4:30 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Patriots -6.5, Over/Under: 38.5
Believe it or not, the AFC East is still up for grabs as we reach the penultimate weekend of the Regular Season, with the New England Patriots playing host to the upstart Buffalo Bills, from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Indeed, it’s been a renaissance in West New York, where the Bills (10-4, 2nd in AFC East) have clinched the Playoffs on the strength of their first 10-Win Season since 1995. Though they snapped the league’s longest playoff drought two years ago, Buffalo snuck into the postseason at 9-7, and were quite frankly fortunate to join the party. After all, that particular team was of the rare variety in yielding more points than they scored themselves, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that they flamed out rather quickly in the AFC Wild Card Game. This opinion was reinforced by the club themselves when they decided to basically tear down the roster and start from scratch, deeming the methods of their success unsustainable, which led to last year’s 6-10 finish. However, in 2019 we’ve begun to see the final vision of Head Coach, Sean McDermott, and General Manager, Brandon Beane, who have done a masterful job of rebuilding this team in their image. Offensively, they completely overhauled the supporting cast around Sophomore Quarterback, Josh Allen (59.3%, 2,876 YDS, 5.76 NY/A, 18 TD, 9 INT, 44.9 QBR), who has responded in kind this season, showing considerable growth across the board, improving his Completion Percentage (59.3%), Yards per Attempt (6.7), Touchdown Percentage (4.2%), Interception Percentage (2.1%), Yards per Game (205.4), Sack Percentage (7.3%), Net Yards per Attempt (5.76), and Passer Rating (84.6). Furthermore, no Quarterback has been more clutch this year, with the 23-Year Old leading the league in both Game-Winning Drives (5) and Fourth Quarter Comebacks (4). Granted, there is still a ways to go before he becomes a franchise caliber Signal-Caller, but it’s a wonder what an improved support system can do for a young Quarterback. McDermott and Beane attacked the Offseason in an attempt to get Allen the requisite help he needs, adding veteran Offensive Linemen such as Mitch Morse, Quentin Spain, and Ty Nsekhe via Free Agency, and Cody Ford in the Second Round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The skill positions received an upgrade too, with a mix of experience and youth arriving in the form of ageless Tailback, Frank Gore (160 CAR, 573 YDS, 3.6 Y/C, 2 TD), his Rookie understudy, Devin Singletary (136 CAR, 729 YDS, 5.4 Y/C, 2 TD), and bargain Receivers, John Brown (71 REC, 1,007 YDS, 14.2 Y/R, 5 TD) and Cole Beasley (60 REC, 670 YDS, 11.2 Y/R, 6 TD). Offensive Coordinator, Brian Daboll, comes from the Patriots’ Coaching Tree, and these pieces are far better fits for his scheme than the ones that he inherited a year ago. While this unit is far from prolific, they have established an identity running the football, ranking Fifth Overall in both Rushing Attempts (30.1) and Rushing Yards (134.9), and rarely beat themselves, committing just Sixteen Turnovers thus far (8th Overall). As the Offense continues to grow, the Defense maintains it’s lofty perch in the league, which is no surprise giving McDermott’s expertise; the Bills have allowed just 15.9 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on 291.9 Total Yards (3rd Overall), including 190.5 Yards against the Pass (3rd Overall) on 5.1 Net Yards per Attempt (3rd Overall), and another 101.4 Yards against the Run (10th Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (19th Overall), while permitting a 34.8% success rate on Third Down (6th Overall), and forcing Twenty-One Turnovers (10th Overall). That last figure has been a major component of their success of late, logging Ten Takeaways over the last five games alone, including a whopping five in last weekend’s 17-10 victory at the Pittsburgh Steelers. In a game between two of the league most formidable Defenses, Buffalo would go on to own the edge, relegating the hosts to a scant 229 Total Yards on Fifteen First Downs, and 5-of-13 on Third Down, making life miserable for Pittsburgh Quarterback, Devlin Hodges, throughout the affair. The Undrafted Rookie was sacked four times, hit seven more, and intercepted on four occasions, the latter two of which came on their final two drives. Third-year Cornerback, TreDavious White (58 TKL, 4 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 FF, 6 INT, 17 PD), continues his career campaign, adding two more Interceptions to his league-best total of six, while fellow Defensive Backs, Levi Wallace (73 TKL, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 8 PD) and Jordan Poyer (91 TKL, 4 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 FF, 3 FR, 2 INT, 3 PD) snared picks of their own. The victory sets up a decisive clash with the Patriots, who remain one game ahead of them in the AFC East; a win today followed by another at home against the New York Jets in the Season Finale would snap New England’s stranglehold on the Division, which has lasted a staggering eleven years. Conversely, the Bills haven’t won the Division since 1995, when the likes of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Bruce Smith still played for the club.
