Starting fast. Taking care of the football. Playing a complementary game.
For the New England Patriots, that was the winning recipe in their 29-25 upset over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Even though they had entered the contest as 7.5-point home underdogs and off a three-game losing streak, improved execution in those critical areas put them on a path to victory against their division rivals.
It all started right off the bat. Receiving the game’s opening kickoff, quarterback Mac Jones and the team’s offense marched right down the field.
The nine-play, 63-yard drive did not end with a touchdown — meaning that the Patriots are still without an open-possession TD this year — but it was nonetheless one of the best of the team’s season so far. It put New England up 3-0, and in a positive starting position.
And when safety Jabrill Peppers intercepted Bills QB Josh Allen on the very next play from scrimmage to set up a touchdown drive, the fast start was officially on. Up 10-0 and on the plus side in the turnover department, the Patriots were able to play the game on their terms for once.
“A couple of explosive plays, just staying ahead of the sticks, no negative plays and ultimately got down there and kicked a field goal,” said tight end Mike Gesicki. “Came back, first play Pep got an interception, got us back on the field, scored a touchdown, turned a turnover into points for us. It was awesome. It was great. It was what we’ve been talking about doing, and finally went out there and did it.”
The Patriots had been plagued by slow starts and ball security issues all year. In all five of their losses, they went down multiple scores early and failed to climb their way out of those holes.
On occasion, they stayed competitive. Other times, they did not. The underlying issue remained the same: the Patriots gave up early scores, in large parts because of takeaways — following a recipe the Bills used on Sunday to fall behind 10-0 not even 10 minutes into the game.
“It’s always good to start fast. You have to have a good start in this league,” said Jabrill Peppers, whose interception set up a seven-play, 45-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter. “I try to be a spark plug in any way possible.”
Getting off to an early start was just part of the script for the Patriots. They also were able to get contributions from all three phases of the game: while the offense moved the ball well and the defense was able to stifle one of the league’s most explosive teams, special teams also played its part.
Whether it was Bryce Baringer pinning the Bills deep on both his punts, Chad Ryland making all three of his field goals and both his extra points in difficult conditions, or the coverage and return units managing field position, the Patriots’ kicking game operation also played its part.
“A good team victory,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “You know, we had a lot of contributions from all three units; offense, defense, special teams. There was a lot of good football. ... Went in there and played with a good competitive level, better fundamentals and better execution. That’s a good place to start.”
The Patriots did, of course, not play a perfect game. Kendrick Bourne lost a fumble in the fourth quarter; the defense gave up a long touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs; eight penalties cost the team 59 yards plus a 22-yard pass play.
All in all, however, the team’s tendency to shoot itself in the foot at inopportune times — especially on offense — was largely a thing of the past versus Buffalo.
“We knew by looking at past weeks that we feel like we beat ourselves, making pre-snap penalties and not taking care of the ball,” said tight end Pharaoh Brown. “We know we have all the pieces, so it just comes down to the execution. The hard thing in this league is being consistent and executing, but if we just continue to execute and play our game, I think we can do a lot of things.”