A Pair of 3rd-Down Plays Monday Night Showed Why Bill Belichick and the Patriots Remain Ahead of the Game

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott didn’t want to give Bill Belichick any extra credit for Monday’s 14-10 victory that put the New England Patriots in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the AFC, but one must give credit where credit is due.

For all the talk about the ridiculous wind and the lack of pass attempts by Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, the game really boiled down to two third-down plays in the second half.

Quite simply, the Patriots executed on their key play, while the Bills did not. And once again, Belichick and the Patriots came out on the right side of that thin line between victory and defeat, leaving McDermott and his Bills looking ahead for redemption in Week 16 in Foxboro.

Needing five yards on a critical third down, Bill Belichick and the Patriots happily settled for four

Patriots QB Mac Jones lines up against the Bills on 'Monday Night Football' in December 2021
Mac Jones | Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It was no secret how the Patriots were going to try to win this game.

With a stifling defense, a stout offensive line, and two premier running backs in Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, the extreme wind conditions couldn’t have been more in the Patriots’ favor. And when Harris broke off a 64-yard touchdown run early in the game, the die was cast for how the Patriots would try to muscle down both the Bills and the clock to victory.

The signature moment of the game’s signature drive did not yield a touchdown, not even a first down. But it set the Patriots up for ultimate victory.

Faced with a 3rd-and-5 from the Bills’ 37-yard line, Jones made his most critical play on a night his name was called with remarkable infrequency. Jones would run the ball five times and famously throw it just three, setting a franchise record for fewest pass attempts in a game.

This time, Mac Jones plowed ahead himself to lead Patriots to victory

The previous record came in another extreme-weather game, forever known as the Snow Plow Game in 1982, when a work-release inmate named Mark Henderson used a snow-brush vehicle to clear a path for kicker John Smith on a snowy Foxboro Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. The resulting kick was the only score in a 3-0 victory, a game in which quarterback Steve Grogan threw the ball just five times.

Fast forward almost 40 years, and the Pats were setting themselves up for another critical field goal in a terrible-weather game, but they did not require any snow plows. Instead, it was Jones plowing forward on a quarterback keeper up the middle for four yards, setting up a 4th-and-1.

The call made clear that Belichick saw the third down as a two-down situation. Rather than risk a pass going into the wind, he simply had his quarterback rush forward to reduce the yardage needed on fourth down. Asking a quarterback to sneak forward for five yards is a tall task. But the task was not necessarily to get all five yards. Given the way the offensive line totally dominated this game, asking to pick up one yard was sufficient.

And not only did Jones sneak once again to get that yard and a first down, but the Patriots also got the added bonus of McDermott challenging the spot, a challenge he had little chance of winning that cost him a critical time out.

With the game on the line, the Bills flinched on their third-down decision

Jones’ two rushes, the second earning the first down with 3:09 left in the third quarter, allowed the Patriots to maintain possession into the fourth, putting the wind at their backs for the final quarter. So when the drive finally stalled with 13:01 left, Nick Folk converted a relatively easy 34-yard kick for a 14-10 lead.

Now it was Buffalo’s turn to face a critical third down, having advanced to the Patriots’ 13-yard line for a 3rd-and-9 with 2:11 left. And here is where that fine line between the Patriots’ success and their AFC East opponents’ failure — the formula that has existed for virtually all of the past 20 seasons — divided these two teams once again.

Where Jones and the Patriots executed flawlessly on their crucial third down, the Bills never gave themselves a chance. Tight end Dawson Knox moved before the snap, a crushing false start that put the Bills in a formidable 3rd-and-14 going into the wind against a defense that had locked Josh Allen down nearly the entire game.

And here again, the difference between the teams became apparent. Where the Patriots were content to take two plays to gain their first down, the Bills went for the whole thing on their second shot on third down, with Allen throwing an incomplete pass into the end zone.

Now down to a 4th-and-14 instead of 4th-and-manageable, the result was predictable. Another incomplete pass. Game over.

So, forgive McDermott for not wanting the media to give Belichick too much credit for the victory. The Bills coach knew the score. With the game hanging in the balance, the Patriots did their job. The Bills did not.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

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