In a game that was too close for comfort, the Bills defeated the Patriots 27-21 on New Year’s Eve. Buffalo’s defense made a number of splash plays to keep the team in the game, even finding the endzone in what turned out to be a crucial score in the one possession victory.
Patriots Return the Special Teams Favor
A year after Nyheim Hines took the opening kickoff against New England back for a touchdown, it was Jalen Reagor’s turn for the Patriots. It went down as a 98 yard kickoff return for the former first round pick, with Tyler Bass having the best chance to wrap him up around midfield. Just like that, the Bills were down 7–0.
Defense Came To Play
While Buffalo’s offense struggled to gain momentum or take advantage of good field position, the story of the first quarter was Buffalo’s dominant defense. The Bills went three and out on their opening drive after a 15 yard sack on first down. On Bailey Zappe’s first pass of the afternoon, Rasul Douglas got a hand on the football to break up the pass. Ed Oliver disengaged with the lineman he was battling, sprinted towards the ball, and made an incredible diving effort to scoop it up before it hit the ground. It was an amazing effort by the defensive tackle, and quickly shifted the momentum back in Buffalo’s favor.
The Bills once again went three and out, with Josh Allen throwing consecutive incomplete passes on 2nd and 3rd down. Bass drilled a 35 yard field goal to put Buffalo on the board. Buffalo’s defense held strong, forcing a three and out for the Patriots. Runs of six and five yards from James Cook allowed Buffalo to move the chains for the first time in the game. Three straight incompletions from Allen forced a punt three plays later.
Once again, Zappe’s first pass of the drive was picked off. This time, it was Douglas jumping in front of a slant route, running the interception back to the 14 yard line. A five yard run from Stefon Diggs helped move the chains for the Bills, and Allen powered forward for a one yard touchdown run two plays later.
The Bills forced their third turnover of the quarter, this time on the second play of the drive. A five yard completion from Zappe to tight end Pharaoh Brown looked routine enough, until Christian Benford came in at the last second and ripped the ball out of Brown’s hands. Benford recovered his own forced fumble, giving the Bills offense another drive starting deep in New England territory.
On a read-option, Allen kept the ball and tried to run forward, but was met immediately by several defenders. Right before hitting the ground, Allen lateraled the ball to a waiting Khalil Shakir. Shakir ran for ten yards and a first down on the chaotic semi-designed play. Buffalo’s offensive woes continued, settling for a 24 yard field goal on 4th and Goal. Even with the domination, it was only 13-7.
New England’s next drive came to a quick end when Oliver got to Zappe on 3rd down for a sack. Oliver’s movement on the defensive line suggested he was trying to clear a path for the recently returned DaQuan Jones, but Oliver was able to power through his assignment so well he ended up at the QB before anyone else.
Buffalo’s offense once again went three-and-out, and a 15 yard run by Kevin Harris for New England ended an eventful first quarter.
Who Needs Offense?
Zappe completed a 15 yard pass to DeVante Parker, who made a nice catch along the sideline for a first down. Suddenly, the Patriots had strung together two chunk plays. However, with miscommunication between Zappe and his receiver, as well as a blitzing Micah Hyde in the QB’s face, the Patriots would turn the ball over for the fourth time. It was Douglas once again, and this time, he took his interception all the way back for six, weaving through Patriots linemen and getting several blocks from his teammates.
Patriots Shift Momentum
Despite having a 20-7 lead, sometimes a defense can only contain an offense for so long. A screen pass to Harris turned into a monster 48 yard gain, giving the Patriots the ball in Buffalo territory for the first time in the game. On the next play, Zappe evaded Buffalo’s blitzers, and ran untouched into the endzone for a 17 yard score. Just like that, it was back to a one possession game.
It wouldn’t be a bad Josh Allen game without a turnover at a less than ideal time, right? After stringing completions together to three different receivers, Allen looked deep to Dalton Kincaid, but the pass was into double coverage in a tight window along the sideline. Former Buffalo seventh round pick Alex Austin came down with the interception, with his momentum carrying him out of bounds to eliminate a possible return.
