There’s a famous story about Super Bowl XXV, between the Bills and Giants.
One week before the game, then–Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick began a meeting with his players by telling them that if they let Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas run for 100 yards, they’d win the game. Think about it for a moment, and realize that this suggestion was going to require some salesmanship. The 1990 Giants had the NFL’s top-ranked scoring defense and fourth-best rushing defense, and NFL defenders are typically not inclined to let opposing offenses do anything if they can help it, so forgive Belichick’s players if they didn’t immediately approve of his suggestion.
“The room erupted, basically,” former Giants linebacker Carl Banks, who started for that team, told me. “But then he says, ‘Calm down.’ And that’s when he went into the data.”
The Bills had beaten the Giants in their regular-season meeting and were the highest-scoring team in the NFL that season because of their explosive no-huddle offense. Belichick didn’t think the Giants could keep up with them in their base defense. The Bills played so fast that to show his players film from Buffalo’s 51-3 win over the Raiders in the AFC championship game, Belichick had to splice together coaches film and broadcast film because the coaches film regularly missed plays. He was convinced that Buffalo was committed enough to that style of offense that it would keep passing even if the Giants swapped a down lineman for an extra linebacker and tried to cut off crossing routes and swing passes.
“I didn’t feel like we wanted to get into a game where they threw the ball 45 times,” Belichick said, according to the Giants’ 25th-anniversary series on that team. “I knew if they had some success running the ball, they would stay with it. And I always felt when we needed to stop the run, we could stop it. The more times they ran it, it was just one less time they could get it to [Andre] Reed or get it to [James] Lofton or throw it to Thomas, who I thought was more dangerous as a receiver, because there’s more space than there was when he was a runner.”
In hindsight, it’s remarkable how closely Belichick’s description of that game plan matches the core principles of most modern NFL defenses. At the moment, though, it was radical to suggest playing a game with mostly two linemen and encouraging the Bills to run the ball. Remember, the popularization of concepts like efficiency and the value of passing on early downs were decades away. But while the idea was initially met with shock and confusion, players got on board quickly. Once Belichick laid out the plan, they understood it and believed in it.
“I was the first man out in big nickel, so when I saw the game plan, I realized I wasn’t going to get near the play time that I usually got,” former Giants linebacker Steve DeOssie told me. “But we just understood what the job was and that everybody had their part in the job. So the way [the game plan] evolved, nobody was in a position where they were doubting anything. We knew that if we were able to do what we were planning to do we were in an excellent position.”
It helped that Belichick’s players trusted his insights and his preparation, so much so that the team’s first game-plan meeting of the week was an anticipated event.
“The one thing that we’d all look forward to with Bill was what he was going to present in terms of strategy because he spent so much time on it,” Banks said.
The meeting room was Belichick’s atelier, and the players who stepped into it felt like they were getting fitted for a custom suit. In that game, the alterations worked perfectly: Thomas got his 100 yards (135, actually) but Giants defenders were there to hit Bills receivers either just before or as they caught nearly every pass. New York ran the ball effectively on offense to control time of possession 40:33 to 19:27, and won 20-19 when Buffalo missed a last-second field goal. The defensive game plan, scribbled on note paper with sections like “no-huddle adjustments,” is now in the Hall of Fame.
The Patriots will face the Bills for the third time this season on Saturday. Their first meeting was in Buffalo, in Week 13, which New England won by running the ball on almost every play (quarterback Mac Jones attempted three passes) to combat 50-mph wind gusts. The Bills won the second meeting, in Week 16, in gentler conditions. Leveling the season series helped propel Buffalo to a second-straight AFC East title and soothed some angst that New England might have been about to recapture its big brother status in the division after only one year in a post–Tom Brady world.
