Tue, 09 Aug 2022

Game Observations: Patriots run, run, run the AFC

New England Patriots
07 Dec 2021, 19:34 GMT+10

Erik Scalavino

A win is a win, particularly in the wind.

It may not have been pretty, but Bill Belichick's boys will take it. Based on Sunday's NFL results, the Patriots and their convoy of buses rolled into Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. Monday evening clinging tenuously to the No. 1 playoff seed in the American Football Conference. All four AFC division leaders had 8-4 records, but with its 6-1 conference record as the tiebreaker, New England earned the top honors, pending the outcome of the game with Buffalo.

To give themselves some breathing room at the top, the Patriots would have to overcome not only the potent Buffalo Bills, but also the punishing weather conditions, eerily reminiscent of a visit to this stadium 13 years ago. In that 2008 season finale, QB Matt Cassel threw just eight passes that day, connecting on six, as New England relied on its running back committee to churn out 168 total rushing yards en route to a 13-0 shutout win.

This Monday night, rookie QB Mac Jones was even more economical and efficient, completing two of his three throws, while the ground game dominated with 222 yards.

Mac Jones on the day Incompletions vs. BUF Mac Jones in 2021

Defensively, the Patriots had to go without one of their most productive playmakers, as safety Kyle Dugger remains on the reserver/COVID list. But those who did suit up made several huge plays at critical junctures to limit the explosive Bills offense to a mere 10 points.

This latest New England win can be summarized by the fact that the Bills couldn't take enough advantage of their chances in their two quarters with the wind at their backs, nor in the numerous plays they ran in the Patriots' red zone. The Patriots, meantime, made the absolute most of their own opportunities, while overcoming a few of their potentially costly mistakes.

* * *

Running back Damien Harris' 64-yard touchdown run a textbook blocking exercise by New England's offensive line. Because the Patriots were operating into the wind, Buffalo's defense knew the Patriots weren't planning on passing the ball, so, they loaded up the box with 10 men. Safety Micah Hyde was the lone Bill in the secondary, but at the snap, he rushed to the line and over-pursued as Harris, heading to his left, cut back to the inside. His blockers set up a perfect wall that opened up a lane, through which Harris exploded.

Harris would later leave with a hamstring issue late in the second quarter. Although he came back for a play in the late 3rd quarter (a 22-yard gain), it was apparent that Harris couldn't run properly and was taken out for the remainder. Harris is fortunate that the Patriots will enjoy their bye week now, so, he'll have a few extra days to mend before the trip to Indianapolis thereafter.

* * *

Jones threw his first pass with about a minute to play in the first quarter. Easy to see why offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels played it conservatively with Jones heading in the right-to-left direction because Jones' pass to a wide-open TE Jonnu Smith appeared to sail over his head, but Smith made a tremendous athletic play to bring the ball down with one hand and secure it for a 12-yard gain. It wound up being Jones' only pass of the entire first half.

* * *

Both teams had poor handoff exchanges that resulted in 1st-quarter fumbles, but only the Patriots capitalized. New England managed to maintain possession when an early Jones toss to Harris wound up on the turf. The drive ended in a harmless punt. On the other hand, Buffalo lost their fumble when DT Lawrence Guy recovered at New England's 31-yard line. A few plays later, Harris ripped off his long scoring jaunt. Two nearly identical plays with different results that changed the outcome of the game.

* * *

Kicking was an adventure for both teams Monday, but New England played the conditions in their favor. On the Harris TD going into the wind, for example, rather than attempt a PAT, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a toss to Brandon Bolden, and it worked. Late in the 4th quarter, facing those same goalposts, Buffalo attempted an extra point-length field goal of 33 yards. Bills kicker Tyler Bass looked like his kick was headed through the uprights, but the mercurial wind pushed it wide left. It would prove a costly miss, forcing Buffalo to have to attempt a 4th-and-long down there a short time later, instead of lining up for a potential game-winning field goal.

Patriots kicker Nick Folk, on the other hand, had the benefit of the wind at his back when he drilled a 41-yard field goal in the early second quarter to give New England an 11-7 lead. Had it been at the other end of the field, the Patriots would almost certainly have gone for it on 4th down. Same situation when he hit a knuckleball-style 34-yard field goal at the start of the 4th quarter.

Patriots punter Jake Bailey's first two punts traveled 36 and 15 yards respectively, as he was kicking into the teeth of the unrelenting wind. But toward the end, with the wind at his back in the 4th quarter, he boomed a 72-yard punt for a touchback, meaning Buffalo would have to drive 80 yards in order to find the end zone, which they ultimately couldn't do.

* * *

Weather played a factor in Buffalo scoring its first TD. Punting in the late first quarter with the wind at their backs, Buffalo came up with a big play. The Patriots put two punt returners in the game, with regular man Gunner Olszewski short and receiver N'Keal Harry deep, in an apparent bet-hedging situation to account for the unpredictable wind. Harry isn't used to being back there, and it showed. Harry slipped and the bouncing ball ricocheted off his helmet. Buffalo recovered at NE 14. Not sure why Jakobi Meyers wasn't the choice to go deep instead of Harry there, considering Meyers has some punt return experience in the league and Harry doesn't. Very next play, Bills QB Josh Allen found WR Gabriel Davis on a slant that beat CB Jalen Mills for a touchdown.

* * *

An example of a player who atoned for an earlier mistake? Defensive back Myles Bryant. He committed a personal foul by pushing Allen while the Bill was diving out of bounds in the 3rd quarter, but at the game's end knocked down Allen's 4th-down pass to seal the victory.

Or how about edge rusher Matthew Judon committing a neutral zone infraction penalty on the second Bills possession, but then coming up with a huge 4th-quarter sack with the Bills at the NE 6-yard line. That play helped force the Bills to attempt the aforementioned 33-yard field goal by Bass which sailed wide right, yielding no points for Buffalo.

* * *

Another good effort from defensive tackle Davon Godchaux. He paced the Patriots with 10 total tackles (six solo). It's the second game in a row that Godchaux has stood out in a positive way.

* * *

Fresh off the practice squad, defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale made a play when he sacked Josh Allen in the late second quarter, helping thwart yet another Buffalo first-half drive. It marked Ekuale's first appearance in a game since the trip to face the Chargers in L.A. on Halloween. Ekuale has now has two sacks in the three games he's played for the Patriots this season.

* * *

A bizarre as the game was coming to an end. During the 4th-quarter two-minute warning, safety Adrian Phillips somehow suffered a right knee injury, just moments after breaking up an Allen pass in the end zone that saved a touchdown. Phillips seemed perfectly fine as he got up to celebrate the big play with teammates. It's unclear how Phillips was injured, but he had to exit what remained of the game. His status this coming week will be worth monitoring at practice, but he, like Harris, will probably benefit from the upcoming bye.

* * *

Powerful Play/Player of the Game presented by Enel

The run blockers. That means the entire starting offensive line, plus extra blocker Mike Onwenu, the tight ends, fullback Jakob Johnson, and receivers like N'Keal Harry. Collectively, this group thoroughly imposed their will on a night when Buffalo - and everyone else watching, for that matter - knew that's how the Patriots would need to play in order to win.

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