Josh Allen did just about everything a quarterback can do to win a football game. He was everything the Buffalo Bills needed in their 31-21 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday in Week 16 at Gillette Stadium.
Allen ran for first downs, breaking tackles along the way. He ripped through coverage with his blaster of an arm. And he pitched the ball forward and threw underhand and sidearm to find openings in New England’s defense. He finished 30 of 47 for 314 yards and three touchdowns. He was the difference in a game where quarterback Mac Jones almost felt like a non-factor.
The Bills now have a strong chance — roughly 88% — of finishing at No. 1 in the AFC East. New England, even with the loss, have a 96% chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Here are our takeaways from the game.
The Patriots did what they could to avoid a QB duel. But that’s what materialized and Josh Allen whooped Mac Jones.
The Patriots seemed OK with letting the Bills rushing attack beat them, so long as Allen did not. But he was as patient as he’s ever been, finding weak spots in the Patriots zone coverage — which often meant settling for a check down. He carved up the Patriots, with all sorts of insanely difficult passes. He was also sensational as a runner with 12 carries for 64 yards, including eight yards on the game’s most important fourth down in the fourth quarter. He got the first down by eluding tackles from J.C. Jackson and Dont’a Hightower. Most important, Allen didn’t make any mistakes.
Jones, meanwhile, did his best to keep pace with the Bills. And in the process, the Patriots continued to lean on their rushing attack. Jones threw a first-half interception that halted their early momentum. and the Patriots had consistent issues generating big plays in the passing game. A part of that: he didn’t target Hunter Henry or Kendrick Bourne until the fourth quarter. Those are his favorite targets, yet he couldn’t seem to find them. Bourne was particularly absent because he missed all three practices on COVID-19/reserve, which led to limited snaps on Sunday.
Jones finished 14 of 32 for 145 yards and two interceptions, with the second interception coming in garbage time.
The Patriots’ pass-rush was vastly inferior compared to their secondary
Bills quarterback Josh Allen took his time in the pocket, clearly unafraid of the Patriots’ pass rush. He didn’t take a single sack during the game. With all that time to throw, he was largely unfazed with admittedly impressive coverage. Even though they were taking away his downfield options, he waited and waited and waited — and then sometimes scrambled. With extra dashes of creativity (that might impress Patrick Mahomes), he found ways to connect with his receivers.
Josh McDaniels did a nice job diversifying the offensive play-calling, even with a run-dominant game plan
The Patriots’ first touchdown drive was comprised of a jet sweep to Gunner Olszewski, a check-down pass to Jakob Johnson, a bubble screen to N’Keal Harry, a flea-flicker pass, a fourth-down conversion on a pitch sweep and a fourth-down conversion on a speed option.
It was an awesome example of how McDaniels can diversify this offense, even if they’re not going to be an uber-aggressive downfield passing team.
The second fourth-down conversion came on McDaniels most exciting play call: the speed option that sprung Harris for a long run. You couldn’t imagine the Patriots running an option — which is exactly why they ran it and executed it to perfect. The Bills defense wasn’t ready and it made for an impressive conversion. Had McDaniels and the Patriots offense bungled the execution, he would’ve faced criticism. But the offensive coordinator saw his opportunity and took it.
Aggressive 4th down decisions helped keep the Patriots in the game against the Bills
After a season of scrutiny about fourth-down decision-making, Bill Belichick elected to go for it twice on fourth down during the team’s second drive. It finished with a touchdown. The Patriots entered the game with the second-fewest fourth-down attempts in the NFL. That’s what made that slightly-more-aggressive approach interesting to start the game. They finished 3 of 4.
That touchdown drive came after the Bills went for it on fourth down and scored their opening touchdown. On the whole, the Bills were better at just about everything — including fourth downs, where they were 5 of 6.
N’Keal Harry’s big catch vs. the Colts led to major overreactions. He regressed back to what we’ve otherwise seen from him: a player lost in the passing game.
When Harry put up a huge catch against the Colts, fans and media members began clamoring for an increased workload for the former first-round pick. This game served as a reminder of why the Patriots should not do that. Nelson Agholor was ruled out. Bourne was active but missed every practice this week on COVID-19/reserve.
Harry had to step up. And he didn’t.
N’Keal Harry has been targeted 98 times in his career. 46 of those targets (47%) have resulted in a pick, incompletion, or fumble.
— Tucker Boynton (@Tucker_TnL) December 26, 2021
Not only did he drop an easy target that would’ve gone for a first down early in the game, but he was the intended target on an interception on the following play. That sequence emphasized how badly the Patriots need to feature Bourne — not Harry. Their passing game looked out of sorts against a really good Bills defense, one of the best in the NFL — and maybe the best.
DT Christian Barmore made a rare rookie mistake that cost the Patriots points.
Barmore committed an encroachment penalty on fourth-and-7 during the first half. He was lined up over the center, and perhaps thought he had a read on Mitch Morse’s tendencies with the head bob before the snap. Whatever it was, Barmore jumped early. The Bills got a fourth-and-2, which they converted. The Bills scored a touchdown just a few plays later. Barmore doesn’t deserve all the blame for the drive going wrong, but he committed the most glaring error.
The officiating went against the Patriots with a few questionable calls
The Patriots got unlucky with a handful of questionable decisions from the officials. The first was actually a non-call. Bills linebacker Jerry Hughes hit Jones out of bounds, which drew a flag. And yet the officials somehow decided to pick up the flag and call the play clean — which it clearly was not.
NFL refs will throw a flag on a defensive player for breathing on a QB, yet on this play they convened after the play and decided that this was a legal play. Makes sense. pic.twitter.com/iBTJDD30N9
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 26, 2021
That set up an interesting situation later in the game, where the Bills hit Jones late again. He slid and then took a hit from a Bills defender. That drew a flag — but then so did center David Andrews’ jawing after the play. He got a taunting penalty for screaming at a Bills player for the late hit. It felt like the wrong call from the officials after they’d failed to keep the game in control.
Both calls were questionable.
Myles Bryant was the weakest link of the game for the Patriots
The Patriots don’t expect Byrant to be a shutdown corner. He’s the backup slot cornerback that has been filling in with Jon Jones suffering a season-ending injury. Bryant spent most of the game against Isaiah McKenzie, who proved a shocking x-factor with 11 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown. His production was a backbreaker. Bryant needed to do more when defending the depths of the Bills receiver corps.
The playoff picture still looks … OK
The Patriots are very unlikely to miss the playoffs. But it’s hard to have faith in them winning their playoff opener. The Bills and Colts just logged wins over the last two weeks. The Tennessee Titans, energized by players returning from injuries, and Kansas City Chiefs look like they would outmatch New England. There aren’t many favorable matchups for New England.
They’ve got two games (vs. Jaguars, @ Dolphins) to figure out how to fix these less-than-stellar offensive and defense units. The problem is that neither of those offenses are legit. So there will be plenty of uncertainty as to whether this Patriots team can win a playoff game.