Beating their division rivals 29-25 allowed the Patriots to snap a four-game losing streak versus Buffalo, a three-game losing streak this season, and to improve to 2-5 on the year. More importantly, it might have given the team some momentum heading into a stretch that — at least on paper — includes some winnable games.
Before getting ahead of ourselves, however, let’s take a look back at Sunday’s game to answer one simple question: How did the Patriots manage to not just compete against one of the best teams in football, but actually complete the upset?
It all started with following a simple recipe — limiting mistakes, starting fast, playing a complementary game — that was well executed by the players on the field. With that said, let’s dive into the film.
Coming off a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad stretch of games, the Patriots offense looked like a different unit against a talented Buffalo defense. Despite the Bills entering the game ranked eighth in the league expected points added per play (-0.089), Mac Jones and company managed to not just move the ball well but also make the critical plays and finish drives.
The result was the unit’s best performance of the season, and arguably one of Jones’ best games of the year. The former first-round draft pick deserves plenty of praise for his performance, finishing the game 25-of-30 with 272 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Jones was efficient, made smart decisions with the football, and was the field general the Patriots hoped he would be. From our perspective, two external factors contributed to him playing the way he did: structure (i.e. play calls and play designs) and personnel.
Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien — as Jones mentioned after the game — was a key catalyst behind the new-found success. He called more pre-snap motion, with Demario Douglas as the move player on multiple occasions; he added more play-action and RPO concepts to the mix; he used the short passing game to get the ball out of Jones’ hands quickly to counter the most productive pass rush in football.
In addition, the Patriots seemed to have found an offensive line combination that works (more on that in a second) while a breakout performance from the aforementioned Douglas added another dimension to the passing attack as a whole. The result of all that was a quarterback who looked much more comfortable under pressure.
Jones went 4-of-4 for 42 yards and a touchdown when pressured, according to Pro Football Focus, and 8-of-9 for 113 yards and a score versus the blitz.
Besides the sack where he dropped his eyes to the rush, thought Mac Jones had one of his best performances of the season under pressure— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 23, 2023
Didn't put the ball in harm's way, made quick decisions, and delivered in big moments with some great throws pic.twitter.com/266iuvPmBv
Jones’ new-found confidence allowed the whole operation to move much more smoothly, and the numbers reflect it. While his average depth of target (4.4) was the lowest of his career, he still averaged a season-best 9.1 yards per pass attempt — all while limiting turnover-worthy plays to just one on the day (and that came on a tipped throw).
On the occasion that he did drive the ball, Jones also found success. He went 5-of-6 for 88 yards on passes of more than 10 air yards, showing accuracy and touch to hit crossers and seam concepts.
Mac Jones was nearly perfect throwing downfield, delivering accurate throws on crossers and seam routes— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 23, 2023
Only incompletion was to an open Pop Douglas before the TD to Gesicki, and his reaction says it all pic.twitter.com/91EJ6NJKkU
Given the quality of opponent and the way it unfolded, the game was perhaps the best of Jones’ career.
That does not mean he was perfect, though. He had some misses wide, including on an attempted screen to Kendrick Bourne and when airmailing a pass in the end zone intended for Douglas.
All in all, though, the former first-round draft pick played a poised and effective game.
The same can also be said for the men up front. After struggling with consistency both in terms of personnel and performance, the Patriots finally seem to have found a starting five to keep working with: LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Sidy Sow and RT Michael Onwenu played a very good game and limited the mistakes that had plagued the unit the last few weeks.
Having Strange at left guard was, unsurprisingly, night and day compared to rookie Atonio Mafi. While Mafi did his best to hang in there, Strange’s superior chemistry with Brown and Andrews alone made a major difference for the O-line as a whole. He was not tested on a lot of stunts and the Bills were without their top two interior defensive linemen, but having the former first-round draft pick back is good news for the group up front.
The right side, meanwhile, played its best football of the year. Not only does Onwenu look like a bona fide right tackle, fourth-round rookie Sow also performed at a high level.
