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The Pats Won the AFC East Again. But the Division Is Closer Than Ever.

The Bills had a chance late in Saturday’s game—and late in the divisional race—for the first time in decades

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills had a chance to bring the Patriots to overtime late on Saturday. Down 24-17 to New England in Foxborough with five minutes to go, the Bills pieced together their best drive of the day, and Josh Allen played the hero. The second-year quarterback converted a fourth-and-1 sneak that looked doomed before he sidestepped a defender, broke free of an uncalled face mask, and leaped for the first down. Two plays later, the Bills were within 8 yards of tying the game.

The heroism didn’t last. The Bills lost 7 yards on their next four plays, and the turnover on downs sealed New England’s 24-17 win. The Patriots clinched the AFC East for an NFL record 11 consecutive division titles. Take away 2008, when Tom Brady tore his ACL in Week 1, and Brady’s Patriots have won 16 consecutive AFC East titles and 17 of the past 18. Meanwhile, Josh Allen had not yet been born the last time the Bills won the AFC East in 1995, nor had Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, or Sam Darnold. For much of those players’ lives, the Patriots have dominated the Bills. Brady is 32-3 against Buffalo in his career. One of those losses came in Week 17 of 2014 when the Patriots had already clinched a bye and Belichick sat Brady midway through the game, so Brady is really 32-2 against Buffalo (94.1 percent). For perspective, that figure would lead the NBA in free throw percentage this season.

This Bills loss was particularly devastating because a Buffalo win would have kept their chances of winning the division alive in Week 17 for the first time in decades. Like they had on 32 of their past 34 tries, they fell short. But this loss, like this season, is not like the ones Bills fans have grown used to in the past two decades.

“Those past failures, not many of us were here,” coach Sean McDermott told reporters before the Bills clinched a playoff spot earlier this month. “We certainly respect the past, but our eyes are set on the future.”

The Patriots defense suffocated the Bills offense for most of the first three quarters. The Bills gained just 40 yards on their first four drives. Buffalo got one gasp of air at the end of the half when Allen connected with tight end Dawson Knox on a 33-yard pass to put it at the goal line with 10 seconds left. It was Allen’s most unlikely completion of the year, according to the player tracking data from NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Two plays later, Buffalo declined to kick a field goal and tried to get the touchdown from the 1-yard line. Allen took the snap under center, rolled right, and then while backpedaling, lofted a pass to the left corner of the end zone to uncovered left tackle Dion Dawkins, who had reported as an eligible receiver. It was the second touchdown of Dawkins’s career.

The score made the game 10-10 at halftime. On Buffalo’s second drive of the third quarter, Allen hit receiver John Brown for a 53-yard touchdown to give Buffalo a 17-10 lead.

At that point in the game, more than half of Allen’s 151 yards had come on the two throws to Knox and Brown. That was essentially all the offense New England’s defense allowed on Saturday.

New England’s offense played its best football in two months. Brady completed 26 of 33 passes (79 percent) for 271 yards (8.2 yards per pass), one touchdown, and no turnovers or sacks. Brady capped his first drive with a touchdown to tight end Matt LaCosse, a sign of life from the tight end position Brady has barely looked to this season. The Patriots quarterback had the best blocking he’s had in weeks and subsequently looked as comfortable in the pocket for the first time since New England returned from bye in Week 11.

He even threw a block against Bills star cornerback Tre’Davious White.

“I’m pretty poor at pretty much everything other than throwing the ball,” Brady told reporters about his blocking in his postgame press conference. He looked damn slow when he tried to scramble for a touchdown on third-and-goal from the Bills’ 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter.

That was the lone lick the Bills got on Brady all game. New England gained 414 yards, the most they’ve gained since Week 6 against the Giants outside of their loss to the Texans three weeks ago, when they racked up most of their offense in garbage time.

None of Buffalo’s first nine drives lasted longer than seven plays, but the final one went 14 plays for 60 yards—and that doesn’t include the missed face mask penalty on Allen that could have pushed them closer to the end zone. Buffalo came up short, but they were there until the end. It’s representative of their pursuit for the AFC East in 2019. They didn’t win, but they are more competitive than ever.

While the loss will go down as just one of 32 in Buffalo’s last 35 meetings with New England, the dynamic between the Bills and Patriots has changed. When these teams met in Week 4, the Patriots were in world-destroying form, and the Bills narrowly lost 16-10 despite turning the ball over four times. This game came just a week after Buffalo clinched a playoff spot against the Steelers. The Bills have played the Patriots well because, in some ways, the teams have a lot in common. They’re built around a standout corner (Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White and New England’s Stephon Gilmore), underrated safeties (Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer in Buffalo, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon in New England), and an undervalued front seven (Buffalo has linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Lorenzo Alexander plus defensive end Jerry Hughes while the Patriots have their Boogeymen linebackers). Their production has been similar, too. The Patriots and Bills defenses entered the week in the top two in points allowed, top three in yards allowed, top four in yards allowed per play, and top four in efficiency per Football Outsiders.

Amazingly, Brady and Allen’s per-throw passing numbers are also strikingly similar. They entered this week almost tied in passing yards per attempt and exactly tied in PFF’s adjusted completion percentage (which discards throwaway attempts). Allen has made massive strides from his rookie year by changing his play-to-play approach from looking for a touchdown to looking for a first down. Brady and Allen may not have much in common at a glance, but both lead offenses that have a low bar to succeed because of their strong defenses, and those defenses have a lot in common in personnel and production.

In just three years, McDermott has made the playoffs twice. When the Bills made the playoffs three seasons ago, the team celebrated like they’d won the Super Bowl. Two years later, the Bills making the playoffs wasn’t treated as a mind-blowing moment by players or fans. McDermott has raised the expectations internally and externally with on-field innovations and by changing the culture in the facility.

”We’ve moved that needle drastically since we got here in the entire building,” McDermott told reporters. “It’s been a long time since the organization has been in the position like this at this time of year. We don’t take it lightly.”

Buffalo has not won the AFC East in 24 years. Whether they win a playoff game this year or not, the Bills likely won’t need to wait another 24 years to win the AFC East again.