If you’ve followed the AFC East over the last two decades or so, the New England Patriots’ Monday night win over the Buffalo Bills earlier this month seemed incredibly familiar: The Patriots went on the road against a division rival and did exactly what it took to win, seemingly slashing a few holes in the opponents’ sails in the process.
As they racked up an incredible 17 division titles in 19 seasons, New England was dominant against Buffalo in particular, but after the Bills rolled into Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon with the division title basically on the line, they showed that the balance of power has finally changed.
Buffalo scored first and never trailed, posting a 33-21 win, its third against the Patriots in their last four meetings — quite the turnaround after New England had won nine of 10 over the previous five seasons.
The game wasn’t just significant for Buffalo, which is now 9-6 overall and 4-1 in the division, with the 4-11 New York Jets their last remaining AFC East game. It was also a statement for quarterback Josh Allen, who played arguably the best game of his career and quieting talk that maybe he’d regressed after showing great progress in 2020 and signing a $258 million contract extension last August.
Games like Sunday are why they signed him. Playing behind a patchwork offensive line, Allen was 30-for-47 for 314 yards and three touchdowns, adding 12 carries for 64 yards. He was strong on third down (Buffalo was 6-for-12) and stellar on fourth down, with Buffalo converting three of its four tries. That included a touchdown to Isaiah McKenzie on fourth-and-goal from the 2 for the Bills’ first touchdown, and on fourth-and-1 with 4:27 left in the game when Allen kept it and ran for eight yards. Buffalo went on to score on the drive, putting the game away.
“To have that trust in us, it means a lot,” Allen said of the coaches having the offense go for it on fourth down so often. “When you convert those and continue to convert those, that’s killer for a defense.”
It was also a huge game for McKenzie, who had 11 catches for 125 yards, both career highs, and the touchdown. Seeing an increase in playing time due to Cole Beasley’s absence, McKenzie certainly earned more snaps in future games, pulling in all but one of his 12 targets. (Beasley, who is not vaccinated against COVID and apparently doesn’t too closely follow the NFL-NFLPA rules for unvaccinated players, missed the Bills’ most important game of the year due to … having COVID.)
“I did [expect McKenzie to have a big day], to be honest with you,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said. “I know he was excited for the opportunity. I could tell during the week he was focused and ready to go.”
The Bills scored on six of their nine possessions; a seventh was the lone miss on fourth down, resulting in a turnover on downs, and the other two were the end of the first half and end of the game. It meant that punter Matt Haack was never called on, the first time a team has never punted against a Bill Belichick-coached squad.
Earlier this season, before everything went off the rails and we learned that we really couldn’t count on any team this season, Buffalo looked like the most complete team in the NFL. The Bills looked like that again on Sunday, as Mac Jones completed just 50 percent of his passes and had two interceptions, New England converted just one third down (on 10 opportunities), and its time of possession was under 25 minutes.
After starting the season 4-1, Buffalo went 3-5 over its next eight, including an embarrassing 9-6 loss to the Jaguars that had many questioning if their 13-3 record and AFC title game appearance season in 2020 was an aberration instead of a sign of things to come.
Now 9-6, the Bills are very much in control of their division and, they hope, rounding into their best form with the postseason looming.
“They had us for dead; we ain’t dying yet,” McDermott told his players in the post-win locker room.