Buffalo Bills fans patiently waited, seeing their team bumble through the 21st century while the New England Patriots forged an NFL dynasty. The Patriots won 16 AFC East titles in the past 17 seasons, only losing out to the Miami Dolphins once when Tom Brady tore his ACL in 2008. Through it all, the Bills stumbled through an 18-year playoff drought of their own, failing to win 10 games from 2000-17 while the Patriots did it 16 times.
My, how the tables have turned.
The Bills clinched their first AFC East title since 1995 last weekend; at 11-3, they’re currently in position to earn the No. 2 seed in the conference. The Patriots, meanwhile, were eliminated from postseason contention two weeks early, losing 22-12 to the Dolphins in a game where they couldn’t even muster an offensive touchdown. At 6-8, they’re on pace for their first losing record since 2000, future Hall of Famer Bill Belichick’s first year as head coach.
Certainly, the chaos of COVID-19 wreaked havoc on a Patriots team who struggled to find consistency on offense after Brady’s offseason departure. Across the way, the Bills have seen the value of when your star quarterback clicks; Josh Allen has already passed for 4,000 yards and was rewarded this week with his first career Pro Bowl appearance. It’s a well-built roster stocked for postseason success in the way the Patriots were just a few short years ago.
The Bills come in having much more to play for, but they know all too well a trip to Foxborough is never easy. Can they find a way to put some demons behind them and continue their steady march to the playoffs?
Monday Night Football: Buffalo at New England
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 28 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Buffalo -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Cam Newton play the whole game?
The Patriots, after a 45-0 explosion against the Los Angeles Chargers, have failed to score an offensive touchdown the past two weeks. That has put Newton's hold on the starting role in jeopardy; he’s thrown for less than 100 yards in two of the last four games, only has five touchdown passes on the year and doesn’t appear to be in the team’s long-term plans.
“I’m not going to get caught up into it or feed into that, knowing that I’m still on a job interview, to be honest with you,” Newton said this week on local Boston radio. “It’s my job to put the best version of me on film and that’s what I plan on doing.”
It would make sense to give Jarrett Stidham another shot soon, considering the second-year player and 2019 fourth-round draft pick has a four-year contract with New England. It’s hard to do worse with Newton lately, who has struggled to get going against playoff teams the past two weeks with solid defenses. Despite his legs, he’s gotten sacked seven times against the Los Angeles Rams and Miami, showing his age while failing to establish the run part of his game. It’s hard to see that trajectory changing against a Bills defense that’s allowed 20 points or fewer in three of the past four games, produced five interceptions during that stretch, and held Ben Roethlisberger to less than 200 passing yards.
If the Bills jump out to a quick lead, will Belichick have a short leash? That adds a small layer of unpredictability here although Stidham has hardly been steady; he’s yet to throw more than a single touchdown in any game this year.
2. Will Josh Allen bounce back from an uneven November performance?
The Patriots defense was pretty effective against Allen despite a 24-21 losing effort on Nov. 1. Allen’s 65.5 QB rating from that game is his worst of the season and he was just 11-for-18, throwing for only 154 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Top wide receiving target Stefon Diggs caught six of those passes but everyone else struggled to get open.
However, the second time around should be easier without Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore on the field. The 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year was placed on injured reserve this week with a quadriceps injury, further draining an already thin Patriots defense. Allen also is playing better than he has since September, throwing for just eight touchdowns and one interception the last three games while adding two more touchdowns on the ground.
Last week, the Bills totaled a season-high 534 yards against the Denver Broncos and the offense was clicking on all cylinders: passing, rushing, and third-down conversions (9-for-13) while racking up 48 points. It’s hard to see the Patriots stopping that train.
3. Can the Bills establish the run?
The Bills remain Allen-driven on offense, ranked second in the NFL in passing yards per game but just 21st in rushing. However, the Broncos offered a glimmer of hope; running back Zack Moss tied his season high with 81 yards while Devin Singletary added 68 more, including a 51-yarder for a touchdown in garbage time.
It’s important for the Bills to add another facet to their offense as they tune up for the playoffs and a potential matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs' scoring machine. Against the Chiefs on Oct. 19, they had just 84 total rushing yards, 42 of those from Allen, and could only drudge up 17 points. It was a reminder that to win the Super Bowl, it can’t just be Allen, then Allen-to-Diggs all the time.
Considering the weakness in the Patriots’ D, expect the Bills to tinker a bit offensively and try and build on last week's performance against the Broncos. Depending on results elsewhere, it could be the last regular-season game starters play if the Bills “lock” into a seed and choose to use Week 17 as a bye week of sorts.
The Bills come into the week with momentum, four straight wins, and an infinitesimal chance (however small) at the top seed. The Patriots are simply trying to play for pride, a position neither their team nor Belichick has rarely encountered.
Add in Buffalo’s motivation at kicking the Pats while they’re down and it’s not hard to handicap this one. A win would give the Bills their first sweep of their division rival since Doug Flutie was the starting quarterback in 1999.
Prediction: Bills 35, Patriots 10
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.