8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Bills -2.5, Over/Under: 41.5
Week Thirteen comes to a crescendo as the white-hot New England Patriots travel to Orchard Park to battle the Buffalo Bills in a primetime AFC East showdown from Highmark Stadium that figures to have HEAVY playoff implications moving forward. With six weeks left in the regular season, is it really any surprise that the Patriots (8-4, 1st in AFC East) have found themselves knocking on the door of the AFC’s no. one seed? After taking it on the chin last season and getting off to a slow 2-4 start this season, New England has quickly rounded into the form that we’ve come to associate with (Head Coach) Bill Belichick’s sides, winning six consecutive games, which is currently the longest run of success in the National Football League. So, how have the Pats managed to turn things around so profoundly, you ask? Well, Belichick went shopping in the offseason, signing a slew of playmakers in Free Agency, including (Receivers) Nelson Agholor (32 REC, 416 YDS, 13.0 Y/R, 3 TD) and Kendrick Bourne (42 REC, 623 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 5 TD), (Tight Ends) Hunter Henry (35 REC, 394 YDS, 11.3 Y/R, 7 TD) and Jonnu Smith (25 REC, 259 YDS, 10.4 Y/R, 1 TD), (Right Tackle) Trent Brown, (Edge-Rusher) Matthew Judon (46 TKL, 12 TFL, 23 QBH, 11.5 SK, 1 FR), and (Cornerback) Jalen Mills (32 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FR, 5 PD), while welcoming back the likes of (veteran Linebackers) Dont’a Hightower (45 TKL, 3 QBH, 0.5 SK, 1 PD) and Kyle Van Noy (41 TKL, 4 TFL, 4 QBH, 4.0 SK, 1 FR, 5 PD). All of these players have made an impact in Foxborough, allowing them to employ the versatility that had made them such a difficult opponent to prepare for over the past two decades. This has been no more evident than on the defensive side of the football, where the Patriots have yielded a mere 10.5 points per game during this winning streak, along with just 274.2 total yards, including a scant 155.5 yards against the pass, while refusing a single point in the second half of each of their last three outings. Indeed, opposing Quarterbacks are completing only 56.1% of their attempts for an average of 5.4 yards per attempt, which when accounting for seventeen sacks and a loss of 120 yards equates to 4.4 net yards allowed per attempt. Sacks and takeaways have been the recipe for success for Belichick’s troops, who have logged thirty sacks thus far (5th Overall) with the aforementioned Judon leading the team with a career-high 11.5 sacks, while posting twenty-five takeaways (4th Overall) with seventeen coming in the last six weeks alone. Furthermore, nineteen of those turnovers are interceptions, which is by far and away the most in the NFL, with (young Cornerback) J.C. Jackson (42 TKL, 1 FF, 7 INT, 16 PD, 1 TD) set for a MAJOR payday with seven picks (including four in the last four games) and a league-best sixteen passes defended en route to earning AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for November. In last weekend’s 36-13 victory over the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots may have relinquished a season-high 270 rushing yards, but managed to compensate for it with four takeaways, including three forced fumbles and recoveries, while relegating (Titans Quarterback) Ryan Tannehill to just ninety-three yards on 11-of-21 passing with a touchdown and an interception courtesy of Jackson. With all that said, there are two sides to every story and the more interesting narrative can be found on the opposite side of the football, where New England has steadily grown around (Rookie Quarterback) Mac Jones (70.3%, 2,850 YDS, 6.53 NY/A, 16 TD, 8 INT, 52.7 QBR). In twenty-plus years with the franchise, Belichick had never selected a passer in the first round of the NFL Draft, only to break that trend when he tabbed the reigning national champion with the fifteenth overall pick and entering December must be elated with his maturation. Arguably the frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year, the 23-year-old has played well beyond his years in completing an efficient 70.3% of his attempts for an average of 237.5 yards on 6.53 net yards per attempt, with sixteen touchdowns opposed to eight interceptions. Granted, (Offensive Coordinator) Josh McDaniels has kept things relatively simple for the rookie, but you can see him really starting to flourish during this winning streak; over the last six weeks, Jones is stretching the field more with an average of 7.51 net yards per attempt while throwing nine touchdowns in comparison to just two interceptions. Dare we say he even looked like a younger version of his predecessor in last weekend’s romp over the Titans, amassing 310 yards and a pair of scores on 23-of-32 passing, finding the aforementioned Bourne five times for sixty-one yards and both touchdowns. The ground game has certainly aided his development, ranking twelfth in the league at 115.3 yards per game, with the Pats churning out an average of 144.0 yards on a healthy 4.4 yards per carry over the last six contests. Tonight’s battle in Buffalo will likely go a long way towards deciding the AFC East, though these teams will meet again in Foxborough in just three weeks’ time. Prior to being swept by Buffalo last season, Belichick and the Pats were 34-4 against them from 2001 to 2019, a period in which they absolutely ruled the division with seventeen titles in nineteen years. New England currently sits a half-game ahead of the Bills in the East, though their remaining schedule is far from daunting; apart from these two encounters with Buffalo which bookend a trip to Indianapolis, they will close the regular season with games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins, who together have a combined record of 7-16 (.304). Belichick’s charges have featured prominently on Monday Night Football throughout his lengthy tenure with the team, amassing a 19-10 (.655) record in twenty-nine appearances, including a 3-1 mark against the Bills, though were embarrassed in their most recent outing, a 38-9 blowout loss last December at Gillette Stadium.
