Chris Brown Josh Allen (17) and Stefon Diggs (14). Buffalo Bills vs New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, December 26, 2021. Photo by Bill Wippert1 - The stakes are high
The Bills might be tied for the best overall record in the AFC East, but when it comes to division record Buffalo has some ground to make up. Sean McDermott's crew dropped their first two division contests this season to Miami in Week 3 and the Jets in Week 9. They know they must improve on that division record with four games against AFC East opponents remaining.
"Division games, you've got to win them," said Josh Allen. "We know our record this year in them. It's not easy going on the road and playing in division games. We've got to understand that and be ready for again, a hostile environment. So that's why this week of practice is so important for us to establish a game plan that we feel comfortable with. So come Thursday night we can kind of play freely and be ready for that. You've got to win your division games."
A win over New England would only be step one of a process of righting their record in the division as rematches with the Jets and Dolphins follow in Weeks 14 and 15.
Recent history is working in Buffalo's favor. The road team has won each of the past three meetings between the Bills and Patriots. Two of those are Buffalo victories in Week 16 last year (33-21) and in Week 15 in 2020 (38-9).
The Patriots win in that recent string came in a wind-swept game in Week 13 last season (14-10).
2 - Was last week a one off for Patriots offense?
New England's consistency on offense in a word has been a struggle this season. They do not rank in the top half of the league in almost any statistical category. In Week 12 at Minnesota, however, quarterback Mac Jones posted a career-high 382 passing yards, while also setting season-high marks in completions (28), touchdown passes (two) and passer rating (119.8). That production did come against Vikings defense that ranks 31st in the league and dead last against the pass.
But New England is hoping to build on that production this week even though they realize the Bills defense will be a big step up in terms of level of competition.
"I think we did some good stuff last week for a shorter week," said Patriots QB Mac Jones. "That's how it is on Thursday games. Obviously, we watched the film and corrected the things. We know what we're going against. They're the best defense in the league. So we have to be ready for that. It really starts with us, just playing the best football we can."
Jones has been good with ball security of late with no interceptions in each of his last three starts and has a 100-passer rating or higher in his last two outings. But there are still skeptics as to the consistency of New England's offense.
"It was awful until the Vikings game," said Senior NFL writer for the Boston Globe, Ben Volin, of the Patriots offense in an appearance on 'One Bills Live' this week. "Against the Jets, the offense looked broken. They scored three points and won on a walk-off punt return, otherwise the Patriots offense was dysfunctional."
Perhaps the greatest concern is the offense's inability to come from behind to win a game late. That was on display again this past week when New England could not overcome a touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter, ultimately dropping a 33-26 decision in Minnesota.
"They couldn't put together a game-tying drive," said Volin. "It goes back to Mac Jones and the offense really not having a signature win. They can't rely on their offense to win. When it's a shootout their offense can't give them enough. They have to win with defense and special teams and field position and the turnover battle. They have a young quarterback who has been inconsistent and isn't seeing the field very well. It's a team that has also fallen apart in three consecutive Decembers. If the defense gives up points and the offense has to match it, they haven't been able to measure up."
Jones has been disappointing in the final quarter of play this season. He ranks 23rd in fourth quarter passer rating (87.3), and though his completion percentage is high (69.2%) his point production is not. His six touchdown passes in the fourth quarter this season is the fourth lowest in the league and all seven of his interceptions this season have come in the fourth quarter.
It will be interesting to see if the Patriots take a page out of the Lions' offensive playbook. Last week, Detroit offensive coordinator Ben Johnson used a lot of pre-snap motion and formations to generate one-on-one matchups, and the Lions won against Buffalo's man coverage. If the Bills use man coverage, they'll need to be better against the Patriots.
3 - Trouble spots
Where the Bills defense hasn't had trouble is defending their red zone. Buffalo has the number four red zone defense in the league allowing touchdowns at a rate of just over 48 percent (48.6%). Their 17 red zone touchdowns allowed are tied for fourth fewest with New England and Cincinnati.
That is, however, where the Patriots offense has routinely bogged down and had to settle for field goals. New England's attack ranks next to last (31st) in red zone touchdown efficiency. Only the Denver Broncos (9) have fewer red zone touchdowns than the Patriots (12).
"Red zone has been the big problem," said Volin of the Patriots offense. "They were 0-3 again on Thanksgiving. They're around 38 percent success rate, easily the worst ever in the Bill Belichick era. Obviously, Tom Brady had a lot to do with that. I don't know if I can point to one thing, whether it's play calling, the offensive line has not had any continuity. (Center) David Andrews was out again. Isaiah Wynn has been in and out. They've had a lot of moving parts and Mac Jones hasn't been seeing the field well. It's a combination of everything."
In their last five games, New England has managed just three red zone touchdowns. Part of the issue is the Patriots can't sustain drives to even reach the red zone. They have just 11 red zone possessions in their last five outings.
"That's definitely something we need to improve on," said Mac Jones. "Staying on the field and letting our defense get some rest and being able to do that. I don't know what teams around the league, or the best teams are doing right now, but you obviously want to be better than what we've been these past couple of games. I think it's also important to realize that it's just plays. You can't overthink the situation, but you have to execute the plays and then the results will come."
New England hasn't crossed the 36 percent success rate threshold on third down in over a month. In their last four games the Patriots have gone 19-61 converting third downs (31.1%).