The Patriots missed a 47 yard field goal attempt, but a drop from Latavius Murray on 3rd and 2 forced another Buffalo punt. The Patriots knelt out the clock of the first half, content with a 20-14 deficit at halftime despite numerous mistakes on the offensive side of the ball.
Boring Second Half
Both teams scored one touchdown in the second half, as the final 30 minutes of play lacked the splash plays that the first 30 brought.
The Bills scored on their opening drive of the half, fueled by a 15 yard completion to Gabriel Davis and a 51 yard bomb to Kincaid. Allen scored another rushing touchdown on a QB sneak to extend the lead.
Two sacks by Terrel Bernard on one drive stalled the Patriots, and were the only notable defensive plays by either team in the second half.
Starting from their own 16 in the beginning of the fourth quarter, Zappe threw a deep pass to Reagor along the sideline, who was covered well by Benford. Reagor made a great adjustment to haul in the over the shoulder pass on tight coverage. Two plays later, a screen to Demario Douglas saw the rookie dodge several tackle attempts, completely switching fields for an overall gain of 17 yards. A late hit by Jordan Poyer gave the Pats half the distance to the goal. On 1st and Goal from the six, Ezekiel Elliott powered his way through Buffalo’s defense for a touchdown run.
The Bills were able to chew enough clock on their last two drives to end the game, as Kyle Allen took kneel downs to seal the victory.
It wasn’t pretty, for the offense at least, but a win is a win. This was one of Allen’s worst games in recent memory, completing just 15 of his 30 pass attempts for 169 yards and an interception. He did add 44 yards and two scores on the ground, but also fumbled twice (the Bills recovered both). While he was missing several throws, some completed and many not, Buffalo was also plagued by drops and poor pass protection.
Stefon Diggs finished with just 26 yards, another weak performance from the receiver who seems to have taken a significant step back recently. James Cook averaged just three yards per carry, and finished in the negatives for receiving yards.
Outside of the opening kickoff, special teams was excellent for the Bills. Tyler Bas converted both field goal attempts, although neither were too difficult of a distance. Sam Martin was called on six times, and pinned the Patriots inside their 20 yard line on all six punts, a first in NFL history according to AJ Feldman.
They allowed 21 points, but Buffalo’s defense was what won them the game. Three sacks and four turnovers, including one for a score, concluded another masterclass for Sean McDermott’s defense.
Offensive Player of the Game: Dalton Kincaid
Kincaid finished with a team high 87 receiving yards, mostly thanks to his 51 yard catch and run to begin the second half. He had four catches, tied for a team high, on seven targets, also tied for a team high. Allen clearly trusts the rookie tight end, who just broke the record for most receptions by a Bills rookie in a single season.
Defensive Player of the Game: Ed Oliver
Oliver’s interception was a complete momentum changer, after an opening kickoff touchdown for the Patriots was followed by a three and out for Buffalo. He also registered a sack on 3rd down to force a punt. The defensive tackle now has a career high 9.5 sacks on the year, as he will look to join teammate Leonard Floyd in the double digits with one game remaining.
MVP: Rasul Douglas
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Douglas may have saved Buffalo’s season. He’s been outstanding since the moment he landed in Buffalo, and Sunday was his best game yet. After getting the assist on Oliver’s interception, he tallied two picks of his own, taking one back for six. The corner just has a nose for the football, and to think, it took just a 3rd and 5th from Brandon Beane to get him in a Bills uniform.
Bills @ Dolphins 1/7 SNF On NBC
In the final game of the NFL season, Buffalo’s playoff hopes could be on the line. A win, and they are guaranteed the #2 seed in the AFC. A loss, and they could miss the playoffs entirely. The Bills can clinch a playoff berth with either Pittsburgh losing to Baltimore’s backups on Saturday, or Jacksonville losing to Tennessee on Sunday afternoon. Still, an AFC East battle with the division on the line will ensure an exciting game.