Mac Jones had been in this spot before, down by a score late in the game and needing one game-defining drive to take the win, but it had been since his rookie year against the Texans the last time Mac and the Patriots offense delivered on this stage. On Sunday against the Bills, they rewrote the script, one that usually ended with a last gasp instead was capped with the final flourish as they strung together that game-winning drive that has long evaded them.
"There were a lot of big plays on that drive," said Bill Belichick on Monday morning after reviewing the film. "Mac did a good job, but the receivers, the protection, it was all part of it. It was good team offensive execution at the time we needed it the most."
The Bills had just taken the lead with a touchdown and a two-point conversion that made it 25-22 Buffalo at the two-minute warning as Mac and the offense took the field at their own 25-yard line. The first play was the biggest, a 34-yard screen pass that was nearly flagged for an illegal man downfield as center David Andrews shot off the line of scrimmage at the snap looking to pick up someone to block. Stevenson broke through two would-be tacklers and raced up the sideline, quickly putting the Patriots just outside of field goal range.
"The first play was a huge play for them, right?" lamented Bills head coach Sean McDermott. "They throw a screen, we're in four under, three-deep defense. We didn't do enough to leverage the formation and make the tackle where we needed to make it."
"That last play was just get the running backs some space so it was a swing pass to me," said Stevenson. "I had three guys blocking on the edge. They did a great job covering those guys up and I tried to make a play."
Two plays later, staring down a third-and-eight from the 39-yard line on the outskirts of field goal range, Mac would make one of the best throws of his career, placing the ball with pinpoint accuracy right on Hunter Henry, who secured the catch and absorbed a big hit to set up the Patriots at the 25. The 14-yard play was arguably the play of the game, as Mac was able to get the ball out just before a Bills rusher coming off the edge nearly stripped it.
Mac continued to deal, as he stayed in control of the offense, audibling into an eight-yard slant to DeVante Parker, then dumping off a 10-yard catch-and-run to Stevenson, and finally hitting Pop Douglas on an out route that took him out of bounds at the one-yard line, a play that drew a pass interference penalty.
"Mac made a good check on the blitz, got it to the weak side to [DeVante] Parker, and hit Pop [Demario Douglas] down there," said Belichick. "A lot of good football. Pass protection. I mean, they were rushing, they were blitzing, they picked them up, we threw it, we caught it. It was good execution."
On the next play, Mac just overshot Douglas on an inside slant, but he wouldn't miss on second down, with rangy tight end Mike Gesicki lined up inside and running a quick inside move. Mac quickly threw the ball in 2.0 seconds according to Next Gen Stats, hitting Gesicki for the game-winner and capping off the best drive of the season.
"When I was standing on the sideline that whole two-minute drive, I was just telling myself 'stay ready, stay ready, stay ready,'" said Gesicki after the game. "Ultimately, that was the play call and I had a chance to go up and make a play to put us ahead with 15, or whatever, seconds left and it was a lot of fun."
It was a long time coming for the Patriots. At 1-5, the beleaguered team and offense ranked near the bottom of the league in many important categories, but for one drive they put it all together and in the process might've found the spark that they needed to truly get their season on track.
"We've worked — it feels like every day; it might be every day — we've worked on two-minute," said David Andrews. "But the margin of error in the NFL is very small, right? Every play matters. I think today, over the good plays, bad plays, whatever it may be, I just think we really came together as a team.
"You need that adversity, seeing that, overcome, building confidence, things like that. It was a great drive at the end."
For his part, Mac stayed even-keeled in his postgame press conference, calling the win a "crumb" that the team has now picked up, but continuing to search of more.
"I'll always believe in myself. I have a lot of confidence in myself. And I'm not going to sit up here and say it every time. But I do believe in myself. And I do that through work and all that stuff," said Mac. "That's why football's the greatest team sport. It's the quarterback, you go as your quarterback goes."
"We watch those guys take ownership in practice," said Jabrill Peppers of the offense. "They had a great week of preparation. Mac [Jones] had a great week, the tight ends, the receivers, and it showed tonight. They picked us up. So, it felt good watching those guys, and I know they felt that they could win the game for us when it mattered. I'm happy for Mac; he fought through adversity, came out, had a brilliant game, controlled the ball well. We're just going to keep trying to play hard for those guys and leave it all out there."
Mac echoed that having a short-term memory and refocusing on the Miami Dolphins would quickly become the team's top priority even in the wake of impressive and narrative-challenging outcome.
"It's just one game, right? I always say that regardless of the results," said Jones. "Got to do it again. Got to fight every day and practice hard."