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Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and storylines from the Patriots’ most recent game . . .
It turns out the Bills weren’t broken by the Patriots’ 14-10 victory in Buffalo three weeks ago. From top to bottom, they were emboldened, and it showed up Sunday against a sloppy Patriots team that seemed to be playing uphill all day.
It wasn’t just the Bills’ best players that outplayed the Patriots’ best players Sunday in Buffalo’s 33-21 victory that changed the shape of the AFC East playoff race. At least one ascendant from the bottom of the depth chart did too.
Josh Allen threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 64 yards, reserve receiver Isaiah McKenzie torched the Patriots pass defense for 11 catches and 125 yards, and the Bills gained a measure of redemption and the top spot (after tiebreakers) in the division.
The Patriots played from behind from the Bills’ first possession. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones struggled again, finishing 14 of 32 for 145 yards and a pair of interceptions. Yet the Patriots, just as they did a week ago in the loss to the Colts, still had a chance late. But, in the recurring theme of the day, they couldn’t make a big play when they needed one, especially on defense.
Down, 26-21, midway through the fourth quarter, Allen air-mailed receiver Stefon Diggs, hitting Patriots Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson in the hands. But Jackson, who may have walked into the end zone with a pick-6 had his hands cooperated, couldn’t hold on. The Bills ended up marching for the clinching touchdown on the drive, while Jackson continues to remind us of Asante Samuel, in the good ways and the bad.
Some further thoughts, upon immediate review . . .
Damien Harris: It’s rather easy to identify the Patriots’ best player Sunday. After missing the Indianapolis game last week with a hamstring injury, Harris returned and ran for all three Patriot touchdowns — giving him 12 rushing TDs on the season — while gaining 103 yards on 18 carries, his fifth 100-yard game of the season. Harris carried six times for 48 yards on the Patriots’ first scoring drive, punctuating it with a 13-yard TD run to tie the score at 7. He started the Patriots’ second touchdown drive with a 31-yard run in the third quarter, and finished it with a 1-yard burst to make it 20-14, Bills. His third touchdown, a nifty 8-yard run midway through the fourth quarter, cut the Bills’ lead to 26-21. The performance belongs on the short list of the best of his career. He’s probably the only Patriot who can say that about Sunday.
Isaiah McKenzie: The fifth-year receiver came into the game with 7 catches for 38 yards all season. He ended it with the Patriots’ defense very tired of hearing his name. Seizing the opportunity given to him when teammates Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis ended up in COVID protocol and missed the game, McKenzie tormented the Patriots all day in hauling in 11 catches. He started early, converting a third and 7 on the Bills’ first possession and catching a touchdown pass on fourth and 2 to put the Bills up 7-0. He was even better in the second half, catching seven of his passes, including a 28-yarder on the first play of the fourth quarter. He also made a huge third-and-10 catch in the fourth quarter, picking up 17 yards to keep what would be the Bills’ game-icing scoring drive alive.
Devin Singletary: The Bills’ running back’s stats weren’t exceptional — he ran 12 times for 39 yards, and gained another 39 yards on five catches — but he helped set the tone with his physical play. He dragged Kyle Dugger for a first down early in the first quarter, then in the fourth quarter trucked Ja’Whaun Bentley on a 2-yard touchdown run.
One? I’m supposed to pick just one? We could have made this whole column out of grievances. How do you pick just one? There’s Christian Barmore’s encroachment penalty on fourth and 7 late in the second quarter that gave the Bills a fourth and 2 they converted en route to a touchdown and a 17-7 lead; taunting penalties on David Andrews and Trent Brown, veterans who should know officials are on high alert for that sort of stuff this season; the officials’ ineptitude in picking up a flag after the Bills’ Jerry Hughes hauled down Jones from behind while he was already out of bounds; and N’Keal Harry’s drop midway through the second, which he immediately followed up by making a casual effort to knock down a tipped ball, which ended up being picked off by Micah Hyde. You know what? I’m going with Harry. He’s the least instinctive player the Patriots have had in the Belichick era.
Josh Allen vs. Patriots defense
The Bills’ quarterback isn’t winning the NFL Most Valuable Player award this season, but that sure was an MVP-level performance Sunday. How good was the Bills’ offense? Let’s put it this way: They gave their punter the day off. The Bills scored on six of seven full possessions, and should have scored on the seventh (Emmanuel Sanders dropped a pass in the end zone on fourth and 1). Allen has a rocket arm and more poise than he gets credit for, but what makes him such a tough matchup is his running ability. In the second quarter, he tore off a 25-yard run up the middle after Bentley vacated the area, and one of the more crucial plays late in the game occurred on the Bills’ final touchdown drive, when on fourth and 1 from the Patriots’ 33, he sprinted left and cut inside of Jamie Collins — a pretty decent athlete in his own right — to gain 8 yards and the first down. I’d say remind me to never underestimate him again, but I don’t think I need the reminder.
Predicted score: Patriots 27, Bills 23
Final score: Bills 33, Patriots 21
Hunter Henry and Kendrick Bourne, normally two of the Patriots’ most reliable offensive players, combined for three catches for 42 yards on 10 targets. Neither had a reception until the fourth quarter … Then there’s Jonnu Smith, who didn’t have a touch or a target, but did manage to get called for a holding penalty that negated a 19-yard catch by Brandon Bolden … This rivalry demands a rubber match in January.
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