The Buffalo Bills are coming into Foxborough energized from a win last week against the Carolina Panthers that saw an electric performance on offense and an on-brand defensive effort.
Buffalo played with a competitive fire they’ll need to win out the final few games of the regular season and make the playoffs.
At home against Carolina, the Bills looked a lot more like the team that won four straight games early in the season, and less like the one that had lost their two previous outings.
One of those contests was against none other than this week’s opponent, their AFC rival New England Patriots.
With Josh Allen and company dialed into what they need to do in order to charge into the postseason, and with the Patriots standing in their way, the matchup has even greater implications.
So with the AFC East title up for grabs, here are three keys to a win for the Bills (8-6) against the Patriots (9-5):
Execute To Keep Momentum Going
When the Bills have won this season, they’ve done so by a significant number of points.
They rank first in the NFL in point differential, and their 25.0 margin of victory in eight wins this season is the highest since at least 1970, per Buffalo Bills PR. When they find themselves in one-possession games, however, they have the NFL’s worst record at 0-5.
Allen and the offense executed with efficiency, completing drives by scoring and adding points to the board against the Panthers. The QB zipped laser-like passes to his receivers, getting the ball out faster on quick pass plays to get the best of the opposing coverage and keep the offense going.
Their loss to the Patriots is still fresh for them and they are looking to bounce back from it. A number of Bills watched the Patriots lose to the Colts, and saw the advantage that getting up in the score early had in Indy’s win.
In their first matchup against Belichick’s club, Buffalo went only one-for-four on red zone attempts. Those drives will need to end differently.
While the headlines praised Bill Belichick and the Patriots 222 rushing yards at the time as being genius, the reality is that the Bills had plenty of chances to win. Had one of those red zone drives by Buffalo gone differently, so could have the outcome of the game.
Beasley is the Bills second-leading receiver and is also second in the NFL in catches out of the slot position (63) averaging 8.4 yards per reception with one touchdown on the year. While not having that type of playmaker for the crucial matchup is certainly a blow, there is a silver lining.
In the team’s Week 13 matchup against New England, Beasley had only one catch for 11 yards. In replacing his productivity with their “next-man-up” approach, the Bills have a couple of players on their roster who should help do just that, perhaps exceeding those numbers.
While Isaiah McKenzie’s 5.4 yards per reception this year might appear to be a drop-off, it’s important to remember that he’s played less time at the receiver position, serving as the Bills kick return man for part of the year where he averaged 24.3 yards per return.
What’s more, McKenzie averaged 9.9 yards per reception in 2018, and 9.4 yards per reception in the 2019 and 2020 seasons with five touchdowns last season for Buffalo. He was also inactive in the last matchup between the two teams, and will likely be motivated to prove himself as a contributor.
Super Bowl Champion head coach Bill Cowher made an interesting comment in pregame predictions during the Bills playoff run last season about McKenzie, describing him as a Tyreek-Hill-type asset for the Bills to utilize. Considering how defenses have adjusted to cover them, the Bills could continue to light up the short-yard passing game.
This could be offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s chance to draw up some Tyreke Hill-like plays for McKenzie to see whether his kick-returner experience can translate into breaking loose for some big plays.
Even if he just fills in though, he should be able to do so serviceably.
The other player who could help produce in Beasley’s absence is RB Matt Breida, who is averaging 10.3 yards per catch and has two receiving touchdowns on the season. Breida was used in multiple positions during the last time the AFC East rivals squared off, taking the field at RB, WR, and as a kick returner.
Between the two, the Bills offense should hopefully not miss a beat.
The offense will need all the help they can get especially with the blow to them on Friday, losing G Cody Ford and WR Gabriel Davis, who has the third-highest grade among all NFL receivers since Week 10 per Pro Football Focus to the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Having Stefon Diggs and, hopefully, Emmanuel Sanders on the field commanding coverage, the Bills should still find opportunities between them even if Sanders plays just to act as a coverage-decoy to help free up Diggs, McKenzie, and Breida.
Allen can be good under pressure, but if the offensive line gives him time to find the open man downfield he can do even more. He’s completed 56.4% of passes when being blitzed this year, compared to a 70.5% completion percentage this season with a 105.3 passer rating when not under pressure. So the O-line and OT Spencer Brown will need to protect him from the likes of LB Matthew Judon, especially with linemen Jon Feliciano and Dion Dawkins on the COVID-19 list.
Even the oft-criticized run game for Buffalo has logged at least 100 yards in each of their last three games and come in at fourth in the league with 4.75 yards per rush. Good blocking at the line could help them put up similar numbers.
That means a key to a win for the Bills offense will be to keep firing on all cylinders and to execute at the line, on offensive drives, in the red zone, and to get ahead early and not end up in a one-score game near the end. Outscoring the Patriots in the long game will be important.
With New England being one of the best teams in the league at causing defensive turnovers, it will also be key not to turn the ball over or commit costly penalties.
Make Tackles, Defend The Run, Force Turnovers
The Patriots are one of the least aggressive teams in the NFL in terms of going for it on fourth down. That means forcing them into quick four-and-out situations to command more time of possession overall could help the Bills win the day.
To do so, they’ll need to make tackles and defend the run. In their last matchup, the Bills defense had a poor tackling performance against Pats running backs.
New England’s run-reliant game plan is already a key part of their offensive attack. It was even more heavily used in part due to Buffalo’s inability to stop it and also in part due to weather conditions. We’ll likely see it again, just with more passing attempts.
