Foxborough, MA – With the natives turning restless after their first 1-5 start since 1995, the Patriots stunned the heavily favored Bills in a 29-25 victory at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Although a divisional win to snap a three-game losing streak won't cure all that ails them, the Patriots exorcised a lot of their demons in an upset win as an eight-point home underdog. The win snapped a four-game losing streak to the Bills and ended a 0-14 run for quarterback Mac Jones when the opponent scored 25 points or more, while Jones registered his first game-winning touchdown drive and second fourth-quarter comeback. For today, football season is back on in Foxborough.
With the jobs for the head coach and quarterback in question at 1-5, winning has to feel good for this team, its leaders, and the region. In the grand scheme, it might not mean much if the Patriots revert to losing habits in Miami next week. But they should enjoy this. Pats fans should enjoy this, and winning one may become contagious (hey, there's a chance).
Spinning it forward, the most sustainable aspect as the team tries to use this victory to turn the tide of their season was winning the line of scrimmage. In a move we've hoped for, the Pats moved Mike Onwenu to right tackle, with rookie Sidy Sow staying at right guard and Cole Strange returning at left guard. The O-Line combination settled things down for the offense to function properly, while the defense was relentless in pressuring Buffalo QB Josh Allen on 40.9 percent of his drop-backs.
Along with controlling the line of scrimmage, the Patriots played a mostly clean game by winning the turnover battle (2-to-1) and getting called for fewer penalties (8). That's the formula for this team moving forward, and although there's a long road back to the playoff hunt, it's encouraging to see that this team can execute against a quality opponent.
There's no rest for the weary as the Patriots head to Miami to face the high-powered Dolphins next. But with possibly some newfound confidence, they could make something of their season (sorry, #TeamTank, you'll have to wait till next week to celebrate).
Here are eight observations as the Patriots notch their second win against the Bills on Sunday:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Jabrill Peppers Sparks Fast Start With First-Quarter Interception
According to everyone you ask at 1 Patriot Place, the Patriots have done absolutely everything they can think of to improve their starts to games.
In the first six weeks, the Patriots were routinely playing themselves into early double-digit deficits that had them chasing games immediately, which is an easy way to lose. On Sunday, they reversed that trend by building a quick 10-0 lead that led to a 13-3 advantage at halftime.
Following a productive opening field goal drive for the offense, the Patriots defense began the game with a momentum-building turnover on the first play from scrimmage for Allen and the Bills to set the offense up in plus territory at Buffalo's 45-yard line. It's just the second such takeaway that put the offense on a short field for the defense this season.
On the play, the Patriots matched Buffalo's under-center formation with versatile safeties Jabrill Peppers and Kyle Dugger on opposite edges near the line of scrimmage. With the Bills quarterback carrying out a play-action fake, Peppers dropped into the flat in a cover-three zone. Allen anticipated that the tight end's release into the flat would hold Peppers, but Peppers baited him into throwing the corner route as he fell underneath tight end Dawson Knox's route to intercept the pass.
"Call that bait season," Peppers said to Patriots.com. "It's always good to start fast. You have to have a good start in this league, and I try to be a spark plug in any way possible. That was a play I recognized on tape."
The late-game heroics will garner most of the headlines. Still, Peppers's interception, followed by an ensuing seven-play touchdown drive to take a ten-point lead, was the defense feeding the offense in the exact way the Pats brass envisioned when Belichick built this roster in the spring.
If the Patriots can build from their fast start in Sunday's win to come out of the gate more competitively, that'll pay huge dividends for this team moving forward.
2. Patriots QB Mac Jones Orchestrates First Game-Winning TD Drive in NFL Career
When the Patriots offense was about to take the field down three points with 1:58 left in the fourth quarter, nose tackle Davon Godchaux approached his quarterback on the sideline.
The Patriots defense had, in Godchaux's words, "let the offense down" by allowing Allen and the Bills to take their first lead late in the fourth quarter. Godchaux went to his quarterback with a simple message: "I went up to him and said, 'What would Mike [Jordan] and Kobe [Bryant] do right now?' They'd go ice the game. They'd go win it. I went up to him, looked him in the eyes, grabbed his helmet, and said, 'I need you. Go ice the game.'"
New England's quarterback answered the call from one of his "close buddies" on the team by leading the Patriots offense on an eight-play touchdown drive to win the game. As a rookie, Jones led a field goal drive in a tie game against a lousy Houston team to orchestrate a last-second win. But this was different. This was against a playoff-caliber opponent. This was Mac's moment.
