1. Josh Allen with a giant performance
In a game where most outside observers felt Josh Allen had to perform like a superhero for the Bills to have a chance to win, the Bills franchise quarterback delivered. In the most important game of the season with control of the AFC East on the line, Allen provided a dominant performance with his sixth 300-yard passing day of the season. He coupled it with three passing touchdowns, the fifth game this season in which he's thrown for three touchdowns or more.
"Man, that guy is unbelievable, and he deserves all the accolades because he's the real deal," said defensive tackle Harrison Phillips. "He's worked so hard. This is his life. We all trust the ball in his hands. Anytime the games on the line, we're down, we're up, whatever it is, in one-seven, we trust."
After Buffalo's defense forced a three-and-out on New England's opening series to start the game, Allen led the team on their first scoring drive to open a game since Thanksgiving, which culminated in a three-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah McKenzie.
Late in the first half he also delivered a laser to Stefon Diggs for a 12-yard scoring play. It helped to stake Buffalo to an important 10-point halftime lead, which forced the Patriots to put the ball in the hands of rookie QB Mac Jones to try to climb back into the game.
Beyond Allen's touchdown passes, he also made good choices in beating blitz pressure by taking the checkdowns to keep the offense on schedule. It helped Buffalo's offense convert 50 percent of their third downs against the fifth-best third down defense in the league.
"I thought his approach during the week gave him a chance to do that and that's where the process comes in," said head coach Sean McDermott of Allen's preparation. "And not just Josh but really the entire football team. When you do things right during the week and you get yourself ready to go, this is a tough place to play against a very good football team, well-coached team, and I thought we played good football."
All told Allen finished with 314 passing yards on 30-47 passing, but it was more than just his decision making through the air that was notable in the victory. He also took advantage of rushing opportunities when the Patriots defense was in man coverage or when blitzes left the middle of the field open for him. When defenders had their backs turned or linebackers blitzed off the edge, Allen would take off for yards on the ground to move the sticks.
His longest coming on a 25-yard run from the New England 38 to set up 1st-and-10 at the Patriots 13 on the team's second scoring drive. Allen finished as the team's leading rusher with 64 yards on 12 carries.
Perhaps the most critical drive was the one that put the game away. Up by five with seven minutes remaining, Allen and the offense orchestrated a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive as Dawson Knox pulled in a two-yard pass for a touchdown with 2:34 remaining.
"We knew we needed points and I think we had a five-point lead at that time," Allen said. "A field goal puts us up by eight, forces them to score a touchdown and a two-point conversion. That was the thought process there. We knew we needed points, but we wanted to put six on the board and give our defense, that kind of bumper and that boost. The team that we just played again that's a great team. I think they played really well (Sunday), and whether or not we see them in the future we don't know, but we had guys step up, make some plays."
Allen chief among them as he surpassed 4,000 passing yards this year to become the only player in team history with multiple 4,000-yard passing seasons.
2. Lil' Dirty comes up big
As impressive as Josh Allen's play was, it was due in large part to the understudy in the slot. The smallest player on the field had the biggest impact on Buffalo's passing game Sunday as Isaiah McKenzie provided a career-best performance in the Bills 33-21 victory with 11 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown.
Head coach Sean McDermott wasn't the least bit surprised by what McKenzie was able to accomplish Sunday.
"I did (expect it) to be honest with you," McDermott said of McKenzie's performance. "I know he was excited for the opportunity, and he gives us great energy and I could just tell them during the week he was focused and ready to go."
Stepping into the starting lineup for Cole Beasley, who landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, McKenzie provided key plays throughout the game to keep Buffalo drives alive. The speedy and shifty McKenzie routinely escaped coverage and Allen found him early and often.
Allen found McKenzie with a short pass to the right side that the diminutive receiver converted for a first down on a 3rd-and-7 in New England territory. Six plays later, Allen hung in the pocket to find McKenzie streaking across the back of the end zone late in the down for a three-yard touchdown reception.
"Just coming into this game with Beasley and Gabe (Davis) out – can't wait to get them next week – but with them being out, I just had to step up," said McKenzie. "And all my coaches believed in me. Josh (Allen) believed in me, threw me the ball, and I made plays. And that's all I wanted to do, to help the team win."
Come the second half, McKenzie's utilization in the passing game would become more frequent. Seeing a matchup advantage on Patriots nickel corner Myles Bryant, Allen found McKenzie time and again on each of Buffalo's three second-half scoring drives.
On the first play of the second half, Allen hit him for a nine-yard pickup. Three plays later, McKenzie picked up 11 yards on a 2nd-and-10 and followed up with an 18-yard hookup with Allen making a difficult over the shoulder catch.
After New England closed to within six following a touchdown drive (20-14), Buffalo was facing a 3rd-and-2 at their own 42-yard line. McKenzie again separated from Bryant and Allen delivered a short pass for a five-yard gain and a first down.
