Chad Finn

The Patriots’ message was clear: We’re the favorites in the AFC

The Patriots have never had a win that looked quite like this.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) reaches for a first down as he is forced out of bounds by cornerback Myles Bryant.


Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and story lines from the Patriots’ game . . .

It’s been clear for a few weeks now, maybe even a month, that the one-season respite is over for the rest of the AFC and the Patriots are again a team to be reckoned with in the playoff race.

On a wild and windy Monday night against the Bills, Bill Belichick and the Patriots delivered an even blunter message: We’re the favorites here, you’re not, and we’ll gladly embarrass you to prove it.

The Patriots won their seventh straight game, their sixth without a loss this season on the road, and put a grip on the top seed in the conference with a 14-10 victory over the Bills – the defending AFC East champions – in which quarterback Mac Jones was required to throw just three passes.

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The Bills entered the game with the NFL’s sixth-ranked run defense at 96.6 yards per game. The Patriots ran for 96 yards alone in the first quarter, setting the tone for a night in which they’d run 46 times (on 49 offensive plays) for 222 yards and a touchdown.

The Bills knew what was coming. They couldn’t stop it. It was humiliating, and if the humiliation wasn’t entirely deliberate, it sure hit the Bills like it was. The home team did stay close. The Bills were positioned for a go-ahead score in the final minutes. But the Patriots’ stout defense thwarted the effort. In the aftermath, the Bills acted like they’d just lost the Super Bowl.

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The Patriots have collected many wins over the last 20-plus years that confirmed their collective smarts, toughness, and determination. But they’ve never had one that looked quite like this. Forty-six rushes, three passes, and immensely satisfying. What a flex, Belichick. What a flex.

Some further thoughts, upon immediate review . . .

THREE PLAYERS WHO WERE WORTH WATCHING

(Players suggested in Unconventional Preview: Devin McCourty, Matt Breida, Dane Jackson)

Myles Bryant: With do-everything safety Kyle Dugger out (COVID-19 protocol), the Patriots needed someone to emerge from the depth chart to aid fellow safeties Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips. That player turned out to be Bryant, who made the game-clinching play, making a smart read to bust up Bills quarterback Josh Allen’s fourth-and-14 pass in the final minutes. That Bryant was a hero in one of the final scenes was a kind of justice. In the third quarter, he was called for an absolutely ridiculous unnecessary roughness penalty when he hit Allen as he bounded toward the first-down marker on third and 7. The penalty put the ball on the Patriots 20, and the Bills kicked a field goal, cutting the Patriots lead to 11-10. The 3 points were an early holiday gift to the Bills.

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Davon Godchaux: Rookie Christian Barmore has been getting deserved notice for his knack for making destructive plays at the line of scrimmage and in the opposing backfield. But Godchaux has been a force in recent weeks as well, never more so than Monday night. He put a hurting on the Bills’ running backs from beginning to end, from rushing Devin Singletary on the second play of the game to stopping Zack Moss in the fourth quarter on first and goal from the 6-yard-line for no gain. The hit on Moss set off a sequence in which the Bills burned a timeout on second and 6, saw Matthew Judon sack Allen after the quarterback tripped over his own blocker, threw the ball away on third down because Allen thought he had a free play, and to punctuate it all, missed a field goal. Godchaux finished with a game-high 10 tackles while the Bills gained just 99 yards rushing on 25 attempts. Might want to start mentioning his name when we discuss the Patriots’ various savvy free-agent pickups last offseason.

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Nick Folk: We probably could have used this spot to salute the entire offensive line. But we have to give the nod to Folk, who on a night when wind gusts hit 55 miles per hour remained his usual dependable self. Folk hit a 41-yard field goal early in the second quarter to put the Patriots up 11-7, then salvaged a 14-play drive in the fourth quarter with a 34-yarder knuckleball to make it 14-10. Tim Wakefield’s pitches in the summer of ‘95 didn’t have as much movement as that kick.

GRIEVANCE OF THE GAME

N’Keal Harry had some nice moments Monday night. No, he did. He helped spring Damien Harris for his 64-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and even had a nice block on Brandon Bolden’s 2-point conversion run. But with a little over 2 minutes left in the first half, he stayed in the vicinity of a Bills punt long enough to have the ball bounce up and nick off his helmet. The Bills recovered at the Patriots 14, and on the next play Allen found Gabriel Davis for a touchdown. I have questions: What was Harry, who has never returned a punt in the NFL and is essentially a backup blocking tight end at this point, doing out there as a returner. And how did he not hear the cries of thousands upon thousands of Patriots yelling in unison, “What are you doing?! Get away! In the name of Chris Harper, get away!” as he inexplicably danced around the ball?

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MATCHUP

Patriots running game against Bills run defense

What else would it be? The Patriots ran 46 times, including 32 straight running plays at one point. Damien Harris ran 10 times for 111 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown burst on a third-and-5 carry in the first quarter. Rhamondre Stevenson didn’t get his first carry until 1 minute 55 seconds remained in the first quarter, but lugged the ball 24 times for 78 yards, becoming the workhorse when Harris was sidelined with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. (”This is a special, special back,’’ said ESPN’s Louis Riddick of Stevenson.) Much of their work – we should also note Bolden had 28 yards on four carries – came with the Bills stacking nine or 10 players in the box. This was a test of wills, and the Patriots won it with ease.

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THREE NOTES SCRIBBLED IN THE MARGINS

Allen finished just 15 of 30 for 145 yards and a touchdown, but his ability to zip passes through the wind was impressive. It is surprising the Bills didn’t design more runs for him, though. He was the Bills’ leading rusher with 39 yards … Stefon Diggs made the catch of the game, a 26-yarder in the fourth quarter, but J.C. Jackson, with an assist in coverage from the wind, held him to four catches for 51 yards … Mark it down: Mac Jones is going to throw for 300 yards in the teams’ second meeting on Dec. 26. Maybe 325. On more than three passing attempts, obviously.

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