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Instant Analysis

Playing it safe was the way to go, and now the Patriots are in the driver’s seat in the AFC East

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones pitched to running back Brandon Bolden, who ran for a successful 2-point conversion in the first quarter.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Instant Analysis from the Patriots’ 14-10 win over the Bills:

• They played it safe Monday night. Some might say too conservative, that the Patriots played not to lose. And Bill Belichick showed no faith in rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

But Belichick ultimately was right. On a night with wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour, playing it safe was the way to go. The Patriots made just one bad mistake all night — a muffed punt by N’Keal Harry that led to a Bills touchdown — and earned a victory the old-fashioned way, by running the ball, playing stout defense, and making fewer mistakes than the opponent.


Most players couldn’t remember the last time they played in a game with 46 rushes and three pass attempts. Belichick quipped that his high school team didn’t throw much. But the Patriots are never afraid to do something different.

“That’s why I’ve loved playing here,” safety Devin McCourty said. “This team isn’t about one person, it isn’t about egos. It’s about winning. We’re going to adjust, and find a way to win.”

This was not the prettiest win by any stretch. But it was a hugely important win, improving the Patriots to 9-4 and first place in the AFC playoff standings. It also puts the Patriots in the driver’s seat to win the AFC East.

Belichick didn’t play to win Monday, but playing not to lose was good enough.

• Interesting coaching tactics on both sides. The Patriots clearly changed their game plan to reflect the weather — running the ball almost exclusively, choosing the wind for the fourth quarter, choosing a field goal over going for it on fourth and 2, and going for the 2-point conversion early in the game when heading into the wind.


The Bills, meanwhile, stuck to their game. Josh Allen dropped back to pass on 38 of the Bills’ 57 plays, completing 15 of 30 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown, and rushing six times for 39 yards. They kicked extra points, and attempted field goals into the wind. The result: The Bills lost a fumble, Allen took two sacks, the Bills had a handful of drops, and missed a 33-yard field goal wide right.

The Bills didn’t adjust for the wind, and lost the game because they made more negative plays than the Patriots did.

• What a performance by the Patriots’ offensive line and run game. It became abundantly clear in the first quarter the Patriots weren’t going to even try to throw the ball, yet they still were able to move the ball against the Bills. The Patriots rushed 46 times for 222 yards (4.8 average), with Damien Harris rushing for 111 (including a 64-yard touchdown) and Rhamondre Stevenson adding 78 yards. Seven Patriots carried the ball Monday night.

The Patriots were only 2 of 12 on third down, but the offensive line did a tremendous job opening up lanes for Harris and Stevenson even though the Bills were playing the run. Fullback Jakob Johnson seemed to be paving the way every time the Patriots broke off a nice gain. And Stevenson showed impressive patience, vision and cut-back ability on several of his runs.

The Bills allowed 264 yards on the ground two weeks ago against the Colts, and the Patriots clearly were paying attention.


• What an equally impressive performance by the Patriots’ defense, though of course it was aided by the conditions. But after allowing 270 rushing yards to the Titans last week, the Patriots only allowed 99 rushing yards Monday, and held the Bills to just 230 yards total. The Bills’ only touchdown came after a turnover on a punt, and the Patriots did a great job of clamping down in the red zone, allowing just one TD on four opportunities.

• Great call by the Patriots to send McCourty on a blitz on the Bills’ final play, a fourth and 14 from the 18-yard line. Anyone who watched the Lions’ win Sunday saw how the Vikings didn’t send any pressure at Jared Goff and let him march right down the field. But with the game on the line, the Patriots blitzed a defensive back who rarely gets after the quarterback, and McCourty’s pressure forced Allen into an early throw and an incompletion.

• Belichick and Josh McDaniels clearly didn’t have much faith in Jones’s arm strength or ability to avoid mistakes in the wind. Jones completed just 2 of 3 passes for 19 yards, the fewest pass attempts in an NFL game since the Bills had 2 against the Jets in 1974.

It was especially surprising the Patriots didn’t throw a pass in the second quarter when they had the wind at their backs. If the Bills had taken the lead in the fourth quarter, we certainly would be questioning if the Patriots were too conservative on offense.


But by running the ball, the Patriots kept the clock moving, and avoided sacks and interceptions. In a game with severe weather, that’s a winning formula.

• The Patriots did choose a strange time to throw the ball, however. With 6:51 left in the fourth quarter, Jones threw incomplete to Nelson Agholor on second down, stopping the clock and giving the Bills plenty of life. This was one of those decisions that won’t get much scrutiny because the Patriots won, but their clock management toward the end of the game was a little questionable.

• The Bills sure were gifted 3 points by the officials on a horrible late hit penalty on Myles Bryant, who hit Allen while the quarterback was still in the air. But the Patriots got their break later in the fourth quarter when Adrian Phillips was fortunate he wasn’t busted for holding Dawson Knox in the end zone.

• Phillips did a great job filling in for Kyle Dugger and defending Knox, holding him to two catches for 14 yards. But Phillips suffered a knee injury late in the fourth quarter and was immediately ruled out of the game. If he is out for an extended period of time, that could be a significant blow for the Patriots’ defense.

• Belichick certainly made a questionable decision to use N’Keal Harry as a punt returner, leading to the Patriots’ only big mistake of the night, and the Bills’ only touchdown.


Harry had never returned a punt in the NFL, and returned only 14 in college. And Monday night, with 40 m.p.h. winds, was when Belichick decided to use him for the first time? Predictably, Harry struggled to field his first punt, and muffed it away to the Bills at the Patriots’ 14. The Bills scored a touchdown on the next play to make it an 8-7 game, much closer than it should have been. That score is all on the coaches.

• Kyle Van Noy might want to consider a volleyball career after his NFL days are over. Van Noy batted down yet another pass in the first half Monday, his 10th of the season. His previous career high before this season was six, set last year with the Dolphins. Van Noy’s bat Monday knocked down an Allen pass on third and 3 right after the 2-minute warning, and prevented the Bills from putting points on the board.

• Nick Folk continues to be one of the best signings by the Patriots in the last several years. He hit two field goals, from 41 and 34 yards, to give the Patriots a crucial four-point cushion for most of the game. Folk is now 28 for 28 this year on field goals under 50 yards, and leads the NFL in scoring by a wide margin.

The Patriots perhaps could have been more aggressive and chosen to go for it on fourth and 2 instead of attempting the 41-yarder. But when points are going to be hard to come by, and your kicker is performing that well, you go with the kick.

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Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.