ORCHARD PARK -- The Patriots will tell you that they can gauge their toughness as a team by how well they run the ball, stop the run and cover kicks.
Their performance Monday night -- a black-and-blue victory, 14-10 -- provided an emphatic endorsement of where they stand in that regard.
Run the ball? Check.
They racked up 222 yards on 46 attempts. And they did so despite everyone in the country understanding that they were going to run. Incredible wind gusts swirling through Highmark Stadium rendered the passing game an afterthought for Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels.
Stop the run? Check.
The Bills ran 25 times for 99 yards, with 39 of those yards coming on six Josh Allen carries. Their backs accumulated 60 yards on 19 carries for an average of 3.2 yards per attempt.
Only two Patriots kicks -- one kickoff, one punt -- were returned in this one. Matt Breida's kick return went for 27 yards. Micah Hyde's punt return went for eight. Belichick will take it.
And judging by the raucous visitor's locker room after the game, his team will take it as well. They'll now head into their bye week as the No. 1 team in their division, the No. 1 seed in the conference, and with an understanding of where they stand from a toughness perspective. They've got it in spades.
Does Mac Jones deserve an "incomplete" after throwing just three times on Monday? Might've been appropriate after the Patriots played the first game since 1974 with three or fewer pass attempts by an offense.
But Jones gets credit here for making the "Mike" calls in the running game, for sneaking the ball effectively, and for completing the two passes he completed. One was a screen. One was a juggling catch by Jonnu Smith on an overthrow. Neither was picked.
Running back: A-
Damien Harris' early-game fumble on third-down was a miscue that could've resulted in disaster. But otherwise, this group -- along with the offensive line -- carried the offense.
Harris made a tremendous cut back through a gaping hole on a crack-toss play that resulted in his 64-yard score. Brandon Bolden then followed that up with a key two-point conversion on the same type of run.
Both Harris (7.96, first) and Rhamondre Stevenson (0.23, 10th) ended up inside the top 10 of backs across the league in the Next Gen Stats metric Rush Yards Over Expected Per Attempt for Week 13.
Wide receiver: A-
In a box score loaded with anachronisms, this one might be the strangest. Patriots receivers had zero catches Monday. Nelson Agholor ran for six yards on one carry. Kendrick Bourne ran for three yards on his end-around. Jakobi Meyers didn't get a target. Neither did N'Keal Harry.
But this was the rare game in which the receivers were there almost exclusively to block. Instead of the usual Patriots saying of "no block, no rock," this was, "block ... and still no rock."
Harry seemed to be the most impactful of the bunch in that regard, working as an end-of-the-line player and down-blocker for some of New England's outside runs.
Tight end: C+
Smith's catch was a highlight-reel play on a day where those were hard to come by for either offense. He also had a holding penalty, though, which docks this grade. Ditto for his one carry for -1 yard.
But in a run-heavy plan, both Hunter Henry and Smith factored in as blockers at various points.
Offensive line: A
The Patriots ran the ball 46 times and this unit didn't commit a single penalty. They pulled, kicked out, blocked down and climbed to the second level. They won one-on-ones, they moved people on double-teams.
They got salty after plays. They imposed their will. They frustrated their opponents. They ran on 94 percent of their snaps -- most in over 20 years, according to Next Gen Stats -- and still averaged almost five yards per carry.
They trotted out Mike Onwenu as a sixth lineman onto the field for over 60 percent of their plays, a statement in and of itself, and walloped the Bills to the tune of 5.4 yards per play with those looks. It was a dominant performance by this group. Mac Jones called it "incredible." Apt.
Special teams: B-
If not for N'Keal Harry's muffed punt, the Bills likely would've been held scoreless for the majority of this one. Disaster of a play. No other way to put it.
But this unit still provided two field goals by Nick Folk in horrendous kicking conditions. They still got an average of 42 yards per punt by Jake Bailey, despite his second punt going straight sideways for a net of just 15 yards.
As bad as Harry's play was, getting those punts off without inviting disaster was an accomplishment. Same goes for the Folk kicks. Far from a perfect night, but they don't win without some execution from this phase.
Defensive line: A-
Davon Godchaux was in on three run stuffs in one of his best performances of the season. Lawrence Guy, who recovered an early Matt Breida fumble, was in on a pair. Christian Barmore recorded yet another quarterback hit and had another pressure that helped lead to an incompletion.
Per Next Gen Stats, the Bills had their worst game of the season running between the tackles with -14 yards rushing over expected. And Godchaux was particularly dominant, per Next Gen, with the highest run tackle rate (56 percent) that the league has seen from a nose tackle in six seasons.
Matt Judon lost contain on a long fourth-quarter scramble by Allen. He also was flagged for a neutral-zone infraction. Dont'a Hightower got penalized for a horse collar call.
But this group played a big role in what stifled the Bills running game, too. Kyle Van Noy had a quarterback hit and a run stuff. He also drew a hold in the first quarter and helped force Allen into a tough roll-out throw by effectively spying the quarterback and not letting him get around the edge to run.
Judon came up with a huge sack late in this one that pushed the Bills back for an eventual 33-yard field goal attempt that barely sailed wide right. In a physical game like this one -- when the conditions made the passing game a slog even for a pass-happy team like Buffalo -- this group needed to show up and it did.
The Patriots decided to give J.C. Jackson a quick breather in the second quarter. In his second snap off the field, Allen attacked his replacement, Joejuan Williams. The result was nearly a 40-yard touchdown. Jackson was quickly re-inserted. Good call.
He was once again one of the team's best defenders, showing up with a massive hit on Emmanuel Sanders for a loss of four early on. He also very nearly had a pick-six. His assignment for most of the night -- the Patriots played more man-to-man Monday, seemingly, after establishing themselves as more of a zone-coverage team over the last two months -- was Stefon Diggs, who finished with just four grabs for 51 yards. The best of those catches came despite tight coverage from Jackson on an uncoverable 26-yard back-shoulder pitch and catch.
Adrian Phillips left the game at the two-minute warning with a knee injury but had one of the biggest plays of the night right before that, helping break up a pass for Dawson Knox in a scramble-drill situation. Was he a bit handsy as Knox searched for open space? Yup. Same as earlier in the fourth quarter. But he wasn't called on either occasion. Good instance of doing business as business is being done.
With Kyle Dugger out, Phillips -- aside from one missed tackle that led to a 17-yard gain -- was critical to the overall operation. Same goes for Myles Bryant, who saw a lot of work as the fifth defensive back in Dugger's absence. He was flagged for an unnecessary roughness call in this one, but that won't dock this grade since it should never have been flagged in the first place.
Bryant did more than make up for that one with a heady pass-breakup on fourth down late in the fourth quarter that essentially iced the game. Even though he was in man coverage on Cole Beasley, he understood the Patriots were sending pressure on the play, and so he understood the ball had to come out quickly. Thus, as he tracked his man across the middle, he peeked into the backfield to see Allen release the pass before pressure got home.
That allowed him to sag off his man and get his hand on the football. High-IQ play by a high-IQ player.