With a well-timed 34-yard screen pass against a zone-dropping defense as the drive starter, the key throw for Jones came on a third-and-8 conversion to tight end Hunter Henry. O'Brien calls the play design "Illinois," with a switch release by No. 2 (in the slot) and the tight end on a levels concept. The slot will run a five-yard under route while the tight end runs a deeper in-cut at 14 yards. When the help defender goes to the underneath route, Jones throws to Henry with edge pressure coming off the left side to move the chains and the offense into field goal range.
From there, Jones hit WR DeVante Parker on a five-step slant (+8 yards), RB Rhamondre Stevenson on an angle route (+10), and threw the game-winning touchdown on a "shake" route to his other receiving tight end, Mike Gesicki, to get the game-winning drive monkey off his back.
Due partially to having more time in the pocket, there were also more instances where Jones progressed past his initial read rather than panicking when his first read wasn't open. That was noticeable when the Pats used play-action on third-and-short. The initial read was to Bourne on a whip route, and it was well covered, but Jones calmly moved off it to his second read to find Demario Douglas for a 16-yard catch.
The Patriots QB said there were a few instances where his eyes dropped to the rush rather than sticking with his reads, but this was significantly better from Jones. Mac also made "big-time" throws to TE Pharaoh Brown (seam) and rookie WR Demario Douglas (seam) and ran the schemed elements of the offense sufficiently (quick-game, play-action, RPO, etc.). In all, Jones generated an excellent +0.34 expected points added on his 39 drop-backs (84th percentile).
We've been tough on the quarterback over the last three weeks, but against a team that had his squad's number, Jones delivered against the Bills on Sunday.
3. Personnel and Scheme Tweaks Lead to a Season-High 29 Points for the Patriots Offense
After back-to-back blowout losses to the Cowboys and Saints, the mantra around the team, led by the head coach's remarks following the losses, was that the Patriots were "starting all over."
However, a disappointing loss on the road in Vegas to the Raiders didn't feel like starting over. It felt like the same movie we watched in the first four games: the same slow start (13-3 at half) and the same shaky play by the offensive line and receivers, leading to the same rocky showing by the quarterback -- if that was starting over, oh boy, watch out below.
On Sunday, it felt like the Patriots offense started over, tweaking several aspects of the offense to stabilize the offensive line and create more conflict in the defense. Beginning with the personnel, the Pats coaching staff finally made a move we were all clamoring for by moving OL Mike Onwenu to right tackle. Onwenu hadn't started a game at right tackle since the 2021 season, with the team trying to lock him in at guard, but the move was necessary.
Heading into the weekend, the Patriots ranked dead-last in pressures allowed (36) and were 32nd in pass-blocking grade by right tackles (27.9 out of 100). Something had to give, as the team couldn't keep rolling out Vederian Lowe, who is simply in over his head. With fourth-rounder Sidy Sow holding his own at right guard, the Pats went with their sixth different combination in seven weeks: LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Sidy Sow, and Onwenu at right tackle.
Although they were missing interior rusher Ed Oliver, the Bills entered the game, leading the league in sacks (24) while ranking fifth in pressure rate. With big Mike at right tackle, Jones was only under pressure on a season-best 21.9% of his drop-backs, and the Pats had a 48% success rate on the ground. It might've come too late with the Pats in a hole record-wise, but it's not hyperbole to say that reconfiguring the O-Line might've saved their season from disaster.
Along with re-shuffling the offensive line, O'Brien is slowly building more motion into the offense, especially in the running game, with the Pats utilizing motion on 72.7% of their plays this week. The Pats OC also called eight play-action plays (6-of-8, 95 yards) and used more RPOs.
It's fair to ask, and we will, what took so long for the Patriots to do the following: move Onwenu to right tackle, feed Kendrick Bourne and Pop Douglas, and utilize more motion and run fakes. But my guess is that O'Brien was always building to this point with the offense. Unfortunately, the losses just snowballed on them too quickly.
This is the way for the Patriots offense moving forward. Now, let's hope they stick with it.
4. Patriots Defense Finally Solves Josh Allen By 'Charging Up' the Bills Quarterback
The Patriots took a different approach to defending Bills quarterback Josh Allen this time, focusing on a coordinated pass rush to put Buffalo's QB1 under siege.
