When a team is struggling to throw the ball, one of the best remedies is to use play-action, misdirection, and to attack through the air on early downs. This seemed to be New England’s exact approach against the Bills in Week 16, and it helped Tom Brady play his best game of the second half of the season. It also led to the Patriots clinching their 11th straight AFC East Division Title.
New England’s three biggest pass plays all came in the second half on first down. The below play was a 1st-and-10 in the 3rd quarter. The Patriots were able to fool the Bills with a fake jet sweep. Keep your eyes on linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (#49). He was responsible for Rex Burkhead out of the backfield. However, the play-fake got him to look in the direction of the jet-sweep action just long enough to let him lose Burkhead.
The Pats even faked the cameraman out with that one. The result was a 31-yard gain that set up a field goal.
Trailing 17-13 later in the 3rd quarter, the Patriots continued attacking with play-action. Watch how this play-fake on 2nd down sucked up Bills linebackers, leaving a huge void in the middle for Jakobi Meyers’ route.
On the very next play, another 1st-and-10, the Patriots’ built off of Buffalo’s inability to decipher Tom Brady’s play fakes. They went with play-action, drawing the Bills’ second-level defenders toward the line of scrimmage once again. But watch how those defenders then quickly sprinted back to their zones (especially #24 Taron Johnson towards the top of the screen) to account for any routes behind them after being burned by play-action on the previous play. This created the spacing and leverage for a 23-yard screen pass to Rex Burkhead.
What a great play-call sequence by Josh McDaniels there. The Patriots added a field goal to cut Buffalo’s lead to 17-16.
One of the things we wrote about last week in previewing this game was how defenses around the NFL have been accounting for Edelman with multiple defenders on 3rd down. The Bills took this approach on several 3rd downs during their Week 4 matchup. We suggested that the Patriots should try to get Edelman involved more on early downs where they were more likely to see zone coverage or situations where the defense was not giving him special attention.
On their game-winning drive, the Patriots generated a big play to Edelman by taking this approach. Below, Edelman was aligned in the slot to the left. Again, this was 1st-and-10. Again, the Patriots used play-action. The Bills would end up playing zone coverage here.
You can see how the 2nd level defenders again bit hard on Brady’s play-fake, creating the huge void for Edelman. The Patriots finished this drive with what would be the game-winning touchdown.
These plays weren’t the only reasons why the Patriots were more effective on offense. They ran the ball well (143 yards on 35 carries). They also converted 50% of their 3rd downs. Many of these were short throws into tight windows – nothing spectacular, but enough to keep the chains moving.
Patriots’ game-plan aside, we have to mention a big mistake the Bills Defense made in the third quarter. New England faced a 3rd-and-18 from Buffalo’s 43-yard line. This was just a few plays after Rex Burkhead’s 31-yard catch and run we highlighted above. For some reason, the Bills decided to play soft quarters zone coverage here. Really soft. In a game where points were at a premium, they conceded easy yards to a struggling offense that put them in field goal range, as you can see below.
The Patriots were able to put 3 points on the board here.
I just don’t understand this decision by Sean McDermott and Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier. There are many ways to be safe and aggressive at the same time. Play 2-man, for instance. Or Tampa-2 zone but jam at the line. Or bring an overload blitz but only rush 4. There are many options. But the decision to play Charmin Extra Soft zone coverage here? That was inexcusable.
It just didn’t make sense either. The Patriots do not have much of a downfield threat in the passing game. Tom Brady’s accuracy has been erratic, and he has simply not been a good quarterback throwing the ball into tight windows at the intermediate levels this season. Yet the Bills gave up easy yards that enabled New England to kick a field goal. They did this by design, meaning they must have viewed this as a small win.
If the Patriots don’t kick a field goal there, the scoring sequence goes 17-10 Bills, 17-13 Bills, 20-17 Patriots (no 2-point conversion), and then the Bills would have been able to kick a field goal on their final drive to send the game to overtime. That 3rd-and-18 play-call ended up being a 7-point decision (The final score was 24-17).
Yes, we understand the idea of the fallacy of predetermined outcomes. The exact same events would not have taken place if the Patriots had punted. The point still stands, though, in reference to the Bills’ approach. Instead of applying pressure and stepping on their throats, they gave New England an opening. The Pats, of course, were more than willing to take what the Bills gave them.
This is the reason you would be a fool to think the Patriots won’t be able to make another Super Bowl run this year. Other teams still fear them. This impacts their decision-making and approach. Bill Belichick and the Patriots are the best in the NFL at stealing those hidden yards and points, and at taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes. Don’t think for a second that they’ll be an easy out in January.
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