Bill Belichick painted a masterpiece using only 3 passes to beat Buffalo. Could he have done it with 0?
One day, at least presumably, Bill Belichick will retire as head coach of the New England Patriots. It’ll offer the man, who is currently 69 years old, plenty of long afternoons to kick back at his home on Nantucket and allow the sound of breaking waves to draw his memory to his great triumphs from the past. Super Bowls. Playoff games. Comebacks. Snowstorms.
It will certainly include Monday’s victory over Buffalo, 14-10, a game that may be the most quintessential Belichickian of all time. It was a run-heavy, defense-rich, situational-strategy fest that was equal parts blunt force and disciplined thinking.
Yet there stands a chance, maybe a good one even, that as sweet as this was, including propelling the Pats to first place in the AFC, there will be a tinge of regret.
Not that New England attempted just three passes – while running it 46 times — but rather that the Patriots attempted even a single one.
“Played kind of the way we felt we needed to get the win,” Belichick said, in a classic mumble. “In the end [we] scored enough points.”
They did, but none of them were because Mac Jones went 2-for-3 for 19 yards through the air. None of those completions mattered much. The conditions were so windy and New England’s blocking schemes and hard-charging backs were so in control of the game, that passing wasn’t needed. Jones had just one attempt heading into the fourth quarter.
Perfection, true perfection, would have been to not try it at all. The concept of playing an entire NFL game without employing the forward pass would have spoken to Belichick, who values the history of the game like few others.
Had New England done it, Belichick would have been able to enter his team into a six-way tie for the fewest attempts ever in an NFL game – zero – all set by teams in games held between 1933 and 1950. (It does happen with some regularity in college, as recently as Nov. 26, when Air Force defeated UNLV 48-14 courtesy of 69 rushes and zero passes.
Not that three passes is very many. It was the fewest in the NFL since the Bills tossed it just twice in 1974. Still, three isn’t zero. In this case, nothing would have been everything.
“I've been playing football since I was 6 years old,” said center David Andrews. “[At] 6 years old we threw the ball more than three times.”
Basically, here in 2021, the Pats won with an offense out of 1921.
“Just hats off to the offense, really,” said linebacker Matthew Judon, before smiling. “Everybody, probably besides Mac. He really didn’t do anything besides hand the ball off.”
Yeah, there was a lot of laughter by the Patriots postgame and who can blame them? Now 9-4, they sit atop the AFC and carry a seven-game win streak into their bye week. Moreover, they had found a new way to torture the Bills, their AFC East punching bag of the past couple decades.
From 2001-2019, Belichick’s teams went 34-4 against Buffalo and one of those Bills victories (2014) came when he rested many of his starters for the playoffs.
Then Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay and Buffalo won both meetings last year en route to an AFC championship game appearance. New England fell to just 7-9.
The Foxborough overhaul, though, was quick. Excellent drafts, terrific free agent work and the development of Jones as the next franchise quarterback meant this game would determine first in the division and conference. And that’s when Belichick's discipline would shine.
The way to win this game, he figured, was to control the ball and the clock, avoid turnovers and ride the defense. The Pats would be aggressive only at key moments – such as going for two rather than risk kicking into the wind after the first touchdown, a conversion that put the Bills on their heels throughout.
The Bills were 7-4 coming into the game, but they had struggled to run the ball and stop the run. They are a glamour team, not built for harsh conditions. They are at their best when quarterback Josh Allen is scrambling and making plays.
So Belichick sought to snuff all of that out in the most boring way possible. Run. Run. Run. At one point, facing third-and-5, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel had Jones run a quarterback sneak, which gained 4 yards. Then, on fourth-and-1, he had him run another quarterback sneak? You don’t see that everyday.
Yet unlike a lot of places, no one on that offense pouted or complained. Wide receivers chipped in with block after block. Tight ends were essentially extra tackles. And Jones just cheerily turned and handed it off. This was a nightmare for fantasy sports players, but heaven for the Patriots.
“I’m just trying to win,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter how many times you run it or throw it, if you win everyone is going to be happy.”
Belichick and McDaniels dared Buffalo to stop them, dared them to make them put the ball in the hands of a first-year quarterback who grew up in Florida, played college ball at Alabama and as recently as 2015 said on social media he’d never seen snow before.
Buffalo didn’t do it. So that was that. The defense made some plays, the wind aided Allen's inaccuracy (15 of 30 for 145 yards) and the Pats suffocated their way to first place again.
“That’s why I’ve loved playing here,” said veteran safety Devin McCourty. “This team isn’t about one person. It isn’t about egos. It isn’t about, ‘This is what we do so we are going to keep doing it.’ It’s about winning.”
Wind. Snow. Cold. Whatever.
“Good to get the win,” Belichick said.
The only regret he’ll ever have from this one? That three passing attempts were three too many.