As we wrote in our game plan piece earlier this week, to beat Captain Chaos (Allen), you have to bring the fight to him. New England did that by blitzing Allen on 43.2% of his drop-backs, while the Pats coaching staff challenged the interior defensive line to pressure Allen up the middle. The idea was to make Allen escape through the middle of the pocket rather than extending plays to his left or right, where he is most dangerous.
"You have to put the pressure up the middle. The edge guys can put pressure on him all you want, but if you don't have pressure up the middle against this guy, this guy is an elite quarterback. Top three quarterbacks in the NFL, so you have to force him out of the pocket up the middle and hope that the ends can catch him," Godchaux told Patriots.com.
The Pats interior rushers answered the call by contributing to a 40.9% pressure rate, which threw off the rhythm of the Bills offense and flustered Allen into some uncharacteristic misses in playground football mode. The leaders for the Patriots in QB pressures, per NextGen Stats, were Christian Barmore (5), Deatrich Wise (5), Ja'Whaun Bentley (3), and Godchaux (3). As those numbers suggest, they succeeded in pressuring Allen up the middle.
Although the Bills quarterback was only sacked once, Allen was hurried 18 times, throwing him off his game a bit. On pass attempts in over 2.5 seconds, Allen was just 10-of-24 with a 42.0 passer rating and a completion percentage over expected of -8.1.
Some days, the Bills quarterback might've burned the Patriots defense for allowing him to extend plays with his legs when pressure arrived. But, on this day, Allen was off his game.
5. Rookie WR Demario Douglas Breaks Out With Team-High 74 Scrimmage Yards
In another positive development for the Patriots offense, rookie jitterbug Demario Douglas returned from a one-game absence to lead the team with 74 scrimmage yards on five touches.
With the team pulling back on the workload for veteran WR DeVante Parker following a disappointing game against the Raiders, only Kendrick Bourne (28) ran more routes than Douglas (24) on Sunday. The sixth-round rookie caught four of his six targets for 54 yards while adding a 20-yard explosive on a jet sweep, where his ability to make defenders miss in space was on full display. Douglas was in the right spots for Jones on two plays up the seam and an option route where he motioned into the slot from the backfield.
Although it wasn't perfect, with one notable instance on third down where Mac seemed upset with the rookie's route, Douglas's explosive gear makes him a must-play in this offense – feed him.
6. CB Jack Jones, J.C. Jackson Factor Into Limiting Bills WR Stefon Diggs
The Patriots other kryptonite previously was superstar wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who averaged 94.8 yards with six touchdowns in six regular-season games vs. the Pats since 2020.
Diggs had his moments and a few close calls, mainly on a deep post where Allen overthrew a wide-open Diggs for a would-be explosive. Still, the Patriots kept the backend together to hold Diggs to six catches for 58 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets. This season, the Pats have fared very well against opposing number-one receivers. The other guys have given them problems, which rookie TE Dalton Kincaid did at times (8 catches, 75 yards).
As for Diggs, it was primarily J.C. Jackson (60 snaps) and Jack Jones in coverage, with Jones making his season debut after the team activated him off injured reserve this week. The second-year corner played 40 snaps (60.6%) as the Pats third outside CB, mixing in for Jonathan Jones, who was on a pitch count, and playing those three together in other instances.
We'll have to look at the film to see how well the Patriots did against Diggs, with Allen having a down game by his standards, but you'll take that in the box score against the Bills star.
7. Patriots Tight Ends Show Out on National Tight End's Day in the NFL
With the league recognizing National Tight End's Day on Sunday, the Patriots tight end trio amassed six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Although the box score stats don't jump out at you, the Pats tight ends were on the receiving end of some key plays in the game. We've already pointed out Henry's third-down reception on the game-winning drive and Gesicki's game-winning touchdown, while Brown has been a sneaky good pickup for the Patriots this season. Brown has surprised everyone with his receiving skills, catching passes of 26 and 25 yards, while a 22-yarder was wiped out due to a penalty. Brown also gained 13 yards after the catch over expected on his two receptions.
The Patriots will take the production from their three tight ends, especially when they make winning plays in big moments, which they did in the second half on Sunday.
8. Rookie Specialists Deliver in Clutch Moments in Patriots Win
With the special teams units ranking dead-last in DVOA through six weeks, it was another area of the team that was underperforming this season. Like the rest of the team, the rookie specialists had their best day at the office. Rookie kicker Chad Ryland made all three field goals he attempted, including a difficult 49-yarder in the third quarter. Plus, Baringer boomed a 64-yard punt and had two punts downed inside the 20. It was a much better day for all three phases.