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The Patriots’ Three-Pass-Attempt Game Was Classic Bill Belichick

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Belichick’s two decades in New England, it’s that there is no limit to the creativity he’ll use to win

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One thing that is so remarkable about Bill Belichick’s run with the Patriots is his team’s lack of a consistent identity. At times in the past two decades, New England has been a team built on its running game. At others, it’s been built on high-flying passing attacks. There’s often been a good defense in Foxborough—but not always. The Patriots’ ironclad rule of success is to not have ironclad rules: Their flexibility and discipline have been the only constants across Belichick’s tenure.

That malleability to meet any challenge was on display Monday night, when the Patriots beat the Bills, 14-10, in a game in which they attempted three total passes. That’s right—three passes.

The game, which was for sole possession of first place in the AFC East, was played in wind tunnel–like conditions in Buffalo. The wind was so bad before kickoff that the field goal posts were swaying:

The opening kickoff—with the wind behind it—went into the stands:

Mac Jones’s first pass attempt came on the team’s fourth drive and nearly sailed over the head of tight end Jonnu Smith:

That was Jones’s only pass attempt in the first 53 minutes of the game. From then on, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels relied on a diet of Damien Harris (10 carries, 111 yards, and a touchdown), Rhamondre Stevenson (24 carries and 78 yards), and Brandon Bolden (four carries and 28 yards) to try to pound out yards on offense. It didn’t always work—it should be noted that six of the Patriots’ nine real drives (excluding the kneel downs to win the game) ended in punts, with four of those being three-and-outs—but it was enough in comparison to the Bills.

Josh Allen put the ball in the air 30 times, with his howitzer arm giving his passes the zip necessary to cut through the wind. But Allen still completed just half of his attempts for 145 yards and one touchdown, and the Bills were forced to punt five times. They also missed a field goal that curved like a boomerang in the wind and fumbled the ball, somehow the only turnover by either team on the night. Those miscues were just enough to lead to their downfall in one of the biggest games of the season for the Super Bowl hopefuls.

The Patriots’ aversion to the pass was so potent that even when the wind was at their backs, they refused to let Mac Jones do almost anything other than hand the ball off. On one particular third-and-18 in the fourth quarter (when the Patriots had favorable wind conditions), New England gave the ball to Bolden—its third-string running back!—for a gain of 3. Nick Folk kicked a 34-yard field goal on the team’s next play. The two passes the Patriots attempted in the fourth quarter—an incompletion and a screen—served only to frustrate the team’s attempt to make history. New England could have become the first team since 1950 (!) to attempt one or fewer passes in a game.

It’s impossible to envision any other team doing anything like this. Last season, the Broncos played a game with a wide receiver at quarterback, and they still passed the ball nine times, triple what the Patriots did Monday night.

With three pass attempts, the Patriots’ game plan came straight out of the 1940s. Coming into Monday, the NFL had seen just 10 games in league history in which a team attempted three or fewer passes; seven of those performances came before 1950. But to understand Belichick’s commitment to maintaining versatility, you have to go back even farther. Much farther. Try the sixth century … BCE:

“I think if you want to go far enough, look at Sun Tzu,” Belichick said in November. “Look at the great generals, you exploit your strengths and attack weaknesses. That’s about as fundamental as it gets. If there’s something that you can do well, you want to try to do it. If there is something that your opponent is weak at, you want to try to attack it, and if you can match those up, then that’s a good way of attack.”

No team has been better at adapting to adverse conditions than the Patriots through the past two decades. The team’s win on Monday was reminiscent of the time they surprisingly had to rely on third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett in Week 3 of 2016 … and won 27-0. Or when the Patriots came up to Buffalo in December of 2008 (in wind Belichick said was worse than what he experienced Monday night) with Matt Cassel and still won 13-0. In that game, Cassel had eight pass attempts, but also a third-down punt that traveled 57 yards.

Throw any challenge the Patriots’ way, and there is no limit to the creativity Belichick will use to overcome it. And that commitment to flexibility isn’t just useful when the Patriots are forced to start backup quarterbacks or are facing adverse weather. It has also directly led to Super Bowl wins.

In 2018, the Patriots defense ran man coverage more than any other team in the NFL. Heading into Super Bowl LIII, Sean McVay fine-tuned his offense for that man-heavy scheme … only for Belichick to throw it out the window and spend 40 percent of his defense’s snaps in zone coverage. The result was the Patriots holding McVay’s vaunted offense to eight consecutive punts and three total points, arguably the greatest defensive performance in Super Bowl history.

Monday night may have been Belichick’s favorite win ever. Even the most eagle-eyed Patriots fans have seldom seen Belichick smile like this:

The victory gives the Patriots the no. 1 seed in the AFC, helping establish the squad as bona fide Super Bowl contenders. I guess that’s one other constant about Belichick’s tenure, too.