and when the defense has to be up, we’re all up and our leaders make sure we do the right thing.”
Doing the right thing consisted of one key area against the Bills: stopping the run one week after giving up 270 rushing yards to the Tennessee Titans.
Buffalo did manage to move the ball on the ground, but the most damage was done on Josh Allen scrambles rather than designed runs. The team’s three running backs — Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Matt Breida — were limited to a mere 60 yards on 19 carries.
“It wasn’t that many explosive runs,” said Judon. “The interior played their butts off. DG, LG, Daniel [Ekuale], [Christian] Barmore, Carl [Davis]. All those guys played their butts off, they played square, and our linebackers were coming downhill.”
DG and LG in particular had a big day. While LG — Lawrence Guy — recovered the fumble mentioned above, DG — Davon Godchaux — led the defense with 10 tackles. He held stood his ground against double-teams, was dominant in 1-on-1 situations, and proved to be the anchor for the entire New England front seven:
Davon Godchaux has really come on past few weeks at the heart of the Patriots’ nickel packages— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 7, 2021
Lines up in a shade over the center in 4-down fronts and head-up in 5-down fronts
Holding his ground well vs double-teams, dominating 1v1, and mixing in a pressure or two a week pic.twitter.com/tzvIu3IJO1
Effectively stopping the run played even further into the Patriots’ hands, because is a) limited Buffalo’s time of possession and b) forced the team to take to the air. Despite Josh Allen being one of the best quarterbacks in football, New England seemingly liked its chances on a windy night.
Being an MVP frontrunner, Allen still made the plays to put his team in a position to possibly win late in the game. However, the Patriots defense — despite missing starting safeties Kyle Dugger and, at that point, Adrian Phillips — rose to the occasion on a final fourth-down stop to seal the game. The fact that they were even in that position, and not already down, was a testament to New England’s defense.
Led by standout cornerback J.C. Jackson, the coverage performed well when combined with a pass rush that pressured Allen on one third of his dropbacks. The unit threw the Bills off their usual rhythm for most of the night, adding to the unpleasant conditions created by the weather.
At the end of the day, it turned into a perfect storm: New England playing stout defense enabled the team to execute a unique offensive game plan, which in turn helped the Patriots force the Bills into more throwing situations. When all was said and done, the plan had worked.