So what does that mean?
Well, for the run it means Buffalo has had one of the best looks at New England’s ground game of any team this season. That should hopefully give them some advantage in figuring out how to limit it.
As for the passing attack with Mac Jones that will surely feature more than three passes. Bill Belichick made the claim following the Week Week 13 win that Buffalo hadn’t really seen their passing plays on account of not running them against them. Though the Patriots air offense can be seen on game film from the rest of their matchups this season.
Rookie QB Mac Jones avoided the Bills pass rush and defense by handing the ball off for all but three offensive plays. But as the Indianapolis Colts proved last weekend, if you pressure New England into throwing the ball more, mistakes can be made.
Jones threw two interceptions during the Colts game, despite which he made it clear that he will not be gun shy about continuing to throw. That should bode well for a Bills defense that is one of the top squads in the NFL at takeaways, especially if they seize similar opportunities that the Colts did. Like when Jones stares down his preferred targets like TE Hunter Henry, who the Bills will need to stop in the passing game.
You can also apply pressure to his pass pocket, as the Falcons and Titans did by blitzing using players at corner and safety to pressure the Patriots’ defensive backs, who struggle with blocking.
Plus, several key players in the Patriots’ passing game are banged up, with WR Kendrick Bourne on the COVID-19/reserve list, and WR’s N’Keal Harry and Nelson Agholor both dealing with head injuries. And while that could lead to getting part of their running back group involved in short pass plays, it leaves them with a weak spot.
And it certainly stands to reason that the Bills defense will be motivated to perform better against that run group than in their previous matchup with New England, and they could be short RB Damien Harris who is recovering from a hamstring injury.
If defensive leaders like Jerry Hughes, Ed Oliver, Tremaine Edmunds, and Star Lotulelei can have the type of performance they had last week this Sunday, it will certainly help their cause. They’ll need to do their share to carry the load with DE A.J. Epenesa out.
If the Bills offense executes in the red zone and scores enough, the Patriots RB’s earning their offensive yards the hard way is less of a threat to the outcome of the game. That is, as long as the Bills defense contains it enough.
The Bills also win games in which they force at least two takeaway turnovers. If they can keep step up against the Patriots offense, then they may notch a couple to help their cause just as the Colts did before them.
Be The Better Team On The Field
Just to recap, a “Santa’s Check List” of things that could lead to a win for Buffalo could include executing in the red zone and completing offensive drives with points, not turning the ball over, or committing costly penalties. Also, execution on defense in making tackles and defending the run, forcing turnovers and takeaways, and disrupting the Patriots while not ending up in a one-possession game.
That being said, there are intangibles in this game that could spark an added advantage.
This game pits the two best defenses in the NFL against each other. The teams are also tied at third in the league for the most takeaways per game. The Bills offense will have the chance to prove they are better than the top defense among opponents, while the Buffalo defense will have their chance to leave no question which squad’s defensive unit is the best between them.
The contest also features an MVP talent in Josh Allen, who got snubbed this past week as a starting QB in the Pro Bowl in favor of Lamar Jackson, despite Allen having superior numbers. Nine Bills including Allen got named as alternates while only two, Stefon Diggs and Dion Dawkins, were named starters. Allen and those other alternates might be motivated to demonstrate their true worth come Sunday.
Buffalo has been one of the best teams on defense and put up some of the highest numbers on offense this season, so suffice to say they might take that snub personally. That could help spark them as they traditionally use billboard material like analysts picking against them in matchups as motivation.
The team is also faced with their old divisional foe in New England unseating them from first place in the AFC East. Winning the division is the fastest way to the playoffs and those matchups “count as double”. Since the Bills beat the Patriots twice and went undefeated against divisional opponents to win the AFC East last season, the outcome of this game could favor the victor as the top team in that division. You can bet the Bills want to prove they are just that.
In their first game this season, the inclement weather worked to the Patriots offensive benefit and to the Bills offensive detriment, allowing New England to lean on their run while limiting Buffalo’s air attack. That won’t be the case this time around.
Even in that game, Allen’s ability to throw into the windy conditions with his arm strength turned heads despite turning in his lowest completion percentage of the season at 50%. Weather won’t be a hindrance to Buffalo throwing, but could expose weaknesses in New England’s reliance on its run and defense should they need to lean into their passing game. The weather conditions could play to the Bills strengths, and not the Patriots.
Head coach Sean McDermott’s team will also be without some starters who are out for various health reasons, so the “next-man-up” players who will be starting in their place will surely feel motivated to perform up to standard.
Lining up across from them is a freshly rebuilt roster with rookies and a significant number of players with only one-to-two years in the Patriots system. And players that can be ruffled.
As mentioned, when New England falls behind in a game and stops relying on the run as much, Mac Jones can go to the air under the pressure of getting them back in the game. As seen last Sunday, that can lead to turnovers.
The Colts even gave a clue as to who to target on special teams, brushing through FB Jakob Johnson to block a punt.
Also in that game, two different altercations took place between Patriots defensive players and opposing Colts players. S Kyle Duggar got ejected after getting in a physical altercation with Indianapolis WR Michael Pittman, and LB Matthew Judon got verbally chippy with Colts QB Carson Wentz. It seems things can get under their skin.
And of course, this Sunday Bills Mafia’s presence is likely to be felt in Foxborough, both inside as well as outside the stadium.
A key to a Bills win will be to let one or more of these be an X-Factor that helps give them an advantage or an extra spark or drive to win.