RG Sidy Sow gave up ground early in pass pro, but he consistently re-anchored and shoved rushers away from the QB after initial contact— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 24, 2023
Flashed impressive power in his hands and a mean streak to bury defenders when given the chance. Also showed solid awareness vs line games pic.twitter.com/tsXERT0Xxd
In addition to giving up just one pressure as a pass blocker, Sow also generated a strong push in the ground game, including some great combos with Onwenu and Andrews, and physical reps at the second level. He did take some losses, including two reps where he allowed penetration after losing off the snap, but New England may finally have found its top offensive line grouping.
Other things that stood out on film: Pharaoh Brown’s is a freight train with the ball in his hands; Demario Douglas drew Mac Jones’ ire when he broke toward the sideline on a third down instead of sitting in his zone; Hunter Henry occupied there players on Kendrick Bourne’s touchdown; Rhamondre Stevenson’s quick upfield burst and vision were key to his long catch-and-run on the game-winning drive; David Andrews was not illegally downfield on that play; the timing between Andrews and Trent Brown on snaps is impeccable.
Since the 2020 season, Bills quarterback Josh Allen has had his way with the Patriots defense. In his previous seven matchups with New England, he completed 145 of 220 pass attempts for 1,718 yards with 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions while also has gaining 263 yards on 55 rushing attempts and finding the end zone once.
He still won his battles on Sunday, going 27-of-41 for 265 yards with a pair of touchdowns. However, Allen also was much less dominant this time around — starting with his very first play of the day.
After the Patriots had gone up 3-0 on the game’s opening possession, Allen attempted a deep pass to his right that allowed safety Jabrill Peppers to undercut the throw and pick it off. The offense went on to turn the play into its first touchdown of the afternoon.
“It was a good play by Pep,” said Bill Belichick on Monday. “It was a three-level pattern that they had run on us before, with the first receiver quickly to the flat, the second receiver coming in behind him and the outside receiver clearing out. Pep widened and then recognized the route going behind him and had good whip and was able to gain the depth that he needed to make the play.
“It was a great job by Pep, and like I said, it was a play that they hurt us with last year. He handled it well in practice and it carried over into the game.”
Peppers has now had a hand in three of the Patriots’ five takeaways this season, and continues to be a difference-maker in the post-Devin McCourty secondary. And while his interception was his most notable play against the Bills — one that set the tone for much of the day — it was not the only time he showed up.
The veteran safety also stood out as a run defender.
What Jabrill Peppers' NFL-high 93.0 PFF run defense grade looks like ️ ️ ️ pic.twitter.com/6ZoaAIrt9e— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 24, 2023
The Patriots’ run defense as a whole played some good football versus a solid Buffalo ground game. While James Cook did manage to average 4.3 yards on his 13 carries for a total of 53, neither Josh Allen (7/17 yards/1 TD) nor Latavius Murray (4/8 yards) did much damage on the ground.
New England did benefit from some curious play-calling choices on the Bills’ part — Cook was called upon repeatedly on 2nd-and-5 or shorter — but the team also won its battles up front. It all started with defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, who had arguably his best performance of the season and who also made some plays versus the pass.
Davon Godchaux had an excellent game against the Bills, serving as an immovable object in the middle of the run defense while having his best pass-rush performance I can remember— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 23, 2023
He was relentless, very active with his hands, and showed great feel for PA and blocking schemes pic.twitter.com/u2Aa0kxvam
Godchaux finished the day with five tackles and also added a pair of quarterback hurries. As far as pass rush contributions are concerned, however, he was only one of several players making an impact.
In total, the Patriots registered 26 pressures versus Allen and the Bills. Even with Matthew Judon on injured reserve and both Josh Uche and Keion White out, they managed to consistently move Buffalo’s star QB off his spot and into speeding up his process.
In order to do so, they relied heavily on Cover 0 looks and blitz calls: Allen was blitzed on half of his 46 dropbacks, including the Peppers interception. He also managed to throw both his touchdowns versus extra rushers, but the Patriots won their fair share of battles: he was pressured on 17 of 23 such plays.
