ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Patriots and the Bills played against each other Monday night, but it was their common opponent that was the talk of the game.
Relentless, cold, and unceasing, the wind whipped its way across the Bills home field, affecting strategy so much that the Patriots only attempted three passes, which amazingly, ended up being enough for a 14-10 victory, a win that Patriot players, to a man, described as one they will never forget.
Amid gusts that approached 50 miles per hour and made the towering yellow goalposts dance and sway, throughout a wind that stayed steadily in the 20-30 m.p.h. range and made the flags around the stadium’s uppermost ring stand perpetually at full attention, the Patriots’ offense was reduced to an unprecedented one-dimensional rush fest, keeping Mac Jones’ arm in its holster while putting all faith and hope in the running game.
With that faith rewarded, the cold and weary Patriots took that running game and one final dramatic defensive stand and walked out of Buffalo with this season’s most defining win, a victory built on one long early touchdown run (thank you Damien Harris), one two-point conversion (thank you Brandon Bolden) and two more Nick Folk field goals (thank you big kick Nick), the sum total of which is enough to push the Pats (9-4) atop the overall AFC standings as well as securing their hold on first place in the AFC East. From a 1-3 start to a 2-4 record after six games, that’s seven straight wins and counting now, with the bye beckoning before it all starts again in Indianapolis.
“It’s not finished,” Bolden said. “We’re not even close to being done. We haven’t even hit our cylinders.”
They hit their marks and hit their decibels Monday night, from the 222 total rushing yards on the field to the ongoing whoops and hollers emanating from the post game locker room. This was a night to remember, not simply because it made a loud and clear announcement to the entire NFL that these Patriots are for real, but for what it represented in the ways of complementary, team-building football that can continue to galvanize a roster.
“The environment felt awesome,” said captain Devin McCourty. “To me it builds you as a team. To come on the road, to win here in Buffalo is tough, and I think when you come here you build as a team, yeah we had some Patriots fans here, but really it’s just you and the guys. We all played to that, all had each other’s backs. It was just a team win. When you can win like that on the road, it’s big. We have to go on the road in Indy and it’ll be another hostile environment against a team playing good football. But this was awesome.”
To win this way, with head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels clearly unwilling to let their prized rookie test the right arm Rex Ryan notoriously mocked as a “pea shooter” against the brutal elements but to pull out the victory anyway has to wake the rest of the league up to a new reality. It’s one that feels an awful lot like the old reality, where Belichick and Co. play chess while the rest of the league plays checkers.
The Patriots ran 32 consecutive running plays between Jones’ first two pass attempts, and rather than look disappointed to be robbed of a chance to unleash his arm, Jones was giddy over what he’d just witnessed. For a Florida kid who played college ball in balmy Alabama, this was a new experience in football weather, and even if he didn’t go to the air to make his point, this was not a case of being the kid in the group project who did nothing but still got the ‘A’ anyway. He was in charge of the huddle, reading the packed defensive box correctly, getting the right guy in motion, identifying what the Bills were doing as quickly and efficiently as he good.
And when it was over, he couldn’t gush enough over the five offensive lineman in front of him, the tight ends and receivers who joined their block party, the road graders who paved the way for Harris’s 111 yards, Rhamondre Stevenson’s 78 yards and Bolden’s additional 28 (not to mention the key late quarterback sneak Jones himself had for a crucial first down).
“For the offensive line to do what they did was incredible, they deserve all the credit in the world,” Jones said. “For Josh to call the plays that he called, knowing the environment, he knew that we were going to be able to run the ball, we couldn’t ask for better effort from those guys. It was a crazy game to be a part of. We knew if we didn’t turn the ball over, we’d be good. It was a strange day, but at the end of the day we had more points and won the game and that’s all that matters.”
It was a night to wake up the echoes of the old school football lovers, to feed the football souls who love it when the elements are in play, to call to mind gauzy memories of Ice Bowls and snow plows and play calling straight out of the pre-Super Bowl era. Belichick doesn’t quite go back that far, but on Monday night, he sure showed his willingness to dial back his football memories and return to a time when the ground game ruled the day.
“It’s windy, so if [our offense] throws three times or 300 times, when we go out there it’s our job to stop the offense so that’s what we did,” said linebacker Matthew Judon. “We know what our offense can do so we had to keep points off the board. That’s what we did.”
And when they were done, with a new round of snowflakes blanketing the field as they swapped hugs and handshakes, they’d not simply beaten the Bills, but the elements, too. And that was a double victory worth celebrating.
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