Allen would find him on the next play for a 28-yard gain as he got behind safety Kyle Dugger for his biggest play of the game.
"He's just like a little missile, man," said Dion Dawkins of McKenzie. "Watching him run around and catch the ball and then bounce off the ground, that's probably the funniest part, but he's a stormtrooper, man. I am extremely thankful to have a guy like that as a teammate. The whole locker room is. He just brings positivity, just juice, all of the time. He puts his money where his funny trash talk is. It just shows day in and day out of why he's here and why his piece is crucial."
The back-to-back plays would continue on the team's critical game-ending drive. Up just five with seven minutes remaining, McKenzie converted a big 3rd-and-10 situation with a 17-yard reception. He then followed with a 15-yard pickup on the next play to move the Bills into New England territory. The drive ended with a game clinching touchdown.
"I'm so happy for him," said Allen of McKenzie. "I've got all the faith in the world in him and for him to come out and play this way the day after Christmas means a lot to him. But I think it means a lot to everybody on this team just seeing a guy like that who has his ups and downs throughout the year, loses the returning position, is sat for a couple of games and comes out... I mean, he was unbelievable. I think 11-plus catches 100-plus yards, touchdown on the opening drive. Just an absolute phenomenal day for him and I'm so so happy for him. I can't express that enough."
McKenzie's 11 receptions made him just the second player this season to have 10 catches or more in a game for the Bills, joining Beasley. His production made some outside observers wonder why he had not been utilized more on offense this season, especially after playing a consistent package-type role last season.
"Hindsight is 20/20 and it is what it is," said Allen. "We can't look at what made us go in the past. We have to figure out what makes us go in the future and he was an absolute beast on the field. So again, I'm sure that's going to give him some opportunities going forward and helping this team out. But we're going to need everybody going forward."
3. McDermott goes aggressive on fourth down
Like every other head coach in the NFL, Sean McDermott has been both praised and criticized for his fourth down decisions this season. On Sunday in Foxborough, McDermott put supreme faith in his offense in a handful of his team's fourth down situations.
The aggressive approach proved fruitful as his offense converted three of their four fourth down opportunities to not only keep drives alive but put points on the board.
"We just felt like we had a good plan overall," said McDermott. "I would just say that those aren't always easy decisions, and I thought the offense did a great job of executing."
The first came on a 4th-and-2 at the Patriots three-yard line. Buffalo had just staged a 12-play 58-yard drive to that point and it was clear that McDermott wanted to set an early tone in the game. Even more significant he and his staff wanted a touchdown instead of a field goal.
"Just felt like we wanted to be aggressive right there," he said. "I liked how the offense had moved the ball up to that point in time. So, I think it was a long two or three kind of in that gray area a little bit and wanted to be aggressive."
McDermott was rewarded as Josh Allen hung in the pocket and found Isaiah McKenzie late in the down for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead.
Ahead 10-7 midway through the second quarter, the Bills were in a 4th-and-1 situation at the Patriots one-yard line. McDermott again chose to go for it, but Allen's pass to Emmanuel Sanders was dropped in the end zone.
Fortunately, Buffalo's defense came out after the turnover on downs and forced a three-and-out of their own. After the Bills offense got the ball back they faced a 4th-and-7 at the Patriots 39, which essentially is a bit long for a 57-yard field goal attempt and too close to justify a punt.
Again McDermott chose to go for it. Allen used a different pre-snap cadence to pull New England DT Christian Barmore offsides, to make it a 4th-and-2 at the New England 34. Allen bought time moving away from pressure and found Stefon Diggs underneath in the middle of the field for a 23-yard gain.
The Bills would find the end zone again three plays later.
And late in the game up just five, Buffalo faced a 4th-and-1 at the Patriots 34. Again, McDermott gave the go ahead and Allen took a bootleg to the left for an eight-yard gain and another conversion.
"To have that trust in us means a lot," said Allen of McDermott's decisions to go for it four times in the game. "But again, when you convert those and continue to convert those, what a killer it is for a defense. And that's a really good team we just played. Obviously, they've had a lot of success this year. They're an elite defense. But again, having that trust to go for it on those fourth down situations. That's big for us. It gets us in a groove. It gives us some confidence going forward. And so, I can't thank Coach enough for putting us in that position and believing in us."
The only other fourth downs the Bills had in the game were Tyler Bass field goal attempts, both of which were successful.
Coming into the game, the Patriots defense was allowing fourth down conversions at a rate of 52 percent. On Sunday, Buffalo converted 75 percent of their fourth down opportunities (3-4).
"I just felt like it was the right thing for this game," said McDermott. "We just take them one week at a time, one moment at a time."
Good vibes all around as the Bills improve to 9-6 and take over first place in the AFC East.