On an apocalyptically gusty Monday night in December, the New England Patriots ran, ran, ran and ran some more against the Buffalo Bills. Defiantly limiting their rookie quarterback to just three passing attempts, they stuffed a 14-10 win down the throats of the AFC East favorite and stood tall against the overwhelming tide of passing in contemporary football.
Or at least that’s how it felt in the delirious aftermath of a tactical victory so extreme it can barely be called a throwback to anything.
Reality has reasserted itself in the intervening weeks. When the Bills and Patriots met in more sane weather conditions, the Bills’ quarterback-centric offense — and distinct advantage at the sport’s most crucial position — held serve. When the two teams collide again Saturday in the wild-card round, the Bills will enter as favored hosts (-200 at BetMGM) thanks to a formula that helped them rally past New England and win the the division.
The way the Patriots blew the Bills off course in that December matchup also helpfully illustrates the difference between big-picture team-building philosophies that steer franchises and the nitty-gritty decisions that often end up under the microscope when we arrive at the win-or-go-home stage of the season.
Yes, everyone would love to watch their team find a counterintuitive, demoralizing way to bulldoze a rival every once in a while. But to maximize your chances of celebrating a Super Bowl victory in the 2020s, you want your team built like the Buffalo Bills.
Bills built to pass, and stop the pass
The reasons the Bills lost that game are pretty much one and the same with the reason they have won so many games over the past two seasons: They devote their energy and resources overwhelmingly to passing and defending the pass.
In molding the Bills core that stepped into the AFC East driver’s seat once Tom Brady departed Foxboro, general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott have clearly come to terms with the NFL landscape. The last 10 seasons are the 10 pass-happiest seasons on record (by percentage of plays that involve passing attempts or sacks), and the Bills have fully leaned into it with the emergence of quarterback Josh Allen.
McDermott’s first draft pick at the helm was corner Tre’Davious White, and he spent in free agency to bring in the dynamic safety tandem of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. The biggest move came when they sent away a precious first-round pick (along with three additional picks) for game-breaking wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
With Allen’s breakout into a 6-foot-5 multidimensional terror under offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the Bills’ extreme modern football machine became fully operational. This season, the Bills’ offense has been a bit inconsistent (partially because of that windy Patriots loss), but still ranks 10th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric assessing team strength and efficiency. The defense, stifling opposing passing games, ranks first.
And they’re doing all that with the ball very much in the air. Over the last two seasons, Buffalo has thrown the ball more often than any other team on early downs in neutral situations — when play-callers’ philosophies are most apparent and unrestrained by game situations. Their pass rate is 63.1%, per the stats site RBSDM.com.
The yin to their yang, New England’s pass rate on those downs sits 30th in the league, at 44.5%. But taking that as a signal of philosophy just because of Mac Jones’ famous, victorious three-pass effort is misguided. Across Tom Brady’s last five seasons in New England, the Patriots threw 56.5% of the time in those situations, with only the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers passing more often on early downs.
In modern NFL, you pass to win the game
There’s a very simple explanation for why passing has surged and overshadowed running in the NFL, and it mirrors the 3-pointer’s march to domination in the NBA: One leads to more points.
EPA, or expected points added, is a metric that quantifies the value of individual plays in terms of points. Viewed on a broader scale, it has helped provide some of the insights that have led to the evolution of offenses. The Bills, for instance, aren’t the league’s most efficient passing offense — partially because they are running so many passing plays — but they ranked a solid 10th in EPA per dropback, according to RBSDM.com, adding an expected 0.142 points per play.
On the rushing side, the Patriots similarly ranked 11th in EPA for the plays they ran more often. Those plays, though, were expected to be worth -0.021 points on average. The Indianapolis Colts’ league-leading EPA on run plays (0.095) would rank 15th in the passing realm.
(There are some nuances to the chasm here, as EPA doesn’t do a perfect job capturing the time-killing benefits of running when ahead. But we’ve partially accounted for that by removing garbage time situations from the numbers.)
Simply put: Passing, or at least calling a passing play that adds inherent unpredictability, improves most teams’ chances of scoring in the vast majority of situations. Ideally, dual threats of running and passing create a swirl of uncertainty for opposing defenses and everything works. See the Green Bay Packers, whose offense ranks first in passing EPA and second in rushing EPA.
But crafting a behemoth is hard, and planning for everything to fall in line is foolhardy. The Bills’ reliance on Allen’s playmaking is extreme, but it’s the best possible allocation of the resources at their disposal.
“Balance is important if it’s working,” Daboll, the Bills offensive coordinator, told reporters last year. “If one of them (the run or the pass) is not working, then you better not have too much balance. You better do the other thing more.”
The limits of planning
Playing against the Bills defense, passing is often the thing that’s not working. That’s why the game-changing wind was so advantageous for the Patriots. The Bills’ run defense is good, but merely good, and New England’s is better.
What Bill Belichick and the Patriots did that night was a microcosm of the Bills’ larger team-building strategy: Lean into what works, to the extreme.
This being January in Buffalo, Saturday’s game will also feature some unpleasant weather, but it’s expected to consist only of very low temperatures, not notable wind or precipitation.
What's your goofiest sports take that you actually kind of believe? Mine is: If the Bills want to truly get the most out of Josh Allen, they gotta build a dome.
— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 12, 2022
Belichick — master tactician — could well emerge from the tunnel with another perplexing strategy to take pressure off his rookie quarterback, strengthen his stellar defense’s position and best the Bills. But even if he does, we should resist the temptation to see the result as a verdict on the contrasting styles of play.
Just as Belichick couldn’t have planned to meet the pass-first Bills in a snow-globe hurricane, no NFL decision-makers can plan to “hire the next Bill Belichick” or “draft Tom Brady.” They have to enter each season knocking down incremental targets. First, maximize the efficiency of the offense with the weapons on hand, scheme the best defense for the current environment. Then it gets broader: score more points than you give up, strategize how to get your team across the finish line to wins. Just about the most concrete goal possible to set in preseason is to win enough regular season games to host a playoff game.
That’s where the Bills have landed on the back of a fully unleashed Allen, Diggs and a lockdown secondary.
Best two out of three will, in this case, be momentous. But even if New England grinds out a win, it won’t change the logic of it all for the many, many games that lie ahead.