Mac Jones, the Patriots’ rookie quarterback, threw a 12-yard pass to tight end Jonnu Smith in the first quarter on Monday night in Buffalo. In the fourth quarter, he threw an incomplete pass to wide receiver Nelson Agholor and a 7-yard completion to running back Brandon Bolden.
What was so interesting about those three seemingly unimportant passes? They were the only ones Jones threw all game.
In the face of strong winds in Buffalo, New England Coach Bill Belichick turned the clock way, way back and made the N.F.L. a running league again, and the Patriots beat the Bills, their rival for the A.F.C. East title. The final score looked like a throwback, too: New England 14, Buffalo 10.
“It was just a weird day,” Jones said, adding, “I haven’t seen that much wind, probably, ever.”
Yet the concept of turning back the clock back doesn’t really do justice to the oddity of Monday night’s game. Even in the days of smash-mouth football and three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running games, N.F.L. coaches and their quarterbacks still chucked the ball up once in a while.
An N.F.L. team attempted three or fewer passes in a game only seven times in 1940s, and just once each in the ’50s, ’60 and ’70s. But no team had done it since then.
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Until Monday night.
Asked about the game plan, the laconic Belichick said only, “That’s the way it worked out.” He chalked it all up, in fact, to weather conditions that he described only as “somewhat challenging.”
Was the innovative game plan successful? Not really, given how many Patriots drives ended in three-and-outs and punts. But in a larger sense, definitely yes, given the scoreboard.
The play-calling was something of a microcosm of the Patriots’ season. Belichick has been careful to give Jones, his rookie quarterback, a fairly unambitious menu. Jones has 384 passing attempts this season, below average for a regular starter, but his completion rate of 70 percent ranks third in the league.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Josh Allen and the Bills went with a more tradition play-calling scheme, although not very effectively: Allen completed 15 of his 30 passes for only 145 yards.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Allen insisted of the wind after the game. “A couple throws obviously it may have affected. You’ve got to play the conditions here.”
It wasn’t only passes that were affected. It was never clear, for example, where punts were going to go. Jake Bailey of the Patriots launched one that traveled 71 yards, and another that went only 15.
The last time a team tried three or few passes in a game was in 1974, in the same Buffalo stadium, in windy and rainy conditions. That day, Joe Ferguson of the Bills attempted only two in a 16-12 win over the Jets. Both were incomplete. Instead, he handed off 51 times, including 31 times to O.J. Simpson.
Joe Namath gamely threw up 18 passes for the Jets, completing just two. Many of the others went in unexpected directions. Of one interception, Namath quipped, “Best slider you ever saw.”
All victories, though, no matter how weird, count as one win. Beyond its idiosyncrasy, Monday night’s game was crucial for the A.F.C. East race. The Patriots now stand at 9-4 to the Bills’ 7-5, and look increasingly well placed to reclaim the title they won 11 years in a row before surrendering it to the Bills last season.
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