The New England Patriots improved to 9-4 on the 2021 season with an unorthodox, yet gritty Week Thirteen victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones would finish the night 2-of-3 for 19 yards. Still, the story on offense was all about the run. The Patriots rushed for 222 yards on 46 carries, paced by Damien Harris and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson. Cornerback Myles Bryant batted away Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen's last-gasp pass attempt near the goal line as the Patriots secured a 14-10 victory over the Bills on Monday at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.
With the victory, the Patriots remain in the top spot in both the AFC East, as well as the AFC overall.
Though the spirits in New England’s locker room are as high as they have been all season, there are still plenty of lessons to be learned from the Pats’ performance on Monday against Buffalo.
Lesson One: Bill Belichick Remains Unfazed by Style Points
As one may infer from his unique sartorial choices throughout the years, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is not overly concerned with aesthetics when it comes to the game of football. Simply put, the ‘HC of the NEP will prepare his players to win the game. While legends and tall tales may start to emerge from the harrowing winds of western New York on December 6, 2021, Belichick and the Patriots were clearly the better-coached team in Week Thirteen…and quite frankly, it was not even close. While Buffalo seemed defiant to play their typical brand of football through the windy conditions at Highmark Stadium, the Patriots used it to their advantage. With the weather conditions poised to make for nightmarish outcomes in both the kicking and passing game, Belichick limited their usage. He did so in spite of the optics. The Pats used six offensive linemen to clear the way for a 222-yard performance from their ground game, using Mac Jones sparingly, to say the least. On defense, the Pats succeeded in taking Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen out of his comfort zone, forcing him to short-yardage passing attempts, with a strong performance from their defensive line. Finally, New England used strong stands when defending the goal, holding the Bills’ one-for-four in the red zone. While Buffalo’s poor performance on Monday clearly aided the Patriots in picking up the victory, it cannot be ignored that New England was simply better prepared than their counterparts; courtesy of the smart, effective strategy deployed by Belichick and his coaching staff. To discount such facts is simply looking at the matter through a bitterly-clouded lens.
Lesson Two: The ‘Game Ball’ Should Be Awarded to the Offensive Line
Amassing 222 yards on the ground is a tall task for any running back corps, in any situation. However, when accounting for the strong winds rifling through Western New York on Monday, the Pats feat looks even more impressive. The weather forced the Patriots to run. The Bills knew the Patriots were forced to run. New England did it anyway, and they did so at will. The primary reason for that was the play of the offensive line. The Pats’ line turned in a dominant performance in the trenches, allowing the team to average 5.2 yards per carry (not accounting for kneel-down yardage-losses) through strong pushes up front. Guard/tackle Michael Onwenu often aligned as the team’s sixth lineman, while fullback Jakob Johnson and receiver N’Keal Harry played a major role in making key blocks on the edge to spring both Damien Harris and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson for big yardage. While the running backs were clearly impressive, the performance of the offensive line may have been New England’s most important ingredient for success on Monday.
Lesson Three: Monday was not a ‘Matter of Lack-of-Trust’ in Mac Jones
Amidst the ‘era of good feelings’ surrounding the Patriots win on Monday night, the ‘hot takers’ were already salivating at the chum left behind a 2-of-3, 19-yard passing performance stat line by rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Whether it be the magnitude of the moment, or the inability of Jones’ arm to cut through the high winds on Monday night, chops are being licked at the thought of a week’s worth of “they don’t trust Mac’ narratives.
While the Pats took a cautious approach with their passing game strategy on Monday, they were not determined to bury it with a shovel, and then bury the shovel. First, the Pats running game was working far too well to justify abandoning it. According to NextGenStats, Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson ran for 86 rushing yards over expected against the Bills on Monday night. In getting superb blocking from their offensive line, the Pats backs ran with both patience and strength, more-often-than-not preventing negative plays.
Second, and perhaps most-importantly, Jones was not utilized more heavily in the passing game for one glaring reason: the Buffalo Bills did not force him and the Patriots to throw the ball. With the running game being deployed so effectively, the Bills’ defense never seemed to make the necessary adjustments to push the Pats into obvious passing situations. Additionally, New England never relinquished the lead on Monday night, and thus were able to stick with a game plan that continued to work in their favor. If the Bills’ had forced the Patriots’ hand a bit more in Week Thirteen, they would have thrown the ball more. Belichick and the Pats’ staff coached to win the game, without signaling an indictment on the abilities of their rookie quarterback to play through adverse conditions. If the Patriots had any reservations about Jones’ ability to handle the wintry elements of December/January football, he would not be quarterbacking a team, which plays in a region known for its inclement weather…plain and simple.
Lesson Four: The Patriots Defense Always Finds a Way
In director Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park” scientist Dr. Ian Malcolm (portrayed by Jeff Goldblum) once said, “Life finds a way.” This is a fairly accurate analogy when being applied to the Patriots defense. The unit once again turned in a stellar performance at all three levels on Monday night against a versatile Bills’ offense. New England’s run defense held the Bills’ running backs to 3.2 yards per rush on 19 carries, for a total of 60 yards. As a result, Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen, who also rushed for 39 yards, had no alternative but to throw the ball into the wind. In daring Buffalo to throw the football, the Pats deployed a bit more man coverage than we have seen in recent weeks. Still, the Pats did not abandon the zone, sometimes forcing Allen to hold the ball in the pocket by doing some pre-snap disguising of their zone schemes. Allen would finish the night going 15-of-30, for 145 yards.
Though the defensive backfield was missing its third piece in the typical three-safety base set (with Kyle Dugger on COVID-19/Reserve), safety Adrian Phillips drew a greater amount of time on Bills’ tight end Dawson Knox, while slot corner Myles Bryant helped to control the intermediate area of the field. All in all, the Pats defense found a way amidst the personnel challenges, harsh weather conditions and solid opponents on Monday night in Orchard Park.