That second meeting, under more normal conditions, showed that the Bills are probably the better team, with a more talented roster and a better quarterback in Josh Allen. Buffalo’s chief worry is that Belichick will pull out his tape measure and scissors and stitch up a game plan to stop it. That’s how the Patriots won the first meeting in the wind, with an almost all-run offensive plan that would have sounded as strange in 2021 as purposefully giving up rushing yards did in 1991. It’s how they’ve won games like Super Bowl LIII, when the Patriots went from being the heaviest man-to-man coverage defense in the NFL to playing 61 percent zone coverage to beat the Rams. And it’s how they beat the Chiefs in the 2018 AFC championship game, with a plan centered on ball control and keeping Patrick Mahomes off the field. If you’re noticing that there isn’t a consistent schematic tendency in these games, that’s the point. Many great football coaches are designers, with signature looks. Belichick is a tailor, making every game plan a bespoke creation. And his players never wear off the rack.
“We know each other well. I’m sure there’ll be wrinkles,” Belichick said Wednesday. “I’m sure there’ll be things that both teams will do that try to keep the other team off balance or to give them a little bit of a different look.”
Part of Belichick’s game-planning mastery is sheer insight, the ability to watch a game or a play with dozens of variables and separate signal from noise better than most, but it’s mostly simple attention to detail and near-endless preparation. In the 1990s, when film technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now, most coaches went back four games to study an opponent. Belichick didn’t find four-game sample sizes trustworthy, though, so he’d watch eight. If he saw a team do something over the course of four games, he’d consider it a tendency. Over the course of eight weeks, though, he believed teams showed you their trends.
“If a team does something for four weeks it’s subject to change,” Banks said. “If they do it over eight weeks it becomes a trend and that’s who they are.”
In the Super Bowl, Belichick trusted that the Bills wouldn’t abandon their passing game even if the Giants were shutting it down, because it had been their identity all season. The 2021 Bills game, though, offers a different test case for Belichick, since they’ve changed their offensive approach late in the season with good results. These Bills also have an excellent passing game, but they’ve tried to remedy their running game, especially after a 3-5 stretch between Week 6 and Week 14. In a Week 14 loss at the Buccaneers, Allen did not hand the ball off a single time in the first half in an effort to avoid Tampa Bay’s formidable run defense. The Bucs still shut them down 24-3, though, so the Bills ran the ball 15 times in the second half and overtime, with Allen keeping eight of those carries. They still lost, but made it close in the second half, and using Allen as a runner to add balance to the offense helped Buffalo get right toward the end of the season—his four best rushing performances have come since that Tampa Bay game.
When the Bills beat the Patriots in New England in Week 16, Allen ran 12 times for 64 yards, so Belichick has recent experience with Buffalo’s added dimension. In 1991, Belichick used the fact that Buffalo had always been a passing team and would likely stick with that against them; he’ll have to decide how he wants the Patriots to defend Allen given how effective the 6-foot-5 quarterback is in and out of the pocket.
“The ball is in his hands a lot,” Belichick said. “He can do a lot of things with it, make all the throws at all levels of the field, obviously run with the ball, scramble, extend plays, and throw it.”
Like it was in the first meeting between these teams, weather may be a factor, as I’m sure you will be shocked to hear it’s expected to be very cold in Buffalo on Saturday. This is a fact of life for teams in New York and New England, another thing Belichick understands better than most. Banks listed undershirts (no nylon for ball catchers or carriers, since it’s slippery), gloves (certain types aren’t as good when they get wet), and how the wind would affect the kicking game as elements he assumed Belichick would bring up this week to players. Good footwear would be a must, too—in the 1986 NFC championship game, the Giants knew they’d be playing on frozen ground at the Meadowlands, so players all got a type of cleats that Rutgers and Wisconsin had used in cold games to good results that year, then ran double-moves all game against a Washington team that was constantly falling down without good traction, en route to a 17-0 win.
As much as Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott and the Bills will be worrying about how to stop the Patriots on the field, they’ll also be thinking about all those details and little edges they can expect their opponents to seek out. Despite their edge in raw talent, a win for Buffalo would be cathartic, further evidence that they are no longer competing for second place behind Brady and Belichick. That duo is no longer a fact of life in the AFC East, something the Bills note with hunger, but Belichick still is. And he will always have a plan.