Though on paper, Monday night’s game between the Bills and the Patriots was merely a contest between a playoff-bound division winner and a 6-8 lame duck, it couldn’t help but have some symbolic significance for Buffalo. On the road, late in the year, against an AFC East foe that had beaten them 35 times out of 41 in the Belichick era, this was another chance for an up-and-comer on a hot streak to go on national TV and demonstrate how they’ve continued to improve as they set their eyes on their first postseason win since 1995. (Incidentally, also the most recent year they captured the division title.)
Despite winning 38-9 and getting the ESPN commentators to launch into lengthy discussions on the future of the Patriots with 20 whole minutes left to play, the Bills did not look flawless. Their weak run defense, which allowed six yards per carry on 24 rushes, stands out as a red flag heading into the playoffs. But particularly in the first half, as they built up a 24-9 lead, Buffalo’s offense was loads of fun and filled with surprises, especially in the eventual blowout’s highest-leverage situations. And that was enough to make this a perfect Monday night for a franchise hoping to very soon get its biggest win in a generation.
Way back when the game was just 3-3, with about four minutes left in the first quarter, the Bills gave their first signal that they were playing this game with absolutely no fear. Following an incomplete pass and apparent three-and-out, they sent Corey Bojorquez to stand in punt formation on his own 20 yard line. But Bojorquez never touched the ball, because the Patriots refused to put a guy on either of the Bills’ gunners. Instead, the ball got snapped directly to safety Jaquan Johnson, who without hesitation lofted a pass for cornerback Siran Neal. Neal held on and stayed in bounds while making the catch, and as a result the Bills kept hold of the football.
Thanks in large part to their league-leading conversion percentage on third downs, Sean McDermott’s Bills aren’t particularly known for taking risks on fourth. In fact, heading into Monday, their seven attempts on the final down was the fewest of any team in the league (though they had converted on an impressive five occasions).
But once you call the fake punt in the first quarter, you can’t very well chicken out when you’re facing fourth-and-short further down the field. And in fact, that’s the situation Buffalo got themselves into on the series immediately following. Fourth-and-1 on the New England 43, absolute chaos as the play clock ticked down, and still QB Josh Allen—who just looks so in control on the field that it’s baffling for anyone who watched him in his rookie and sophomore seasons—was able to get off an extremely simple play action bootleg that netted him 22 yards, even with the defense jumping offside. Just a few plays later, Zack Moss ran five yards into the end zone for a lead that the Bills would never relinquish.
Not that there wasn’t still a tense moment or two to be had before Buffalo managed to pull away. On the ensuing drive, with the score 10-9 because of a missed Nick Folk extra point, the Bills had the ball in the exact same spot of the field as their last fourth down. And though there was one extra yard to go, Allen completed a lengthy touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis that, unfortunately, got waved off because of the latest timeout whistle you’ll ever hear.
However, even with the gift of the second chance, New England couldn’t stop a 12-yard catch by Dawson Knox to officially move the chains. This drive, again, would give Buffalo a touchdown—no real shock, since they score on a higher percentage of their possessions than any other team in the league.
It’s very likely that the Bills could have handily won this game anyway even if these gambits had blown up in their faces (as one, historically, would expect from the Bills). But having fun while winning easily is exactly what you want out of a Week 16 game when you’ve already clinched your division, especially when there’s a big winning streak to maintain. And even though the Bills would be in second place in the AFC regardless of how close their victory was, and even if greater challenges await them, to win in this kind of show-offy fashion against a team wearing the Patriots’ uniforms—and in doing sweeping the series for the first time since ’99—is no mean feat.
“I was telling some of the guys on the sideline, I haven’t had this feeling in Foxboro ever,” said defensive end Jerry Hughes, who’s been with the Bills since 2013. “This is a nice feeling to come back here in this stadium and return a nice punch in the face.”