All season, as the top seeds came and went, the AFC has been the fever dream of the parity-embracing NFL.
So, it was only right that with the top seed again hanging in the balance, the league got the ultimate field-leveler in wind-blown Buffalo. Blunted was the big-play connection between Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs. There would be no chance to assess the touch of Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Fierce winds and winter temperatures brought football back to its roots -- a frozen field, a slick ball -- and demanded the teams play a throwback game.
The result was a throwback, too -- to the past two decades, when the Patriots lorded over the AFC. They are atop it again, after a 14-10 victory over the Bills made the Patriots the first AFC team to nine wins, and solidified their hold on the top overall seed as they head into their bye week. It was the Pats' seventh victory in a row. For the Bills, the loss drops them to 7-5 and makes challenging their hopes of winning the division. Their rematch with the Patriots is Dec. 26 in Foxborough, but first -- on Sunday -- is a game against the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, and the Bills are in a bit of a crisis. They have lost four of their last seven games and have not strung together two straight victories since early October.
Even more ominous for the Bills and the rest of the AFC is that they are watching the Patriots gain steam each week, this time with a coaching and game-planning tour de force that adjusted to the extreme conditions.
"We had the looks we had to have to run the ball and we just kept doing it," Jones said. "It was great to watch and see. For us to be able to run the ball the way we did was incredible. It takes a village. The coaches have been in a lot of games like this. They know what it takes to win. I think we knew if we just held onto the ball we'd be OK."
The Patriots have also put on display the diversity of their attack. One week after New England buried Tennessee behind a pass-heavy offense in which Jones threw for a season-high 310 yards, the elements played right into the Patriots' strengths. They have been powered all season by their running game, relieving Jones of the burden of carrying the offense in Year 1. Against Buffalo, Jones essentially got the night off, with Bill Belichick's choice of pre-game mask -- a shout-out to the Navy Midshipmen -- providing a perhaps-unintended clue about what the offense was going to look like.
The Patriots knew all day what kind of game they were in for, and when they got onto the field for warmups, snow was swirling in the air. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who finished with 78 yards on 24 carries, said the priority was getting "a hat on a hat" to execute in the run game.
New England ran for 222 yards. Jones threw one pass in the first half -- a 12-yard floater that Jonnu Smith deftly plucked out of the air with a bit of juggling work -- while the Patriots' commitment to the ground attack was so complete that, in the third quarter, they ran on second-and-17 and again on third-and-13. And later, the Pats called a quarterback sneak on third-and-5. Jones did not throw another pass until the fourth quarter. He attempted three in all -- his final stat line was 2-of-3 for 19 yards -- and center David Andrews said this contest would be memorable in part because he did not think he had ever been in a game when only three passes were thrown.
There was no pretense about the Patriots' intentions, no trickery. They were running and running some more. Buffalo knew it was coming and still could not stop it, a worrisome repeat of the Bills' 41-15 loss to the Colts in Week 11, when their defense was also bullied by the run. In the postgame on Monday night, Buffalo safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were irritated by a question about whether it was embarrassing to lose a game that was so lopsided toward the run.
"What kind of question is that?" Poyer said. "We made stops when we had to. They had one big run. They kept coming back to a couple of runs. I mean, I don't know how you want us to answer that question."
The Patriots' first score came with an enormous line of blockers, a toss to Damien Harris, a block by a fullback, one cut by Harris and then a 64-yard sprint for the end zone. Instead of attempting an extra point into the wind, the Patriots converted a two-point attempt on -- what else? -- a run.
The Bills were chasing the Pats after that, and their only touchdown came after a blunder by N'Keal Harry, who was fielding punts for the first time as a pro. The ball grazed off his helmet and was recovered by Buffalo. One play later, Allen -- possessed of an arm strong enough to slice through the brutal wind -- rifled a touchdown pass. The Patriots' defense did most of the rest of the work, halting the Bills twice in the red zone in the fourth quarter when Buffalo was driving for a potential go-ahead score.
Belichick was asked if he had ever been a part of a football game that included just three passes and he responded that his high school team didn't throw much. This was, then, a perfect gauge for how Belichick likes to assess his team: Can they run, stop the run, cover kicks? Belichick was asked how he assessed his team's toughness after what will be remembered as one of the most bizarre games of the season.
"It's always good to do those things," Belichick said.
Back in first place, the Patriots are doing those things again.