Analysis

5 big takeaways as Patriots seize control of AFC with win over Bills

The Patriots just won in a fashion only they might be capable of winning in, which begs the question: how can anyone stop them when they're at full strength?

Davon Godchaux Patriots
New England Patriots nose tackle Davon Godchaux celebrates after Buffalo Bills kicker Tyler Bass, right, missed a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

The New England Patriots are the best team in the AFC, and the rest of the conference just has to deal with it.

They proved it on Monday Night Football in a way only they could, knocking off the Buffalo Bills 14-10 in prime time to push their winning streak to seven games and their record to a conference-leading 9-4.

Offensively, New England beat the Bills on the road with a game plan Amos Alonzo Stagg would’ve been proud of, repeatedly throwing themselves against the Bills’ defensive front to the tune of 222 yards rushing on 46 carries.

Mac Jones completed two passes for 19 yards. In the year of our Lord 2021. And the Patriots won.

Advertisement:

On the other side of the ball, the defense lived up to its reputation as the best unit in the league once again with the game on the line, turning the Bills’ final two drives away without points in the red zone.

What more can you say about a team that can win a game like this? Let’s find out.

The Patriots’ conservative approach pays off.

This feels like the kind of thing you might only be able to pull off if you’re Navy, Army or a high-school team that had Derrick Henry on it: win a football game by doing nothing but run the football.

Seriously, though: at one point, the Patriots called 32 consecutive running plays before allowing Jones to throw the football with 6:51 left in the fourth quarter—his first and only pass attempt since his second-quarter throw to Jonnu Smith. Jones threw again on his next play from scrimmage, and that was it.

It wasn’t just an “into the wind” thing: this was the game plan all along. The Patriots simply weren’t going to take chances with Jones in his setting, and they were going to play ball-control with the Bills all night if they were allowed to.

Advertisement:

Damien Harris’s 64-yard touchdown run in the first quarter—going into the wind, mind you — was more than just a big scoring play. It was proof New England could actually get away with this and win.

Harris couldn’t finish the game, but Rhamondre Stevenson, as he has since reemerging from the doghouse, simply dazzled while taking over for the third-year back. The rookie runner’s elusiveness and power created yards when there were none, and his key first downs on the Patriots’ 14-play field goal drive ground significant time off the clock and ensured the Bills had to score a touchdown to steal the game.

If the Patriots can do this when everyone knows they’re going to run, who’s supposed to stop them from dominating on the ground once they allow Jones to pass again?

The defense wins the game—again.

After watching the Patriots refuse to let Jones put the ball in the air, watching Allen somehow cut footballs through the whipping winds for seemingly impossible throws felt troubling. Twice in the final quarter, Allen and the Bills’ offense moved the ball with disconcerting ease into the red zone. If they scored, it felt like the game would be over.

Advertisement:

For what seems like the 30th time this season, the Patriots’ defense simply wouldn’t let that happen.

Facing a crucial third down on the Bills’ penultimate drive, Matthew Judon, the defense’s best player, made one of the game’s biggest plays. He first threw a blocker into Josh Allen, causing him to fall down, then sacked the dynamic passer on third down to force a 33-yard field goal attempt into the wind. Tyler Bass missed the kick, preserving the 14-10 lead.

Then, after the Bills marched down to the 10-yard line with the game approaching two minutes to play on the next and final drive, the defense stiffened again.

An aggressive pass-rush first prevented Allen from converting a sure first down to Stefon Diggs, forcing him to break the pocket and put up a contested throw to tight end Dawson Knox. For the second time in the game, Adrian Phillips jarred the football from Knox on such an extended play.

Then, after basically not sending pressure at all, the Belichicks dialed up a ferocious kitchen-sink blitz on fourth-and-14 with the game on the line. Allen’s wayward throw was batted down by Myles Bryant to all but seal the game.

It’s not just about the stats, especially not in conditions like this. It’s about making plays when they matter most. The Patriots’ defense simply finds ways to do that week in and week out.

N’Keal Harry has found himself in his new role.

He might not be doing much in any other phase of the Patriots’ operation, but the former first-round pick sure can block.

Advertisement:

Harry once again played an extensive amount on Monday night as essentially an extra tight end on the outside, leading the way for a bevy of runs both inside and outside the tackle box.