As for the players to generate those pressures, two stand out: Deatrich Wise Jr. registered five hurries and a hit, while Christian Barmore notched a 7-yard sack and three extra hurries. Barmore in particular had a fine day once again.
Been a while since the #Patriots had a DT who could dominate on any down, but Christian Barmore is proving to be that dude. He's NE's only IDL with 250+ snaps and has been by far their most disruptive player— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 23, 2023
Overpowered BUF's interior and smoked O'Cyrus Torrence on a couple reps pic.twitter.com/GXR3JcXfJw
The former second-round draft pick has played the best football of his career lately, and his performance against the Bills was more of the same. He was a wrecking ball among many, and helped make Allen as uncomfortable as he has looked against New England the last four years.
While the Patriots’ relentless pass rush paved the way for victory on the defensive side of the ball it alone could not get the job done: the secondary also played a fine game, especially against Allen’s favorite target.
Stefon Diggs did manage to catch six passes for 58 yards and a touchdown, but he did so on 12 targets and overall did not have the same impact he has had in previous games versus New England. Entering the game, the Patriots knew that the Pro Bowl wideout was Allen’s favorite target and had to be treated as such. So, they did.
“There were times where we took him away. There were other times we tried to look like we were taking him away, but we really weren’t, hoping that we could kind of discourage the quarterback from throwing over there,” Bill Belichick explained on Monday.
“We tried to get the coverage somewhere else and tighten it up there. Mix up some man, mix up some zone. and try to make it as difficult as possible for him to get cleanly into the release and into his route. Those guys did a good job on him, but he got a couple on us. He’s a great player.”
The Patriots throwing diverse looks at Allen, daring him to target players other than Diggs, and pressuring him repeatedly pulled him out of his comfort zone. It also contributed to inaccurate throws even on occasions when his favorite target did manage to get open.
There were a few plays yesterday where Stefon Diggs was open for big gains vs NE's zones, but Allen didn't capitalize pic.twitter.com/oX4RPtZhiJ— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 23, 2023
Josh Allen and the Bills offense did not play their best game on Sunday, but make no mistake: the Patriots defense played its part in that by muddying the waters and forcing the group to adapt on the fly. It almost did, which speaks for the quality of Buffalo’s roster, but in the end New England won enough battles.
As was the case on offense, though, the game itself was far from clean on that side of the ball. Tackling in particular was a major issue, with the team combining to miss 12 takedown opportunities.
Whether it was J.C. Jackson and Myles Bryant missing an opportunity to bring down Diggs on his touchdown catch-and-run, Jabrill Peppers whiffing on a tackle attempt on James Cook’s score, or Kyle Dugger allowing Latavius Murray to slip through his grasp to convert a 3rd-and-15, the Patriots were poor in that area of defensive play. Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick will likely hammer home the fundamentals this week, especially with an explosive Miami Dolphins squad on deck.
Other things that stood out on film: Ja’Whaun Bentley’s pass breakup on 4th-and-2 was one of the biggest plays of the game but the Bills also successfully isolated him in coverage on a few occasions; Jalen Mills continues to play all over the formation in the secondary; the Patriots were ready for some desperation shenanigans on the game’s final play, using a special teams coverage lineup with Matthew Slater and Brenden Schooler on the field; Mack Wilson almost got too excited on the Peppers INT, as spotted by colleague Matt St. Jean:
Mack Wilson got so excited about Jabrill Peppers getting this pick that he nearly ran on the field during the play. pic.twitter.com/iaJXgmKvrP— Matt St. Jean (@mattstdream) October 24, 2023
New England’s kicking game operation had some dubious performances this season, but Sunday’s game was far from that. It actually might have been the best special teams outing of the season considering that conditions were less than ideal.
Despite a windy day, both rookie kickers — place kicker Chad Ryland and punter Bryce Baringer — accounted well for themselves. They hit the ball with authority and did not appear to be overwhelmed in the face of some adversity. The same is true for Demario Douglas returning to his role as the team’s punt returner: he looked comfortable fielding the ball on his lone return after having some issues earlier in the year.