The Buffalo Bills are seeking revenge and a division title when they travel to Foxboro on Sunday afternoon to take on their long-time rival New England Patriots. In Week 4, the Bills (10-4) fell at home to the Pats in a tough 16-10 loss with Matt Barkley at quarterback in the fourth quarter. With a win on Sunday and with another New England loss next week, the Bills would be celebrating their first division title since 1995. But Bills Mafia shouldn’t jump off their tailgate buses on to any unsuspecting folding tables with joy just yet -- let’s just celebrate making the playoffs for the second time in three seasons after a 17-year drought.
On the other hand, New England has already extended its own NFL record by securing an 11th straight postseason appearance after thrashing the Bengals last week, 34-13. Despite their 11-3 record, Pats fans are weary of an offense that has struggled immensely against teams with a pulse or a winning record. A win on Sunday against a tenacious Bills defense would calm the nerves, for at least one week, of the New England faithful. Surely an eleventh consecutive AFC East title would help too.
Buffalo at New England
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Patriots -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Brady slipping
Father Time is and forever shall be undefeated. Despite his extraordinary life, Tom Brady is not exempt from time’s influence — no matter how many avocadoes he eats or Just For Men he uses in that near-perfect quaff. The fact is that Brady is 42 years old and it is starting to show, well, has been showing for some time now, actually. Since Week 5, Brady hasn’t had a game with a quarterback rating higher than 90, averaging a QBR of 79.9 the last nine games. In that same nine-game stretch, Brady has only thrown 11 touchdowns, completed 58 percent of his passes, averaged a measly 5.4 yards per attempt and 230 yards per game — all career lows.
But not all of the Patriots’ offensive woes fall on Brady’s golden shoulder. The New England offensive line has been injured and shuffled around all season long, not allowing the less-than-zippy Brady to make throws downfield we’re used to seeing. The loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski has also proven to be much more troublesome than many may have realized. Gronk’s ability to take the top off opposing defenses from the slot allowed for all of those classic underneath routes to smaller, possession receivers like Julian Edelman to work so well. This season, Brady simply does not have the weapons in his arsenal outside of Edelman. The closest wide receiver to Edelman statistically is Phillip Dorsett who has nearly 700 fewer yards, 90 fewer targets, and 62 fewer receptions.
With a shaky offensive line and a complete lack of skill position players, Brady’s declining skill set is exacerbated by the Patriots’ other flaws — something to keep an eye on against one of the league’s best pass defenses in Buffalo.
2. Bills’ rushing attack
You wouldn’t know it from looking at last week’s box score — 0.34 yards per carry against Pittsburgh — but the Bills’ ground game is the heartbeat of their offense. This season the Bills rank fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (134) and 10th in yards per carry (4.5). And they get it done with a somewhat unconventional three-pronged rushing attack that features quarterback Josh Allen (467 yards, 9 TDs) and the timeless Frank Gore (573, 2) as complementary pieces to the lead back, rookie Devin Singletary (729, 2).
After a slow rushing attack last week, the Bills face a Pats defense that was torched by Joe Mixon and the Bengals in Cincinnati. New England allowed Mixon to break off 5.4 yards per attempt for 136 yards total. How the Patriots handle the Bills Cerberus (it’s Greek, look it up) running attack could spell the difference between a divisional title or Wild Card Weekend game.
3. Josh Allen
Allen will not be mistaken for a premier NFL passer anytime soon. He currently ranks 24th in passing attempts per game (31.9) and 28th in passing yards per game (201.2). His season marks of 18 touchdowns and an 84.6 passer rating aren’t going to turn any heads either. But these median numbers don’t necessarily mean that he’s a bad passer or quarterback — he just won’t win you many games.
The Bills’ game plan on Sunday will likely be the same as it’s been all season: run first, run second, pass when needed. But Allen will still have to make the few throws he’s going to attempt count — especially against one of the NFL’s toughest passing defense. The Patriots rank first in QB rating allowed (57.4) and takeaways (36), while ranking second in passing yards allowed per game (170). Last week the Patriots’ secondary had four interceptions, the fourth time they’ve had as many in a single game this season.
How Allen can hurt the Pats is with his legs. He’s picked up nearly 40 first downs on foot and rushed for nine touchdowns. If the Pats take away the throws downfield, look for Allen to take off from the pocket. If Allen can keep the ball away from such an opportunistic New England defense, the Bills have to like their chances.
Both of these teams are so stout defensively that this game very likely will come down to the play of the two starting quarterbacks. One is aging and waning (albeit ever so handsomely) and the other is spry yet raw. So what gives? It’s hard to bet against Brady and Belichick at home with another division title theirs for the taking.
Prediction: Patriots 20, Bills 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.