His penchant for laying the lumber on “crack” blocks came up big again on Harris’s touchdown run. Harry came inside as a tight receiver and blocked defensive end A.J. Epenesa out of the play (just like he did to Myles Garrett a few weeks ago), allowing Harris a lane to cut back and race to pay dirt.

As long as the third-year receiver blocks like that, it doesn’t matter if he makes another reception in a Patriots uniform. He’ll have already proved more than useful to this team and its playoff aspirations.

Harry might not be the only one glad the Patriots didn’t trade him when his agent requested it this past summer.

Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux finally get their chance to shine.

The big men on the offensive side of the football weren’t the only ones who got to be the center of attention for the Patriots.

Players like Godchaux and Guy rarely get praise much praise for their best skill — stopping the run — because of all the emphasis placed on getting after quarterbacks in the passing game. But with the Bills turning heavily to their running game due to unfavorable conditions for throwing, the two interior space-eaters cleaned up on Monday.

Godchaux led the Patriots with 10 tackles, which surpassed his previous season-high of seven from Week 12 against Tennessee. He and Guy made themselves known all night, throwing blockers off of them to make stops and routinely blowing running plays up at the point of attack.

Guy, meanwhile, finished with four tackles and recovered Matt Breida’s fumble as well.

Advertisement:

Their mutual dominance was a big part of a run defense that, when you take away Josh Allen’s 21-yard scramble, mustered just 78 rushing yards on 24 carries (3.07 yards/carry). As much as the Patriots have thrived with their pass rush, Monday was a day they’re glad they have elite run-stoppers, too.

Kyle Van Noy keeps making big plays by doing all the little things.

Another day, another quietly dominant performance from Kyle Van Noy.

First, he essentially killed a Bills drive on his own by containing Allen in the pocket, forcing him into the arms of Judon for a minimal gain on a scramble, and then later drawing a holding penalty that wiped away a big pass completion by Allen and all but forced a punt.

Then, the veteran Patriots linebacker batted down another ball at the line of scrimmage before the half to halt a Buffalo drive. That’s his 10th pass defended on the season.

He also added a quarterback hit for good measure because…why not?

If Judon was the best free-agent signing of the Patriots’ offseason (and probably in the entire NFL, while we’re playing), Van Noy should get serious consideration as the second-best. His savvy and ability to give New England’s defense seemingly whatever it needs at any time is simply what a championship team needs.

Oh yeah, and that Judon guy: his 12.5 sacks now tie Chandler Jones for the most by any Patriots player during the Bill Belichick era.

Quick hits

  • What was the Patriots’ coaching staff thinking putting Harry back to field that muffed punt in the first place? Harry has never returned a punt for New England in his career and might not have even fielded one outside of practice. When starting punt returner Gunner Olzsewski has been out in the past, Jakobi Meyers or J.J. Taylor had taken his place. Taylor was out Monday night (Reserve/COVID-list) but Meyers, a sure-handed receiver, was available, though he too has struggled with catching punts in the air. At least he would’ve had the sense to stay away, though. That play is on the coaching staff for putting Harry in that position–arguably their only blunder of the night.
  • Loss aside, watching Allen throw the football through the wind was majestic stuff at times. His ridiculous back-shoulder completion to Stefon Diggs for 26 yards shouldn’t have been possible in Monday night’s conditions. He also had a somehow perfectly thrown deep ball that Diggs simply couldn’t track and come down with in the end zone. It’s probably a miracle Diggs even got his arms on it given how much the football was likely moving, but it’s an even bigger miracle the ball ended up there in the first place. Say what you want about him, but Allen’s talent is unreal.
  • Watching the Bills absorb this loss in the media after the game has been almost painful. Head coach Sean McDermott tried to deflect from the idea that he and Buffalo’s staff were outcoached by Bill Belichick, saying, “Let’s not give more credit than we need to give Bill Belichick in this one.” Meanwhile, it feels for all the world as if that’s exactly what happened. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde took exception to a reporter suggesting it was “embarrassing” to lose to a team that only threw the ball three times. You think they’re a bit upset about their reign atop the AFC East being cut unceremoniously short? Just imagine how bad this could get if the Patriots beat Buffalo in Week 16.
  • Matthew Judon has jokes, and we’re here for it.

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com