ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It’s been a long, long time since the New England Patriots had a win quite like this one.
The Patriots defeated the Buffalo Bills 16-10 on Sunday at New Era Field, prevailing in spite of its Tom Brady-led offense rather than because of it.
They couldn’t run the ball (3.2 yards per carry). They couldn’t pass the ball (Brady’s 45.9 passer rating was his worst ever in a win). They couldn’t move the chains (seven three-and-outs). They couldn’t score.
New England managed just nine offensive points against the stingy Bills: six on a Brandon Bolden jet-sweep touchdown in the first quarter and three on a 23-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal late in the third.
It was the first time the Patriots had scored 10 or fewer offensive points in a victory since Week 14 of the 2003 season, when they knocked off the Miami Dolphins 12-0 in the Tedy Bruschi snow shower game.
They won Sunday, as they so often did back in those early dynasty days, with defense.
Against a Bills offense led by the still-developing Josh Allen — and, later, backup Matt Barkley after Allen was knocked out of the game with a head injury — the Patriots intercepted four passes, sacked Buffalo QBs five times and forced two fumbles. They allowed their hosts to convert just 2 of 13 third downs and mounted what proved to be a game-saving goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter — all while playing without injured starting linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
The deciding touchdown came on a special teams play made by a defensive player: cornerback J.C. Jackson blocking a Corey Bojorquez punt, resulting in a Matthew Slater scoop-and-score.
Was it a perfect performance by the NFL’s top-ranked D, which still features nearly every key player from the 2018 group that held the Los Angeles Rams to three points in Super Bowl LIII? No.
Patriots defenders committed eight total penalties — including an ugly unnecessary roughness, pass interference, unnecessary roughness sequence immediately before the aforementioned goal-line stop — and struggled at times to contain Frank Gore, who cruised to 109 yards on 17 carries. Buffalo’s lone touchdown drive also looked far too easy, with Allen completing six straight passes on the opening series of the second half after looking lost for the first 30 minutes.
But those proved to be no more than minor hiccups for a defense that’s allowed a grand total of 13 points through four games and is beginning to look like one of the most formidable units Bill Belichick has ever assembled.
Safety Devin McCourty, who’s played on several Patriots teams that won simply by outgunning opponents, is relishing this shift. He’s played a starring role thus far, pulling down an interception in each of the team’s first four games.
“It’s fun,” McCourty said. “Every time we went out there, especially at the end when it was 16-10, all we kept saying is, ‘We don’t give up any points, we win.’ And for me, being in my 10th year, I’ve been here when it’s the opposite — where it felt like every time we went out there, we gave up a touchdown or a field goal and then our offense went back and scored. I just think of Kansas City last year at home. The score was 43-40.
“So it’s all about having each other’s back. It’s not going to go well every time on both sides of the ball. You’re going to have dogfights like this, and you’ve just got to be ready to go.”
Given the talent the Patriots possess on offense, low-scoring slogs like this one should be rare. But even the most offensively gifted teams need to win ugly sometimes, and this defense continues to prove it’s up to the challenge.