ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Supremacy atop the AFC East – at least for the moment – is rarely at stake when the Patriots visit Buffalo. Yet, that's exactly what awaited the winner of this latest tilt between New England and the equally 3-0 Bills.
It would be a fitting test for both clubs, as the combined record of the opponents each team had faced previously this season was a dismal 1-17. The Bills were hoping to start the regular season a perfect 4-0 for the first time in more than a decade (2008), while the Patriots simply wanted to continue their dominant start to the season.
"They just wouldn't go away... They fought all day," special teams co-captain Matthew Slater observed afterward. "This was knock-down-drag-out. They didn't want to quit, we didn't want to quit. We needed every play that we could possibly make. Every snap was critical. Everybody that was in a Patriots uniform today, we needed. This is a good character win for our football team. Man, you've got to feel good about winning this one."
Penalties and wayward passes for both teams made for an ugly start, however. New England had the ball first to the contest. Eventually, safety Devin McCourty's fourth interception in as many games (he now has one in every game thus far), set the Patriots' offense up at midfield.
"I felt like we played really good," LB Kyle Van Noy remarked about his defensive mates. "Happy we created a bunch of turnovers. Anytime you do, it really benefits us. Glad we got a win."
Didn't take the O long to capitalize. A seven-play drive, much of which came on a beautiful Tom Brady-to-James White throw and catch down to the Bills' 4-yard line, ended with RB Brandon Bolden taking a quick handoff from Brady as he went in motion and racing around the edge to the painted blue end zone without breaking stride. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, however, missed yet another PAT, his fourth of the season, to keep the score 6-0.
That's when special teams stepped to the fore.
J.C. Jackson blocked punt deep in Bills territory recovered by special teams co-captain Matthew Slater, who rumbled untouched to the end zone for this first NFL touchdown.
"I stopped thinking about getting one a while ago. I guess if you play long enough, you get a bone eventually," Slater smiled. "So, pretty cool. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
Gostkowski converted the point-after to give the Patriots a 13-0 lead in the late first quarter.
Just when the Bills appeared to be mounting a potential scoring drive, LB Jamie Collins brought down Buffalo QB Josh Allen from the ankles with an athletic tackle that cost the Bills seven yards on 3rd down, forcing a punt.
The Patriots couldn't do much with that possession, but Jackson came through again shortly thereafter with a deep-ball interception of Allen just before the first quarter concluded.
"He didn't know what we were doing [defensively]," Van Noy said about Allen. "Yeah, he was shook back there [in the pocket]."
"Every week, the defense is playing out of their minds," WR Phillip Dorsett said later. "We practice against that defense every day. We know they're good."
The second quarter saw even more flags and big defensive plays for both sides. Whenever one offense would do something positive to put itself in seeming scoring position, the defense would come up with some sort of stop.
New England, for example, went for it on 4th-and-8 from the Bills' 35. Dorsett drew a pass interference penalty against CB Tre'Davious White inside the Buffalo 10, but Brady threw an end zone interception to safety Micah Hyde a few plays later.
Bills RB Frank Gore reached a milestone when he hit precisely 15,000 yards for his career on a subsequent 41-yard run into Patriots territory, but Van Noy's sack of Allen on 3rd-and-5 from New England's 20-yard line compelled Buffalo to end the drive by kicking a field goal of 46 yards. Kicker Stephen Hauschka later missed a 49-yard attempt, and the Patriots went into the break with a 13-3 advantage.
At the end of the third quarter's opening drive, New England's defense just barely gave up its first touchdown of 2019 when Allen took a 4th-and-goal snap from the 1 and dove over the line of scrimmage. The ball was knocked out of his hands and into the backfield, but he'd already broken the plane of the goal line.
Buffalo got into that position thanks to several Allen passes to wide open receivers during the nine-play march.
Buffalo's defense continued to stifle Brady and the Patriots' O; likewise, the Patriots frustrated Allen, who was brought down for an 11-yard sack by rookie pass rusher Chase Winovich on 3rd-and-13. Immediately following, another near-block of Bills punter Corey Bojorquez resulted in a rushed kick that netted just 21 yards, giving the Patriots excellent field position at the Buffalo 46.
Again, the Bills responded by forcing a Patriots punt, but Jackson came to New England's rescue once more with another interception of Allen at the Buffalo 43. A big catch-and-run by WR Josh Gordon got the Patriots down to the 7. Yet, the rushing attack continued to struggle, as it has for much of this young season, and Gostkowski was brought in to add three points via a 22-yard field goal with a minute to play in the third quarter.
Things got scary in the early fourth quarter when CB Jonathan Jones committed a personal foul by striking Allen in the helmet as the QB was being taken to the ground. Buffalo committed an offsetting penalty on the play, but Allen was down on the turf for several moments as a number of Bills players charged after Jones. Teammates on both sides quickly diffused the situation and Allen eventually got back to the sideline under his own power.
"There was no intent [to injure]," Jones professed in the post-game locker room. "Never. I don't think anyone every really tries to go helmet-to-helmet. We're just flying around trying to make plays."
The Patriot's 16-10 lead appeared in serious jeopardy as backup Matt Barkley promptly tossed a 28-yard strike to WR John Brown to New England's 17-yard line. A Van Noy unsportsmanlike conduct foul gave Buffalo a goal-to-go opportunity.
Facing 4th-and-goal from the 3, Barkley attempted a pass that ricocheted off his intended receiver's hands. Safety Patrick Chung dove for the ball and looked like he picked it off in the end zone, giving the Patriots the ball back at their own 20 with a touchback, rather than the 3.
"That's football at its core right there. It gives me chills thinking about it," Van Noy commented about that particular fourth-down stop. However, replay officials overturned the ruling, and the Patriots resumed play from the shadow of their goal line, clinging to a six-point margin.
The offense couldn't get out of its own way, though, and rookie Jake Bailey had to punt for a seventh time. His booming kicks throughout the afternoon helped somewhat to offset the woeful offensive performance.
"Huge… He's got a Howitzer of a leg," Slater said of Bailey's work Sunday. "He's blasting the ball, putting it right where we want it. When you're playing against the best returner in the league in Andre [Roberts], we needed all those punts. Jake really helped us try to contain him the best we could."
"Special teams today stepped up real big," added Jones. "It set the tone early."
It would come down to the Patriots' smothering defense, however, to preserve this latest victory, and that's exactly what it did. Van Noy rushed Barkley on 3rd down near midfield and forced an errant throw that fell safely into the waiting arms of Collins. All the offense had to do was kneel down a few times to run out the clock and keep the Patriots atop the East.
"When Jamie picked that ball off," Slater revealed, "I thought, 'Now we can get some rest.'"
At the quarter mark of the NFL regular season, New England can't rest for long. It has work to do, but is where it hoped to be after four games.