With just three passes in a win, Bill Belichick paints a masterpiece
One of the most successful NFL coaches of all time, Bill Belichick, put his mad genius on display once again this week as the Patriots beat the Bills with just three passes.
On a windy night, the Patriots beat the Bills while passing the ball only three times — the fewest since 1974. It was a game that revealed the continued brilliance of the all-time great coach.
When the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills played on Monday night, the game was bound to be ugly. The wind was projected to gust at least 50 miles per hour. The wind chill was in the 20s. There was snow.
Those grim conditions elicited a tour de force from the most successful coach of all-time. To counteract the wind, the Patriots threw the ball only three times all game. No team had thrown fewer passes in a game since 1974. And when the Patriots clinched a 14-10 win while bucking nearly half a century of football history, Bill Belichick did something even crazier. He smiled.
“This is the most classic Bill Belichick game I’ve ever seen,” retired quarterback Peyton Manning said on ESPN2’s “ManningCast.”
This season is shaping up as what could be the most impressive season ever from a coach who has already won six Super Bowls. Starting a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones, the Patriots are now 9-4 — tops in the AFC. The win against the Bills marked their seventh straight — a stretch that has also included victories against playoff caliber teams in the Los Angeles Chargers, Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans.
Few of Belichick’s 289 career victories exemplified his mad genius more than Monday night’s.
Jones has emerged as a rookie sensation, but he was walking into unfamiliar territory. It wasn’t just his first game in Buffalo. “I have never seen snow,” Jones tweeted six years ago.
The snow was hardly the problem. The wind was consistently blowing hard and gusting even harder. The flags whipped at Highmark Stadium and the pregame television crew was nearly blown out of its seats on the field. A typically curt Belichick described the conditions as “somewhat challenging.”
But the Patriots had a clear strategy: they eliminated the wind.
“We played kind of the way we felt like we needed to play to win,” Belichick said afterwards. “It was a lot of situational football.”
Gusts as ferocious as the ones Monday night affect punts, kicks and pass plays. They don’t disrupt runs in the same way. And when the Patriots began the game with the ball — heading into the wind — Jones handed the ball off. Then he handed the ball off again. And again. And again.
New England’s first three possessions finished without a single pass. The first two ended in punts. The third of those finished with a 64-yard Damien Harris touchdown run that put the Patriots ahead. Then, instead of kicking an extra point into the wind, the Patriots went for two. They ran it. They got it.
In all, they called 10 consecutive runs before Jones finally delivered his first pass, an uneasy 12-yard completion toward the end of the first quarter. By midway through the fourth quarter, he still had just that one pass and was minutes away from history.
New England got the ball back for what would be its penultimate possession with 7:24 left in the game. The drive started with the Bills stuffing a run for a one-yard loss, but there was no indication the Patriots would veer from their stubborn ground attack. They led 14-10, Buffalo had struggled to move the ball and they were incentivised to run down the clock.
That’s why Jones’s second-down pass — a smart and expected decision in any other circumstances — was such a stunner. After it fell incomplete, Jones passed yet again on third down, but the screen to his running back for seven yards landed the offense short of the first-down line. It was the first and only time New England threw on consecutive plays all game.
Of the Pats’ 49 plays, 46 were rushes, for a total of 222 yards. In one of the oddest sequences, Jones ran a quarterback sneak on third and 5. Then he ran another quarterback sneak on fourth down.
The last team to run fewer pass plays in a game: the Bills in 1974. That September day, they beat the Jets 16-12 without completing a single throw. O.J. Simpson carried the ball 31 times for 117 yards in the Bills’ win.
These Bills held tight, primarily because of a touchdown after they got the ball 14 yards away from the end zone because of a miscue by New England on a punt return — the wind again. But Buffalo and their rocket-armed quarterback Josh Allen didn’t respect the wind in the same way the Patriots did.
Allen threw 30 passes, and a whole bunch were close to being intercepted. Trailing by four in the fourth quarter, they missed a field goal. When they got the ball back once more, Allen came up short on 4th down.
That’s when Belichick grinned. The Patriots were moments away from winning a game in the most Belichickian-fashion possible: it was unorthodox, ruthlessly disciplined and ultimately brilliant.
The Patriots are now the No. 1 seed in the AFC, a standing that was difficult to imagine at numerous points over the last couple years. They lost Tom Brady. They missed the playoffs last year. They were 2-4 to start this season.
Brady’s departure was the real-life version of one of the greatest “what-ifs” in sports: What if Belichick and Brady separated, how would they fare? Brady won that barroom debate in year one, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.
But this second season has made it abundantly clear that Belichick has no shortage of brilliance remaining. His defense is looking nearly as good as ever. Jones, when he’s allowed to throw the ball, has been far and away the class of this crop of rookie quarterbacks. At times, when he accurately and deftly moves in the pocket, he even resembles a young Tom Brady.
That’s the scariest thought for everyone who was tormented by two decades of New England dominance: it may just be beginning yet again.
-The Wall Street Journal
Appeared in the December 8, 2021, print edition.