The New England Patriots defeated the Buffalo Bills on Monday night, winning 14-10 at Highmark Stadium. Here are eight things we learned in that Week 13 matchup:
1. The Patriots turned back the clock on offense
Bill Belichick’s club had a plan Monday night, and it stuck to it. With extreme winds whistling through Highmark Stadium from pregame warmups through the final whistle, the Patriots utilized an offensive approach not dissimilar from the one you’ll probably see in this Saturday’s Army-Navy game.
New England ran the ball 46 times and attempted just three passes, battering one of the NFL’s best defenses to the tune of 222 rushing yards and 4.8 yards per carry. The Bills stacked the box with defenders to stop the run but continuously failed to do so. The Patriots even ran the ball in obvious passing situations, calling handoffs on third-and-7, third-and-13, third-and-16 and third-and-18 and a quarterback sneak on third-and-5.
The three pass attempts were the fewest ever by a Patriots team — breaking the previous franchise mark of five set in the famed 1982 “Snow Plow Game” — and the second-fewest by any NFL offense since the merger. Had New England not left Buffalo with a win, Belichick and coordinator Josh McDaniels would have been scrutinized for this uber-conservative approach, which yielded just one touchdown and two field goals.
Buffalo took a different approach, throwing the ball 30 times in a losing effort. Rocket-armed Josh Allen delivered a handful of eye-popping completions — the one he had to Stefon Diggs along the left sideline was a beauty — but lost control of just as many passes and averaged just 4.8 yards per attempt. The Bills also struggled to run the ball effectively (more on that in item No. 5).
2. The Patriots have two lead backs
One of the most impressive aspects of the Patriots’ season-best rushing performance was that they were without their leading rusher for nearly the entire second half. Damien Harris provided the game’s biggest offensive play with a 64-yard first-quarter touchdown run, but he suffered a hamstring injury late in the first half and carried the ball just once after halftime.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they have a dynamite secondary option in Rhamondre Stevenson. The rookie carried the load over the final two quarters and ran much better than his modest final line (24 carries, 78 yards) would indicate. It might be time to start viewing Harris and Stevenson as co-lead backs rather than No. 1 and No. 2 options.
Third-down back Brandon Bolden added 28 yards on four carries and caught one of Mac Jones’ two completions. The Patriots averaged a beefy 5.7 yards per carry on handoffs to running backs in the win.
3. Mike Onwenu still is an asset
The Patriots occasionally had used their 350-pound backup tackle as an extra blocker in previous weeks, but Onwenu saw his playing time spike Monday night. Singularly focused on pushing Buffalo’s defense around in the run game, McDaniels frequently deployed Onwenu as a jumbo tight end. He often played in place of Hunter Henry in the team’s extra-heavy 22 personnel grouping (running back, fullback, two tight ends) and in other sets, as well.
Overall, the Patriots used an extra offensive lineman — always Onwenu — on 61% of their offensive snaps, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the highest rate by any team in the last six seasons. They also had the tightest average formation width (17.0 yards) of any team since Next Gen Stats began tracking player data in 2016.
After Trent Brown returned from injured reserve and booted Onwenu out of the starting lineup, McDaniels said the latter “will obviously be a factor for us as we go forward.” Onwenu’s role won’t always be quite this large, but he’ll continue to be a boon for this run-focused offense.
4. N’Keal Harry is not a punt returner
Another staple of the Patriots’ super-jumbo package, Harry again provided great value as a run blocker. He has a specialized role in the Patriots’ offense, and he’s playing it well. But the third-year wideout nearly lost New England the game on special teams.
The Bills’ only touchdown of the night came after Harry let a punt bounce off his facemask, leading to a Buffalo recovery at the Patriots’ 14-yard line. It was an ugly play by Harry. But really, he never should have been back there in the first place.
This is a player who had never returned a punt or kickoff in an NFL game (and looked awkward in those roles during training camp). Why ask him to try to do so in 50-mph winds? The Patriots should leave those duties to Gunner Olszewski moving forward.
5. The Patriots’ run defense is back
The Tennessee Titans gashing New England’s defense for 270 rushing yards last week looks more like an anomaly after Monday’s result. The Patriots held the Bills to 99 rushing yards, 39 of which came on scrambles or designed quarterback runs by Allen. Running backs Devin Singletary, Zack Moss and Matt Breida managed just 60 yards between them, with Singletary tallying 17 of them on one carry.
Davon Godchaux was especially active in the Patriots’ run-stopping effort. He led all Patriots players with 10 tackles — an unusually high number for an interior defensive lineman — on just 18 run defense snaps, posting the highest run tackle rate (56%) of any nose tackle in the Next Gen Stats era.
6. The secondary survived without Kyle Dugger
Dugger missed the game after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, and his replacements stepped up. Adrian Phillips took over some of Dugger’s man coverage responsibilities against tight ends and silenced Dawson Knox, registering two pivotal third-down pass breakups. Second-year slot/safety Myles Bryant saw the largest uptick in playing time and, after being flagged for a questionable late hit during the second half, iced the game by breaking up an Allen pass into the end zone on fourth-and-14 in the final minutes.
“Credit to Myles,” veteran safety Devin McCourty told reporters postgame. “I’ve said it all season: Myles is a guy that’s going to step into any role and perform. … I want it to be known, though: It’ll be good to get Dugg back.”
With a bye this week, Dugger should be able to return in time for the Patriots’ Week 15 matchup with the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 18. That’ll be especially important if the injury Phillips suffered late in Monday’s game forces him to miss time.
7. The Patriots are in great shape in the AFC playoff race
Winners of seven straight, the 9-4 Patriots lead the AFC by a half-game and own a 1 1/2-game cushion over the Bills in the AFC East. Their 7-1 conference record — tops in the conference — also is important for potential tiebreakers. Buffalo will have a chance to narrow this gap when it visits Gillette Stadium in Week 16, but New England currently has a 76% chance of winning the division and a 44% chance of landing the AFC’s No. 1 seed (and the accompanying first-round playoff bye), per FiveThirtyEight.
After a one-year hiatus, the Patriots are back to being the bullies of the AFC East, which seems to be triggering a sort of internal meltdown within the Bills’ locker room.
8. The Bills might be unraveling
Between safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde arguing with a reporter and head coach Sean McDermott insisting he was not outcoached by Belichick, the Bills did not look the part of a confident Super Bowl hopeful after this loss.
Considered prohibitive AFC East favorites entering this season, McDermott’s club now has dropped three of its last five games and four of its last seven, with a road date against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers up next on the schedule.
NESN’s New England football takeaways is presented by Valvoline Instant Oil Change