In a critical AFC East showdown, the Bills looked to earn their first divisional win of the season against Bill Belichick and company. In the previous two meetings of these teams (including postseason), the Bills did not need to use their punter once. Surely that streak would end, but would Buffalo’s two game winning streak?
Sufficient Start for Buffalo
The Patriots received the opening kickoff, but failed to convert a first down, giving the ball to the Bills after just three plays. Josh Allen connected with Stefon Diggs for a pickup of 19, followed by Allen completing a shotput-type pass to Nyheim Hines down the sideline as he was getting sacked. The speedy running back that was acquired at the trade deadline turned the broken play into a highlight worthy 21 yard gain. Buffalo settled for a field goal after a sack and false start set them back. Tyler Bass continued his excellent season with a 48 yard conversion to take the 3-0 lead.
New England answered quickly, scoring a 48 yard touchdown, thanks to the speed of defensive back Marcus Jones, who caught a screen pass before turning on the jets to torch Buffalo’s secondary. Jones, who recently won AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for a game-winning punt return touchdown against the Jets, registered the first offensive touch of his career, and it was a big one. However, New England’s luck at finding the end zone would quickly run out.
Dominate and Don’t Look Back
Buffalo, down 7-3, outscored New England 21-3 in the remaining 55 minutes of play. Rookie running back James Cook suddenly became heavily involved in the offense, catching a pass for 14 yards, and running for 33 yards on four carries. Allen ran for eight, including a semi-successful hurdle, to move the chains and set up first and Goal. On second down from New England’s eight yard line, Allen found Diggs on a beautifully run comeback route in the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
Following a holding penalty on the ensuing kickoff, Mac Jones was backed up to his own nine yard line. After recording a tackle for loss on first down, Shaq Lawson nearly sacked Jones for what could have been a safety. Instead, Jones threw the ball into the dirt, committing intentional grounding (Jones was ruled to be outside of the end zone, so the play did not result in a safety). New England, despite gaining 16 of the 18 yards needed for a first down, punted back to the Bills.
Slow and Steady
Allen led a 14 play, 56 yard drive that capped off with a Gabriel Davis touchdown catch. The series took nearly eight minutes off of the clock. Cook and Devin Singletary combined for 34 yards on seven carries (nearly 5 yards per carry), as New England had no answer to defending the run. On third and goal, Allen rolled right to extend the play. After narrowly avoiding a sack, and the out-of-bounds line, he threw a cross body dart to Davis, who created enough separation on the defender to secure the catch in the end zone. It was a play reminiscent of Allen’s opening touchdown to Dawson Knox in the playoff game against New England last season, and displayed the type of athletic ability that makes him such a uniquely gifted QB.
Punting? Against the Patriots??
After Buffalo’s defense forced another three-and-out, it was New England’s chance to return the favor. For the first time in three games, the Bills punted against the Patriots. Sam Martin was able to pin New England back at their own 15 yard line, and their ensuing drive resulted in a three-and-out.
A Turnover With No Consequences
Allen completed passes to Cook for eight yards, and rookie Khalil Shakir for 10 yards, as the team was nearing midfield. Then, on a play where the Patriots only rushed three, Josh Uche bent around backup left tackle David Quessenberry immediately. Allen, not ready for the quick pressure with the Patriots rushing just three, didn’t sense the pressure and was stripped from behind. Matthew Judon recovered the fumble, and New England would have a chance to narrow Buffalo’s lead before halftime.
The Patriots started off hot, as Rhamondre Stevenson ran for 14 yards, then Jones connected with Jakobi Meyers for nine yards. However, due to questionable timeout usage by Bill Belichick, Nick Folk attempted a 48 yard field goal to make it a one possession game. While the kick was accurate, it lacked the distance, and hit the bottom crossbar before bouncing back down to the ground.
So Close, Yet So Far Away
Buffalo went into the half up 17-7, and both teams only had one scoring drive in the second half. Despite the Bills only scoring one more touchdown, the game felt completely out of hand for New England for the entire second half. Buffalo was dedicated to chewing the clock by running the ball, and the Patriots struggled to stop them.
The Bills ended up punting on their opening drive, but still chewed nearly five minutes of clock. Allen was able to hit Isaiah McKenzie twice for 30 total yards, then an illegal block penalty set Buffalo too far back to recover. Similarly, New England gained a few first downs, with Stevenson running for 24 yards on three carries, before AJ Epenesa reached him in the backfield for a loss of four.
