ORCHARD PARK — As Josh Allen bulldozed toward a game-clinching first-down run, Bill Belichick didn’t move. His facial expression was as stone-like as it was in his postgame press conference.
If the Buffalo Bills’ 27-21 win marked the final time Belichick led the New England Patriots into Orchard Park, and signs point that being the case, he wore his Sunday best for the occasion. And to be clear, it was his idea of a Sunday best and no one else’s.
For 23 years, the most disheveled man in a stadium filled with people wearing remnants of the pregame tailgate festivities splattered on their chests was also the smartest man. Belichick earned a reputation of doing more with less because of a gift for diving into the most minute details.
Belichick’s six Super Bowls and his indifference in skirting the rules have made him the NFL’s greatest villain, perhaps nowhere more so than Buffalo, where he has now gone 19-6. No one has beaten the Bills more than the Patriots, who have gone 37-12 in the series since Belichick took over as coach in 2000.
But, now the Patriots find themselves chasing the Bills for the very reasons they dominated for almost two decades. Belichick’s New England team — his first as a head coach to lose at least 12 games — kept it close, but lost because of the small details.
It was the Bills who had the superstar quarterback who needed to do just enough and the Patriots who had the inferior quarterback who made critical mistakes that cost New England the game.
And yet that crabby ol’ Belichick still had enough magic left to give the Bills one last scare before meeting Bills coach Sean McDermott for a friendly embrace at midfield.
“They’ve controlled this division for a long time and he’s won (six) Super Bowls, so I have a ton of respect for (Belichick) in that regard,” said McDermott, who is 7-8 against Belichick. “His guys, they fought today. That was a tough game. We knew it was going to be a tough game. And so it was a cordial, professional handshake, an exchange of words and respect.”
The statistics didn’t show it, but Josh Allen was the superior quarterback in a matchup with Bailey Zappe. But Belichick’s magic touch was enough to make life miserable for the Buffalo offense, and Allen, in particular.
Allen never got into a rhythm, was just 7 of 20 for 46 yards and an interception in the first half and finished with 50% passing and 169 yards. Although he had two touchdowns rushing, Allen was held without a passing score for the first time in 24 games.
But after Jalen Reagor returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, the Patriots committed four turnovers on their next six drives, including three interceptions by Zappe, one returned for a touchdown by Rasul Douglas.
Throw in a missed field goal near the end of the first half and it was the recipe that poisoned the Bills in 20 years worth of games against the Patriots. Belichick’s finite details were enough to keep the game close, marking the fourth one-score game in nine games since the Bills took over the top spot in the AFC East in 2020.
The seventh-ranked Patriots defense was able to pressure Allen without blitzing often. Allen missed open receivers, and when he was on target, he was rewarded with three third-down drops. But like Tom Brady did with New England, Allen made important throws when it was necessary, making an 11-yard throw to Khalil Shakir on third down and running for two more to run out the clock after taking over with 5:02 left.
“It’s always a sucker playing that team because they’re so multiple, their game plans are tremendous and the personnel just runs what they’re asked to do seamlessly,” Bills center Mitch Morse said. “If it truly is the last time I played him here ,or just in general, I commend the man as one of the greatest to ever do it, if not the greatest, and I was privileged with how shitty it was to prepare for.”
Despite the lackluster outing by an offense aided by four turnovers, the Bills have a date with the Miami Dolphins — who lost to the Baltimore Ravens 56-19 — Sunday with the winner claiming the AFC East championship and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. It comes four weeks after being left for dead at 6-6.
Of course, critics are quicker to claim the demise of a long-time incumbent. Belichick can give the Bills some advice in that department. But if the Bills are looking to truly usurp the Patriots, they have to beat the Dolphins.
New England clearly won so many games by climbing the backs of divisional opponents who couldn’t get out of their own way, but the Patriots thrived in big games. Even with the lopsided overall record, 20 of the 49 games in the Buffalo-New England series since 2000 have been decided by one score.
The current Bills seem to rise up for the biggest opponents, posting an 18-12 record against teams above .500 since 2020. It’s the lesser teams they struggle with, but if they continue to revert to mid-season form and struggle in the first half like the last two weeks, the Bills won’t be able to beat Miami and that stranglehold on the division evaporates.
“Division is on the line,” Allen said. “We understand going there, we got to be at the top of our game playing against this team. So got to have a really good week of practice and then again, just put our best stuff on the field next week.”
Now, if you’re wondering whether the Bills will miss Belichick once he’s gone, well, don’t hold your breath.
“I never played for him,” Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson joked. “How can I miss him?”