It was fitting that J.C. Jackson would be the one to make that last play.
With 5:06 left in the game, and trailing the Patriots 24-17, Buffalo began their last drive on their own 25 where they began to drive methodically downfield – holding two timeouts.
Members of the same division, the Bills line up against the vaunted New England defense twice a year, and are certainly more familiar with them than many of the teams that have faced them this year. While they knew the Patriots would match cornerback supreme Stephon Gilmore on John Brown – their most dangerous receiver, they also knew which of the New England defenders they could take advantage of.
Their favorite matchup of the evening was Cole Beasley on Jackson. All evening Jackson struggled accounting for Beasley’s quickness. For the game, Cole would catch 7 passes for 108 yards – most of them against Jackson in man coverage. He caught 5 for 85 yards in the second half alone, including 4 in this final drive for 57 yards.
The Bills picked up two early first downs on throws to Beasley of 13 and then 12 yards, bringing them to midfield. An 11-yard scramble from Josh Allen brought them to the Patriot 39 with 3:39 left. But here, the drive seemed to stall. When a third-down run from Devin Singletary came up a yard short, Buffalo put the game in the hands of young quarterback, Allen.
As he had done on Thanksgiving against Dallas, Josh attempted to navigate the yard with a quarterback sneak, only to find his way initially hedged. Not to be denied, Allen fought his way out of the chaos at the line and found enough of an opening to dive through to pick up the first down.
After an illegal formation penalty brought them back to the 33, Allen (in spite of heavy pressure) threw the pass that looked like it might send the game into overtime.
New England showed man coverage in the pre-snap, but dropped into cover-two. Outside receiver Robert Foster’s deep corner route pulled safety Devin McCourty further and further from the middle of the field, opening a void 25-yards downfield that Beasley settled into for the catch that gave Buffalo a first-and-goal at the 8.
Usually in their Week 16 game, the Patriots are looking for that victory that will wrap up the number one seed in their conference. This year, that opportunity was already lost. Notwithstanding that they had yet to clinch their own division (a rarity in New England), the Patriots did come into the game holding the conference’s second seed – with its promise of a first-round bye if they could hang onto it. Buffalo came into the game with a playoff berth already locked up and the fifth seed all but assured. They did have a chance to actually take the division, but that would mean not only would they have to beat the Patriots in New England, but Miami would have to do the same next week – an unlikely combination.
So, from a seeding standpoint, this game was more important to the Patriots than the Bills. The stakes for the Bills were less tangible, but just as high. They were looking for that franchise moment – that one game when they would go into New England and knock the defending champions down in an important contest. In that sense, these final 8 yards might have been the biggest yards of the Buffalo season. They were literally all that separated them from the longtime kings of their division and their conference.
They had 2:21 left, including one timeout and the two-minute warning to re-write the franchise narrative.
The End Game
The first-down call was damaging – a designed off-tackle run by Allen that resulted in the loss of a yard and took the game to the two-minute warning. Their moment would come on the next play.
Another of the matchups available to Buffalo all game – and one that they perhaps didn’t take advantage of as much as they should have – was tight end Dawson Knox on safety Patrick Chung, who had coverage on him all over the field. On the shorter routes, Chung could adequately hang with Dawson, but was no match for his speed on deeper routes.
With 9:30 left in the first quarter, Knox ran a deep route from the NE 17 to the corner of the left end zone with Chung trailing him by about five yards. But Allen couldn’t get enough loft on the ball and missed the touchdown as he threw a line drive over Dawson’s head.
With 16 seconds left in the first half, they came back to this matchup, with Knox running toward that same corner of the end zone. This time, Josh laid the ball in perfectly for a 33-yard play that left the ball on the one-yard line, setting up the score that sent the game into the half tied at ten.
Now, with two minutes left, it was time for Knox vs Chung round three. Again, Dawson was running in the left corner of the end zone, with Patrick in trail mode. And once again, Josh couldn’t get any air under the ball. As the players, coaches and fans of the Bills watched the pass soar over Knox’ head, they all knew what would happen next. Now it was third-and-goal.
With Knox bracketed by Chung and Joejuan Williams, Allen had to go elsewhere. Josh may have had a shot at Beasley in a smallish window in between Jackson and Duron Harmon, and may actually have been waiting for Brown to get some separation from Gilmore on a crossing route. Whatever he was waiting for, Allen held the ball too long. And with Kyle Van Noy streaming around the corner to his right, Josh just pulled the ball down and stepped up into the sack and a six-yard loss.
The fourth-and-goal play was doomed from the start. After showing a seven-man blitz, three of those potential rushers dropped off. But the deception did its job. Of the four who actually rushed, three came through free – Van Noy and John Simon off the edges, and especially Jamie Collins up the middle. The pressure caused Allen to retreat all the way to the 30-yard line before he flung his desperation pass into the corner of the right end zone. There in the area was Beasley. But underneath him, and watching the ball all the way, was Jackson. They converged along the right sideline, where both leaped for the ball. But J.C. had the superior position, and slapped Buffalo’s last-gasp pass away.
With the 24-17 victory (gamebook) (summary), New England wins its eleventh consecutive division title, but probably must still beat Miami next week to get their first round bye. Back in the playoffs, Buffalo will be the fifth seed – almost certainly headed to Houston.
As to the eight yards, well it’s closer than Buffalo has been to the Patriots in many a year. But there are no moral victories in the NFL. This game was there for Buffalo to take. The Bills will now take this “almost” with them into the playoffs, where questions about Allen and the offense will follow them.
For the Patriots, in addition to the division crown, this game may mark the point where the offense finally figured itself out. Measured against an exceedingly tough Buffalo defense that ranked third overall, second in points allowed, third against the pass and second in passer rating against, the heretofore struggling Patriot offense created 414 yards of offense – 143 of them rush yards. More than this, quarterback Tom Brady saddled that Buffalo pass defense with a 111.0 passer rating. It was Brady’s best passer rating game since Week Three against Miami, and the highest allowed by Buffalo this season. In the second half, Tom completed 10 of 11 passes (90.9%) for 137 yards. After controlling the ball for 21:17 of the first half, the Patriots went on to dominate time of possession 38:52 to 21:08. They held the ball longer in the first half than Buffalo did all game.
Finally, future opponents of New England will note Jackson’s difficulties with quicker receivers and Chung’s struggles with tight ends that can go deep. As the season winds to its close and we learn more and more about them, the key to the Patriot defense is almost certainly its ability to rush the passer.
Unique to New England is the absence of a dominant pass rusher. There is no Nick Bosa or Aaron Donald – no one for the offense to focus on. It’s the Patriot linebackers that make the pass rush so difficult to slow down: Don’t’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy. They line up everywhere. Sometimes they rush. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they time their delayed rushes perfectly.
It works out to being a sixty-minute guessing game. If the offense guesses wrong, they will be plagued with free rushers into their backfield. And if they guess right and manage to put blockers on all the Patriots that are coming, then there will be opportunities in the secondary for big plays.
Last Saturday, the Bills almost cashed in on enough of them.