If you saw yesterday’s game coming, good for you, because I certainly didn’t. The Bills were 6-1 over the Pats in the post-Tom Brady era coming into Sunday, and nothing New England had done up to this point gave any of us reason to believe they could hang with one of the better teams in the AFC. But hang they did, and while I don’t think I’d go so far as to say the Patriots salvaged their season yesterday — 2-5 is still 2-5 any way you slice it — it was nice to see them actually show up for a change.
1. Anyone who has been reading my stuff over this last decade-plus knows I don’t fancy myself any kind of football expert. At best I’m a normal fan with a slightly above average football IQ (note the “football” distinction there, please. I don’t want to spread any misinformation about my regular IQ, which you could easily mistake for the temperature at Gillette Stadium in November) and an unhealthy obsession with the New England Patriots. I’m wrong way more often than I’m right and I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about.
2. So, it’s a little surprising that something I’ve been screaming for since, oh, I don’t know... October of 2022, maybe... seemed to help get the Patriots one of their most signature wins of the Mac Jones era. They bumped Michael Onwenu out to right tackle. They got Kendrick Bourne the ball early and often. They played relatively mistake-free football. All three phases worked in unison. It was a real, actual football game yesterday and I’m here for it.
3. This was just one of those games where everything kind of worked out, and adds yet another bullet point to the overwhelming argument that pro sports are not played on Excel spreadsheets. As Pats Nation slumped harder than a souffle during the first round of The Great British Bakeoff and all seemed lost, we learned that Bill Belichick signed a multi-year contract extension that will keep him with the team likely through the rest of his career. Mike Vrabel and Dante Scarnecchia both received their red jackets as the newest members of the Patriots Hall of Fame. It was a picture-perfect fall afternoon in Foxborough after two straight months of rainy weekends. And the Patriots rode all that to a big win.
4. I’ll start with the offense, because it was just so nice to see those guys after their year-plus deployment to the Island of Misfit Toys. Mac Jones completed 25 of his 30 passes, and two of those incompletions were smart throws out of bounds when there was nobody open. There wasn’t one single scramble to the right and a wild throw across the field to an opposing DB for a pick-six. There were no hucks into the dirt. Not a single pass into double coverage. Just smart, efficient quarterbacking from a guy who, amazingly, had some time to throw.
5. Which leads me to believe that maybe the combination of Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Sidy Sow, and Michael Onwenu is the way to go from here on out. Brown’s injury is something to monitor, as Vederian Lowe isn’t somebody I want within 100 yards of an NFL quarterback, but Jones had time to throw. And when pressure did get home, there were lanes to step into and guys coming open on cutback and sitdown routes.
6. There were still a few communication breakdowns, and I’d put the odds of Jones getting sacked on third down at an even 50 percent, but working out of 12 personnel with Kendrick Bourne and Demario Douglas as your primary WR targets and two backs who can catch gave me hope that there’s at least a chance the Pats won’t finish dead last in the AFC East.
7. They say that games are won in the weight room. I’m going to get a little more specific and say that games are won on the squat rack and leg press machine, particularly if Mac Jones is the man under the bar. I know that we were spoiled by Tommy B to a level that would make even Rupert Salt wonder if maybe we should pump the brakes a bit, but up until now I didn’t truly appreciate that Brady was almost always able to sneak for a yard on 3rd-and-1. Mac Jones is quite terrible at the sneak, and you can only place some of the blame on the push the line gets. Brady got low and kept his legs moving through small gaps. Jones just seems to try and fall on top of a lineman and gets stuffed. I don’t care if they get Jones an AI-assist versaclimber or force him to pull a sled through the Russian tundra, but get that boy some reps.
8. The Patriots scored their first first quarter touchdown of the season, converted a turnover into points, and they imposed their will at the goal line. Like I’ve always said, September and most of October is just an extension of the preseason.
9. I’m wondering, was Rhamondre Stevenson dropping like six consecutive passes this season on that flare route just one big long con for when they’d need that play to work the most? That play was absolute perfection, with Douglas and Bourne getting a double team on Taron Johnson while Hunter Henry taking out Micah Kyde, leaving Stevenson with a nice lane and the momentum needed to shed a few tackles.
10. Of course, that play just got them down to the 44-yard line and they needed another first down to get Chad Ryland into range for the tie. I know I’m not the only one who though the next four plays were going to be incompletion, run for a loss, sack, incompletion to lose the game. But instead Jones hit Henry up the seam on 3rd-and-8, with pressure coming from the blind side, followed by a quick slant to Stevenson and then the other quick slant to Mike Gesicki for the game-winner.
11. I wish I could say that Gesicki has been such a big factor this season that I can spell his name right on the first try by now. But nope. Not even close. I always type it “Gisecki” and then have to go back and correct myself. But that’s OK; maybe this Fan Notes marks the last time I’ll make that error and Gesicki will be a dominant force going forward.
12. Nine different Patriots caught a pass yesterday. I still wonder what’s going on with Kayshon Boutte that he can’t see the field over Jalen Reagor.