After a great punt by Michael Palardy, the Bills were pinned back at their six yard line. Buffalo used a mix of their running backs and Stefon Diggs to methodically move downfield. Diggs had two receptions of 19 yards each, while Cook had 23 total yards. Singletary found the end zone on a one yard run, to take a three possession lead. The 15 play, 94 yard drive took about nine minutes off of the clock.
The Patriots gained one first down with a 15 yard connection from Jones to Kendrick Bourne, but punted just three plays later. The Bills continued chewing clock, running the ball on four of six plays before punting. The team was able to move the chains once, on a smooth slant route to Diggs on third and one that picked up 10.
New England utilized the short passing game to methodically drive down the field. The only problem – they were down three possessions and digging their own graves by running the clock down. Eventually, Folk hit a 39 yard field goal to narrow the score to 24-10. Gabriel Davis recovered the onside kick, and the game was over.
Although it wasn’t a barn-burner, and the Bills did need to punt, this was still a dominating performance by Buffalo. The tone of the game simply made it feel like there was no chance that the Patriots would keep it competitive, despite the scoreboard saying otherwise.
This was one of Ken Dorsey’s best games as an offensive coordinator, not straying from the run game that was proving to be successful. Other than a fluke strip sack on a three man rush, Allen has done a great job of limiting the turnovers recently. Buffalo was two-for-two in the red zone, as it looks like the offense may finally be finding their rhythm inside the 20.
Is James Cook the new RB1? He out-touched Singletary 20-13, but Singletary out-snapped him 33 to 32. Regardless, it was a great showing for both backs, combining for 115 rushing yards and 41 receiving yards, plus Singletary’s touchdown. With the absence of left tackle Dion Dawkins, David Quessenberry struggled mightily. However, his tackle counterpart, Spencer Brown, did a fantastic job of shutting down Matthew Judon, who happened to lead the league in sacks entering Thursday night.
The defense didn’t force any turnovers, and only recorded one sack, but denied the Patriots from gaining a first down on four of their drives.
Thoughts on the One Seed
The #1 seed, oh how we’ve missed you! Thanks to the Bengals beating the Chiefs, and the 49ers beating the Dolphins, the Bills are now the top ranked team in the AFC. This is obviously a major advantage, because the #1 seed has a first round bye in the playoffs and home field advantage throughout the postseason. The Bills now control their own destiny. Win out, and they’re golden. However, KC is right behind the Bills, and faces an absurdly easy schedule for the rest of the season. Let’s hope that Dorsey has truly found the antidote to the offensive issues, as the team continues to get healthier. Even though Von Miller is on IR, Dawkins is really the only notable player who has an injury to monitor. If the Bills can play their game, and show that they have a top offense and defense, they have all the pieces to win the AFC and be poised for a Super Bowl appearance.
Offensive Player of the Game: James Cook
As I’ve mentioned already, Cook was vital to the success of the offense on Thursday. He totaled 105 total yards, and seemed to be Allen’s go-to on check downs when nothing else was open. This type of game was exactly why Buffalo spent a 2nd round pick on the explosive running back. Ironic how Buffalo’s offense has found their footing at the same time that their top offensive draft pick had his best game of the season. Look for more usage from Cook down the stretch.
Defensive Player of the Game: Von Miller
Miller obviously didn’t play against New England, but hear me out. All season, we’ve seen the future Hall of Famer act as a mentor to the young group of pass rushers that Buffalo has drafted over the years. Without his presence on the field, the Bills needed Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham, and AJ Epenesa to step up…and they did. Rousseau was strong against the run, and made several great pass rush moves. Epenesa registered the team’s only sack, and the trio all recorded a QB hit.
MVP: Stefon Diggs
Diggs always seems to light it up against the Patriots, and it was no different this season. He finished the game with seven receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. All seven of his catches moved the chains and gave Buffalo a first down (or touchdown), illustrating his importance to this team. He’s basically matched his output from last season, and still has five games to go this year.
What’s Next: Bills v Jets 12/11
Buffalo looks to make right on their loss to New York from several weeks ago. In the tight race for the top seed in the AFC, every win is crucial, and the Bills will need to bring their A-game against a tough Jets defense.
Editor’s babble: It was great to see the AFC fall the right way for the Bills. Now it’s put up or shut up time. We are grateful for all of Colin Richey’s terrific contributions to our blog. You can also find Colin on Twitter @whatthef00tball.