4 - More Allen-Diggs dominance?
Stefon Diggs since arriving in Buffalo has averaged 6.5 receptions, just over 93 yards and a touchdown in four games against the Patriots and that was with top cornerbacks like Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson in New England's secondary. Diggs is aiming for his third consecutive game against the Patriots with a touchdown reception.
Similarly, Josh Allen has been just as dominant as his top wideout with nine touchdown passes and no interceptions for a 115.3 passer rating in his last three starts in New England alone. Diggs has four touchdowns in his last three games against the Patriots.
The Patriots top five defense has held them in games for most of the season as they have top 10 rankings in run defense (9th), pass defense (9th), third down defense (10th) and points allowed (6th). But only five of their games have come against teams with winning records.
"The Patriots defense statistically has been excellent across the board, but it's the same story as last year," Volin said. "They've beaten up on a lot of backup quarterbacks this year. So the concern is last week they played against the Vikings, a real offense with a real quarterback and they gave up 33 points.
"They no longer had the Zach Wilsons and Mitchell Trubiskys to beat up on anymore. That was the issue last year. After the wind-blown win at Buffalo they got exposed against better opponents and that's the case again this year. They have a difficult schedule down the stretch starting this Thursday with Buffalo. A team they couldn't get to punt in their last two meetings. So the Patriots defense, I don't know how much they've addressed the same issues they had last year. I don't know if they have the athleticism to hang with the elite quarterbacks and elite receivers in this league."
5 - Sack master
New England ranks second in the NFL this season with 37 sacks, led by Matthew Judon, who leads the league with 13. Ten of those 13 sacks have come in five home games this season for Judon, so he looks for his fifth in a row at home with at least 1.5 sacks. He has a sack in two of his past three games against Buffalo.
The Bills protection plan against Judon could be compromised if they are without left tackle Dion Dawkins, who left last week's game with an ankle injury and has not practiced this week.
"Matt Judon is a load," said Senior Producer from NFL Films, Greg Cosell, in his weekly appearance on 'One Bills Live.' "If Dawkins cannot go, they'll have to figure something out. They can't let Judon wreck the game. You can't go into the game with the idea that Josh (Allen) is just going to run around and make plays. As much as Josh can do that and be special on any given play, that's a tough way to play offense. I'll be very curious to see how they go about that because Judon has been solid every single game. Maybe they have to keep a tight end in. Against Cleveland they played almost 60 percent of their snaps in base personnel with just two receivers to help protect with Myles Garrett. They may have to go back to that this week."
6 - Filling the void
Speaking of pass rushers, Buffalo for the first time this season will be without the services of top pass rusher Von Miller, who is out with a knee injury. The veteran leads the Bills in sacks with eight, but he's also brought a valuable veteran presence to the team as well. After he was injured, the Bills were down to just three healthy defensive ends last week with Boogie Basham, Shaq Lawson and practice squad call up Mike Love.
Fortunately, the Bills are getting healthier at defensive end as it looks as though they'll be getting starting LDE Greg Rousseau back in the lineup and third year DE AJ Epenesa back in the rotation as they each return from ankle injuries.
When Miller was lost to injury prior to halftime last week, Buffalo had to dial up more pressure packages in the second half to get heat on Lions QB Jared Goff.
"This past week the Bills had their highest percentage of five-man pressures against the Lions," said Cosell. "If they want to play man coverage again this week, they may want to continue with their five-man pressures against another quarterback in Mac Jones who doesn't make second reaction plays. With quarterbacks who are essentially pocket players, you speed them up and make them get the ball out quicker and you've got a better chance to win in man coverage because you don't have to cover as long."
NFL Network's Michael Robinson when appearing on 'One Bills Live' this week liked what he saw when defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier deployed LB Matt Milano in the pressure scheme.
"When you have a guy like a Matt Milano, he is the glue to this defense, I think they'll rush him a little bit more," said Robinson. "You saw that this past game against the Lions. You rush Milano a bit more you'll see them getting to the quarterback a bit more."
Ed Oliver and the three other defensive tackles on Buffalo's defensive interior have been blowing up the interior of offensive lines the past two weeks and are brimming with confidence as to what they can do in collapsing the pocket in the absence of Miller.
"Well, me, Tim (Settle), (Jordan) Phil (Phillips) and DQ (DaQuan Jones) are all healthy," said Oliver. "So that just means that our role has to just increase. I know we're banged up on the edges but all four of us are healthy so between the four of us we can get it done."
7 - Why points are an issue for Patriots
It might be just a quirk of a stat, but the Patriots are 6-0 this season when they give up less than 20 points and 0-5 when they give up more than 20.
Against the Sean McDermott coached Bills since 2020, the Patriots have averaged just 16.2 points per game in the regular season.
The main problem for New England's point scoring woes this season have been their slow starts. The Patriots have scored just 25 points in the first quarter this season, which ranks 29th in the league. In fact, last week at Minnesota in Week 12 was their first game in which they scored a touchdown in the first quarter.
"When you can't convert third downs and when you don't score touchdowns in the red zone it's hard to win football games," said Volin. "Now they've played good enough defense at times, and they've turned teams over which has enabled them to win some games. But when you're not scoring touchdowns in the red zone it's tough to win games."
The Patriots are 0-8 with Mac Jones when an opposing offense scores 25 points or more. Buffalo has averaged 28 points per game this season.