1. Intentional grounding
The Patriots came into Monday night's game with the 12th ranked rushing attack. Against the Bills, with the wind all but eliminating the passing game, New England dominated on the ground rushing for a season-high 222 yards on 46 carries lifting them to a potentially division-tilting victory over Buffalo.
Through the first half, New England attempted just a single pass attempt, which Mac Jones completed to Jonnu Smith for 12 yards. Their other 23 plays came on the ground to the tune of 149 yards for a 6.5 yards per carry average.
On a day when Buffalo's defense knew what was coming their effectiveness in neutralizing it lacked consistency.
"Once they got the run game going, we knew they were going to be running the ball a lot," said Micah Hyde. "And then from there, it was just getting into negative situations. They've got good backs. They were running downhill, mixing up a little bit on us and whatever was working for them they were going right back to it. So, they were able to, five yards here and there, broke a few for some first downs. In the second half we were able to get off the field and make some stops. It was just unfortunate."
The one that hurt was Damien Harris' 64-yard touchdown run. Buffalo's run front crowded the box, but Harris reached the second level after there was a missed tackle in the hole and there was no one left to stop him as he won a foot race to the end zone.
"The 64-yard one, I believe it was off the toss. That can't happen," said head coach Sean McDermott. "That's a big play whether you throw it or run it. When you run the ball 45 times, you're going to get some yards here or there. But I think if you take that one out, you help the average a little bit, but you can't give up a 64 yarder."
New England's effectiveness in moving the ball on the ground accounted for a better than 2:1 edge in total net yards after two quarters of play, but it only staked them to a four-point advantage on the scoreboard.
But a tight game was largely expected due to the restrictions that the weather was having on the play calling in the game.
Buffalo's defense had its share of stops. Greg Rousseau won a one-on-one against TE Hunter Henry and dropped Brandon Bolden for a one-yard loss on New England's second possession to force a punt. Matt Milano had a third down stop on Rhamondre Stevenson to force a field goal on the fringe of the red zone. And Jerry Hughes and Tremaine Edmunds stopped Bolden on a 3rd-and-11 to get the offense one last crack at winning the game in the fourth quarter.
But New England was effective at shortening the game once they had the lead, particularly when they were going into the wind in the first and third quarters with consistent gains to keep the chains moving.
Worse still, Buffalo's offense was unable to match the Patriots' productivity on the ground, a persistent problem that has cropped up in other games this season. The Bills as a team averaged four yards per carry, but when it came to just their backs, they had 19 carries for 60 yards and a 3.14 average.
"It definitely starts with the line of scrimmage," said Mitch Morse. "Being honest, in the run game you've got to move a guy. You've got to create lanes for the running back and then there's maybe just communication – where to go, what to do. And so, there are little intricacies in each play in the run game, even moving guys. And we didn't do a good enough job of that."
Mac Jones three pass attempts in the game were the fewest by a quarterback in a winning effort since at least 1991.
2. Red zone inefficiencies resurface
Despite some of the team's up and down play over the last seven weeks when they've alternated between wins and losses, it appeared some of their red zone issues had been cleared up. Through their last three games, Buffalo's offense had reached the end zone on 10 of their last 13 red zone possessions coming into their Monday night game with New England.
But in a wind-swept game in Orchard Park, Buffalo scored a single touchdown on four trips inside the Patriots 20-yard line, and it ultimately cost them the game.
"I think it's just the familiar topic of shooting ourselves in the foot at inopportune times," said Morse. "We just seem to tend to do it at the absolute worst time. So, for us, there's no finger pointing. I think if you ask everyone on this team, there's plenty that they could have done to come out with a win, which we didn't do."
Helping to put the offense in position to reach the red zone was Buffalo's special teams unit, which was the only phase of the game that outplayed their opponent getting a takeaway and giving their offense superior field position against a special teams unit that led the league in their own average drive start as well as their opponents since Week 7.
The problem was the offense. Though they successfully reached the red zone, they lost their rhythm and effectiveness when they got there.