Meanwhile, we may be seeing the last days of the Patriots (11-3, 1st in AFC East) as we’ve come to know them, ladies and gentlemen. Now we know what you’re thinking: they’re still in First Place in the AFC East, and with one more win in their last two games will claim a First Round Bye in the Playoffs for an NFL Record tenth consecutive season. However, after their dominant start to the campaign ended unceremoniously with a 20-37 drubbing at the hands of the surging Baltimore Ravens, this simply hasn’t looked like the team that participated in each of the last three Super Bowls, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on two occasions. Over the last six games, New England has gone just 3-3, behind an Offense that apart from a 448-Yard Performance against the Houston Texans, has eroded to the tune of 20.3 Points per Game on 323.2 Total Yards. Then again, it was almost impossible not to see this coming. At the age of forty-two, future Hall of Fame Quarterback, Tom Brady (60.1%, 3,565 YDS, 5.86 NY/A, 21 TD, 7 INT, 50.1 QBR), is well into the twilight of his career, and at this point has proven to be far more dependent on his Supporting Cast than in previous seasons, which has not been good for him in 2019. The Offensive Line has been beset by injuries, leaving the Running Game a shell of itself (101.8 Y/G, 19th Overall), while the pinpoint, precision Passing Game that has become a staple in Foxborough has been thrown into chaos with the retirement of perennial All-Pro Tight End, Rob Gronkowski, and a Receiving Corps that thanks to injuries, trades, and cuts, has rarely looked like a cohesive unit. Think about the volume of individuals that have come and gone over the course of this season in this particular position group alone; in addition to Gronkowski’s retirement, veterans Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson left in Free Agency, Phillip Dorsett (28 REC, 347 YDS, 12.4 Y/R, 5 TD) missed a wealth of games to injury, while the mercurial Josh Gordon (20 REC, 287 YDS, 14.4 Y/R, 1 TD), was cut midseason to make room for the acquisition of Mohamed Sanu (20 REC, 148 YDS, 7.4 Y/R, 1 TD) in a trade from the Atlanta Falcons, and the return of Rookie Receiver, N’Keal Harry (7 REC, 55 YDS, 7.9 Y/R, 2 TD), their First Round Pick, who missed the first nine games of the season with a toe injury. And the less said about the brief yet disastrous Antonio Brown (4 REC, 56 YDS, 14.0 Y/R, 1 TD) experiment the better. Add it all up, and it’s the reliable Julian Edelman (92 REC, 1,019 YDS, 11.1 Y/R, 6 TD) and plethora of unproven pieces. Few players have ever functioned better out of the slot than Edelman, but without Gronkowski drawing serious attention from opposing Defensive Backs, Defenses have been keying in on the veteran Receiver. To put this into perspective, Tight Ends have accounted for just Thirty-Two Receptions for 392 Yards and One Touchdown in 2019, which is a steep decline from Gronkowski’s Forty-Seven Catches, 682 Yards, and Three Touchdowns in 2018. Of course, this has affected Brady in the gravest of ways; at 60.1%, his Completion Percentage is the lowest since becoming the Starter back in 2001, ditto for his Net Yards per Attempt (5.86), and his QBR, which at 50.1 would be the lowest that he’s posted since the statistic came into play back in 2006. Furthermore, anyone that has watched him play this season can see the frustration he’s had with his Receiving Corps, with his teammates struggling to gain separation, run precise routes, or even hold onto the football. To hammer this point home, Brady leads the league in passes intentionally thrown away (38), which is a significant increase from last season (22), while the number passes dropped has risen from twenty-five to thirty-one, or in other words, from 4.6% to 6.0%. Simply put, the margin for error was always going to be small as he progressed to this stage of his illustrious career, but for the first time in years, the cracks in the proverbial armor have turned into chasms. And if their recent run of form wasn’t bad enough, the news broke two weeks ago that a group of team employees were caught filming the Cincinnati Bengals undercover during a contest with the Cleveland Browns, drawing even more heat to the franchise. Of course, this is a team that has long been associated with stretching the rules in this regard, with the controversies such as Spygate and Deflategate leaving a stain on their two decades of success. Patriots’ Head Coach, Bill Belichick, admitted to the deed, with the individuals in question having been outsourced by the team’s Video Department, leaving the club at the inevitable mercy of the league once again. While NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, conducts what is sure to be a another thorough investigation into the matter, it should be said that New England was penalized rather heavily in the last instance that they ran afoul of shield; for Deflategate alone, they were fined a sizable amount of money in addition to losing a Draft Pick, while Brady himself was suspended for his role in the cover-up, missing the first four games of the 2016 Campaign. Though we highly doubt that they would have needed any extra edge to dispose of the 1-13 Bengals, the Pats certainly couldn’t help but left off some steam in their 34-13 rout of Cincinnati, in which the Defense intercepted Bengals’ Quarterback, Andy Dalton, on four occasions, with All-Pro Cornerback, Stephon Gilmore (44 TKL, 1 FR, 6 INT, 2 TD, 18 PD), returning the third Interception Sixty-Four Yards for a score. Of course, Belichick’s charges have been adept at doing that kind of damage all year long, leading the league with a whopping Thirty-Six Takeaways (1st Overall) and scoring Five Touchdowns in the process.