Meanwhile, as the Pats look to regain their status as rulers of the AFC East, the current reigning division champions figure to have something to say about it as the Bills (7-4, 2nd in AFC East) look to overtake their bitter rivals in their first meeting of the campaign. Trailing by a half-game in the standings, Buffalo once looked as if they were going to run away with the division for a second straight season, but since a convincing 38-20 victory over the (reigning AFC champion) Kansas City Chiefs have struggled to find consistency in alternating wins and losses. 3-3 over their last six outings, (Head Coach) Sean McDermott’s troops have looked dominant one week only to implode the next, with nobody but themselves to blame for their missteps. So, what in the name of Marv Levy is going on in Western New York, you ask? Well, if you’re going to point the finger anywhere on this team, it’s the offense which deserves the blame. Yes, this unit led by (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Josh Allen (66.8%, 3,071 YDS, 6.92 NY/A, 25 TD, 10 INT, 60.5 QBR) has been among the league’s best, ranking second in points (29.6), fifth in total yards (400.0), seventh in passing (281.7), and eleventh in rushing (118.3), but on the flipside has been feast or famine of late with twelve of their sixteen turnovers (22nd Overall) coming in the last six games. In the three wins during this period their turnover differential is plus-4, but in those three losses it’s been an alarming minus-6. Furthermore, Allen & Co have had little problem moving the football up and down the gridiron in converting a healthy 50.0% of their third downs (2nd Overall), only to routinely bog down within the red zone, where they’ve scored a touchdown on just 61.7% of their opportunities (11th Overall). The main problem is that (Offensive Coordinator) Brian Daboll, who ironically cut his teeth with the Patriots during the early stages of their dynasty, has developed a penchant of relying a little TOO MUCH on the talents of his young Quarterback. Buffalo’s production on the ground comes largely from Allen, who has accounted for 383 rushing yards and a team-high three touchdowns, and at sixty-nine attempts is just twenty-nine behind the team leader in that particular category, (Sophomore Tailback) Devin Singletary (98 CAR, 459 YDS, 4.7 Y/A, 2 TD). That disparity would mean one thing one a team like say, the Ravens, who rush the ball a ton, but Buffalo only attempts 25.9 runs per game (17th Overall), meaning that Allen accounts for 24.2% of his team’s rushes. Of course, throwing the football gets more and more difficult within the red zone as passing lanes get smaller and close quicker, and not being able to simply line up and run the ball in a conventional manner makes that much more difficult on the Quarterback. At a sturdy 6′-5″, 237 lbs. Allen is a tough figure to bring down in the open field and can be an asset in short-yardage situations, but if he’s having an off-day then it’s very difficult for this unit to get much of anything going. Look no further than how he’s performed in their seven victories in comparison to their four losses; Allen has completed 68.2% of his passes for 282.1 yards per game on a whopping 8.4 net yards per attempt with nineteen touchdowns and five interceptions, while also rushing for three scores in those wins, but in the losses has completed 65.0% of his attempts for 274.0 yards on just 5.6 net yards per attempt with six touchdowns opposed to five interceptions (not to mention two lost fumbles) and zero rushing scores. Is it too late to develop a strong ground game? Probably, but at this point all they can really do is double-down on the passing game and hope that their Quarterback can continue to play at a high level. With that said, it’s a valid question as to just how good this team really is. Sure, a year ago they advanced all the way to their first AFC Championship in twenty-seven years, but this season much of their success has come against the bottom of the proverbial barrel. Their opponents win percentage checks in at a meager .438, with only four of them currently owning a winning record. Furthermore, they’ve absolutely CRUSHED the likes of the Dolphins (twice), Texans, Jets, and Saints by a combined score of 177-34, with their defense pitching a pair of shutouts along the way. Speaking of the defense, it should be interesting to see how McDermott and (Defensive Coordinator) Leslie Frazier’s troops fair over these final six games without one of their most prominent performers. During their dominant 31-6 victory over New Orleans on Thanksgiving, the Bills lost (Pro-Bowl Cornerback) Tre’Davious White (41 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 6 PD) for the remainder of the campaign with a torn ACL, robbing an opportunistic unit of their top cover man. With that said, Buffalo employs predominantly zone coverages, which should make it easier for the likes of young Cornerbacks such as Levi Wallace (40 TKL,1 TFL, 1 FR, 2 INT, 8 PD), Taron Johnson (54 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 6 PD), and Dane Jackson (14 TKL) to step up in his place. However, the more pressing concern in regard to tonight’s affair should be on the ground, where their run defense has been eviscerated against some of their better offenses that they’ve faced; (2020 rushing champion) Derrick Henry and the Titans churned out 146 yards in a 34-31 loss back in mid-October, while the Colts and (2021 leading rusher) Jonathan Taylor hung a whopping 264 rushing yards on them in a 41-15 defeat two weeks ago. While the Bills have relinquished 100 rushing yards on just three occasions thus far, those two outings served as proof that when they struggle to stop the run they are a COMPLETELY different team. Why is this significant, you ask? Well, as we covered earlier, the Patriots have been trampling the opposition on the ground, and Buffalo figures to be shorthanded in the front seven tonight, with (massive Defensive Tackle) Star Lotulelei (14 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 QBH, 2.0 SK) and (veteran Linebacker) Matt Milano (57 TKL, 12 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 FR, 3 PD) limited throughout the extended week of practice due to illness and an ailing shoulder respectively. Though they swept the season series with New England in 2020, they were gashed on the ground, yielding 188 rushing yards in a narrow 24-21 win in early November before allowing 145 yards in that aforementioned blowout on Monday Night Football. As they’ve returned to prominence, so has their allure on primetime, going 2-2 on Monday nights under McDermott, winning each of their last two appearances.