"We had opportunities," said McDermott. "However, you want to spin it, we had opportunities to win the game. When you're down in the red area four times and you're 1-for-4 and your average starting field position is basically your 40? That's an issue."
Buffalo was successful on their first trip as Siran Neal recovered a muffed punt by N'Keal Harry at the Patriots 14-yard line. The offense needed just one play as Josh Allen hit Gabriel Davis off play action for a 14-yard touchdown.
That scoring play plus and the point after pulled the Bills to within a point of New England in the first half (8-7).
After that however, it was tough sledding. Buffalo wouldn't reach the red zone again until the latter stages of the third quarter. On a 1st-and-10 from the Patriots' 20, Zack Moss carried for three yards. On 2nd-and-7, Allen's pass appeared to be tipped at the line of scrimmage and couldn't connect with Davis. The ensuing 3rd-and-7 also fell incomplete and the Bills were fortunate to give Tyler Bass a 35-yard attempt with the wind at his back to pull within a point for the second time in the game (11-10) as Bass converted.
Following a Patriots' field goal drive to make it a four-point game (14-10) Buffalo went on their longest drive of the game. Facing a 2nd-and-7 from the Patriots' 20, Allen hit Zack Moss who leaked out to the left flat for a seven-yard gain. Dont'a Hightower was flagged for a horse collar tackle on Moss that set up 1st-and-goal from the six.
- 1st-and-goal – Zack Moss for no gain
- 2nd-and-goal – Josh Allen took a sack for a nine-yard loss
- 3rd-and-goal from the 15-yard line – Allen's pass down the seam to Dawson Knox was released early before Knox gained the necessary separation as the timing was off and the ball fell incomplete.
McDermott then brought on Bass, whose 33-yard attempt into the wind went just right of the right upright.
"We went backwards," said McDermott. "Then you're trying to kick a field goal – we had a first-and-goal at the six-yard line, and we ended up going backwards."
The defense rose to the occasion and forced a three-and-out to get the offense the ball back and they methodically moved into the red zone for their fourth opportunity in a one-score game. But in the end Buffalo's offense wound up further from the end zone.
Allen improvised on a 2nd-and-4 at the New England 19 and scrambled for five yards for a first down.
- 1st-and-10 at the 14 – Devin Singletary gained a yard
- 2nd-and-9 at the 13 – Allen's pass went wide and behind Stefon Diggs
- 3rd-and-9 at the 13 – Dawson Knox was flagged for a false start
- 3rd-and-14 at the 18 – Allen rolled away from pressure and his throw to the end zone to Knox was broken up by some handsy coverage by Adrian Phillips.
- 4th-and-14 at the 18 – Allen's pass to Gabriel Davis fell far short of the intended target and was knocked down by Myles Bryant all but ending the game.
"Just sloppy football," said McDermott. "I mean you name it, pre-snap penalty, just no rhythm. No rhythm down there."
"I don't know if we executed as well as we wanted," said Allen who was 15-30 passing for 145 yards and a touchdown. "Again, you don't get to take plays back. We understand that we've got to play better, and we've got to go out there and execute and it starts with me."
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3. Division streak ends
The Bills squandered their opportunity to seize an inside track to the AFC East title on Monday night with the loss as they dropped their first division game in almost two calendar years. Their last divisional defeat came at the hands of the New York Jets in the season finale in 2019 (13-6), when Buffalo chose to rest starters, unable to improve their Wild Card seeding for the postseason.
In 2020, Buffalo ran the table, sweeping the division with a 6-0 record. They then won their first three division games of the 2021 campaign with victories over Miami (twice) and the Jets.
And while the Bills division winning streak ends at nine games, one short of the team record of 10 set in 1990-91, the loss could prove costly.
New England (9-4) is alone atop the AFC East with the Bills now a game and a half back at 7-5. Their division record (3-1) is just a half game better than the Patriots (3-2).
Perhaps most important is the loss to New England gave Buffalo their fifth conference loss making them an even .500 against AFC opponents this season (5-5). Knowing conference record is the second playoff tiebreaker for non-division teams that are tied on overall record, the Bills need to improve their positioning and have just two conference games left on their schedule.