13. There were also plenty of appearances from the Ghost of Patriots Past as we start creeping into the holiday season. I wouldn’t be able to call myself a part of the Boston sports media if I didn’t look for ways to perch myself over the exit of the car wash and drop a few turd missiles on the freshly waxed paint. Kendrick Bourne’s fumble looked to be last week’s DeVante Parker drop, that dumb physical error that cost the team a chance to win. And Vederian Lowe’s illegal man downfield flag checked off the mental-mistake-killing-a-big-gain quota. There were a few mistimed routes and blown coverages, too.
14. Yesterday’s game marked the third time over the last three decades where New England has scored the go-ahead touchdown with less than 15 seconds to play. The last was Tom Brady to Kenbrell Thompkins against the Saints in 2013, and before that it was Drew Bledsoe to Ben Coates in 2000 against those very same Bills.
15. Something else we saw yesterday that we haven’t seen much of all season thus far: pre-snap motion. Stacking alignments and going from 3x1 to 2x2 and vice versa. Lot of jet sweep fakes to freeze the edge and free up the A-gaps. Empty sets that saw Jones’ best throw of the day, in my opinion, a 19-yard strike to Douglas on a skinny post to set up the Kendrick Bourne TD. And none of this is overly revolutionary or some kind of Harry Potter level wizardry; it’s just what an NFL offense does. And it has been so long since I’ve seen it excuse me for gushing a little bit.
16. Which means I haven’t even gotten to the defense yet. That’s something we shall have to remedy, isn’t it.
17. Despite the fact that the Patriots gave up 15 points in about 90 seconds and only forced one punt all day (How is that even possible? Why do the Bills just not punt against this team?), the D did its job. I’ve decided, for my own mental health, to stop counting the number of times someone has had Allen wrapped up in the backfield only for him to scramble and make a play, but the secondary was able to limit the damage on those plays and only gave up two long scoring drives.
18. I like Josh Allen. I really do. And I have a ton of respect for the attitude and energy he brings to the position. But part of being a good-to-great quarterback is knowing when a play is over and maximizing your skillset for as long as possible. I understand that he’s never going to stop leading with his face on scrambles, but on the one sack he took yesterday there were three very large Patriots hanging off him like lions on an elephant and he still tried to stay on his feet, as if to prove some kind of point. Again, respect the toughness, and as a Pats fan it would be in my best interest that he keeps playing like this so his body breaks down in two or three more years, but the NFL is a better place with him in it and I wish he’d just drop down or slide once in a while.
19. New England got creative with their pass rush looks, which allowed them to stall a few Buffalo drives. Be it a Ja’Whaun Bentley delayed blitz, Jalen Mills coming in from the robber spot, or Jabrill Peppers seeing Allen staring down Dawson Knox and abandoning his flat responsibility to undercut the route and make the pick. This was the kind of cerebral, complex defense we’ve come to take for granted over the years.
20. However, when it came to tackling yesterday, the Patriots were clearly training for the 2028 Flag Football Olympics. First down after first down came from whiffs, a failure to wrap up, and missed solo tackles in space. That’s fundamental football that should be well ironed-out as we approach Halloween.
21. Stefon Diggs: six grabs for 58 yards on 12 attempts. Yeah he got the score, but that’s a solid job, mainly courtesy of J.C. Jackson.
22. Even the Special Teams unit got in on the action. Field-flipping punts, solid returns on the sole punt the Bills had, and Chad Ryland making all his kicks. I’m glad I can use the phrase “three phases” today and not be talking about the Grief Cycle.
23. Some of the roughing the passer calls we saw across the league yesterday were so laughable that I’m not even that upset over them. If I’m a defender with a free shot at a QB, particularly a big-name QB like Allen or Mahomes or Jackson, I’d just straight up Bobby Boucher dropkick the guy into Bolivian; you’re going to get flagged regardless, may as well send a message.
24. There are some who think it’s the NBA, but for my money there’s no sport in which the refs play a bigger role in impacting a game than professional football. Bogus DPIs, weak roughing the passers, ticky-tack holding calls, blatantly horrible ball spots, invisible illegal contact flags, and so on, always seem to sway at least one game a week away from a team who probably would have won otherwise. I know that complaining about the refs is pointless and futile, but is there any other sport where literally every single week we can all point to a bad/missed/controversial call that ended up winning or losing a game? With a season this short, every game matters, and to have the refs always be in the conversation represents a massive product failure.
25. I’m not going to sit here and say that the season has been saved or anything like that; you start off as slow as the Patriots did and you are likely in a hole you won’t be able to dig yourself out of. But even if this is a lost season from a playoff perspective, this is the kind of game you build on for next year and show that there are for sure some pieces on this team you can construct a winning roster around.
26. And lastly... what a way for Bill Belichick to become the third coach in NFL history to notch his 300th career regular season win. What a privilege it is to have him coaching this team. Massive congrats to Billy B.
The Miami Dolphins are coming off a convincing loss to the Philadelhpia Eagles, which means they’re either going to rally and blow New England out of the water next week or they’re reeling and the Patriots will break another losing streak against a conference opponent and maybe we can start wondering for real if this squad has life.
Either way, glad to be enjoying a Victory Monday for a change.