First place in the AFC East and major playoff implications are on the line when the New England Patriots head due north to Buffalo to take on the Bills for "Monday Night Football."
The Patriots (8-4) are riding a massive six-game hot streak behind a big-play defense and an offense that is hitting its stride under rookie quarterback Mac Jones. They sit atop the division and currently hold the second overall seed in the AFC. A win on Monday night would give the Pats a comfy two-game lead heading into the final stretch of the season.
Meanwhile, the Bills (7-4), an early AFC favorite, have split their last six games and find themselves a half-game back of the Pats in the AFC East. A win would hand the Bills the division lead and once again give credence to their legitimacy. But in order to knock off New England, Josh Allen and the Bills' offense have to be more reliable than it’s been in recent weeks, not an easy feat against this Pats defense.
Monday Night Football: New England (8-4) at Buffalo (7-4)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 6 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Bills -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Top-ranked defenses
If you’re an old-school, “defense wins championships” type of football fan, this might be the matchup for you. Simply put, these are the two best defensive units in the league. The Bills and Patriots are almost statistically identical in almost every major category on both sides of the ball, but especially when it comes to defense.
These are the top two defenses in the entire NFL when it comes to points prevention. New England ranks first, giving up just 15.8 points per contest, and the Bills are right behind them at 16.5. The Bills are the best at slowing down opposing quarterbacks, holding teams to a league-best 62.8 passer rating, while the Patriots rank second at 70.6. Both units force opposing offenses into mistakes as they are tied for second with 25 turnovers forced. Both have big-play secondaries that come through week in and week, ranking first (Pats, 19) and second (Bills, 16) in interceptions. And finally, each defense is really, really good on third downs and in the red zone, both sitting in the top ten in each category.
There is one area where the Patriots are better than the Bills – rushing the passer. New England’s 30 sacks rank fifth and are just three shy of the league lead. Linebacker Matt Judon is wreaking havoc on quarterbacks in his first season in New England, having a career year with 11.5 sacks so far (3rd). New England doesn’t blitz very often, only 22 percent of dropbacks, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them dial up pressure to make Allen uncomfortable from the first snap to try to force him into early mistakes.
2. Josh Allen: Jekyll or Hyde?
I have never read Robert Louis Stevenson’s "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." In fact, I didn’t know Bob Stevenson wrote that book until right now. All I know is, one of those guys in Bob’s book is bad, and the other is good, and they are the same fella. And that’s kind of how I'd describe the way Allen has been playing football as of late.
The evolution of Allen over the last couple of seasons has been really fun to watch. His development from a raw and reckless rookie and young starter into a legitimate MVP candidate has been remarkable. While Allen’s game has greatly matured, there are still those moments of indecision and negligence that hurt his team’s chances. And because of the Bills’ heavy, heavy reliance on the passing game, there may not be another quarterback in the NFL whose performance is more directly correlated with his team’s success than Allen. What I’m saying is, if Allen plays well, the Bills win. If he plays poorly, Buffalo loses.
In the Bills' seven wins this season, Allen has been brilliant, completing 68 percent of his throws, posting a 113.2 rating, with 19 touchdowns, 9.5 air yards per attempt, and only five interceptions and six sacks. In Buffalo’s four losses, Allen has played poorly with just an 81.2 rating, six touchdowns vs. five interceptions, 11 sacks, and a feeble 5.5 air yards per pass attempt.
In order to beat the Pats on Sunday, the Bills have to hope they get the version of Allen that dropped 320 yards and four touchdowns against New England in Week 15 last season, and not the one that had a combined passer rating of 67.4 in the Bills last two losses against the Colts and Jaguars. Most importantly, Allen has to protect the football against a Patriots’ defense that’s forced eight turnovers in the last two weeks.
3. Red zone
With this game shaping up to be a defensive battle, offensive efficiency is going to be of the utmost importance for each team, especially in scoring situations. For as well as the Patriots' offense has been playing in recent weeks, they’ve been struggling to score touchdowns in the red zone. In their last two games, the Pats have scored touchdowns on only three of their eight trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line. I find that kind of odd considering they won their last two contests by a combined 48 points.
But the fact of the matter is, the Pats have been struggling to score touchdowns in the red zone all season long, currently ranking 24th in touchdown percentage (55 percent). Mac Jones has been okay in scoring chances, checking in as the 16th-best red-zone passer this season with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. And despite racking up an average of 144 yards on the ground the last six weeks, New England also has struggled to run the ball in the red zone. Their two-pronged backfield of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson (no relation to Bob) is averaging less than 2.5 yards per carry inside their opponents' 20.
On the other hand, the Bills' red-zone offense has improved, however moderately, in recent weeks. It’s still not great, ranking 11th in touchdown percentage (62 percent), but still better than it was back in October when it was costing them games (see: "Monday Night Football" vs. Tennessee). Allen has been as dynamic in the red zone as any quarterback since Cam Newton was at the height of his powers. This year Allen ranks third in red-zone completion percentage (65 percent), attempts (74), and touchdowns (18). He’s also second among quarterbacks in red-zone carries (18) and rushing touchdowns (3). A big reason for Allen’s scoring prowess is because he has one of the best red-zone targets in the league in Stefon Diggs. Diggs is second in the league in red-zone catches (16) and targets (24) and third in touchdowns (7). Watching the matchup between Diggs and New England cornerback J.C. Jackson will be fun to watch no matter where the ball is on the field, but it's something to definitely keep an eye on when the Bills are deep in Patriots’ territory.
This game is going to be as accurate of a barometer for either of these teams as we’ve seen all season. With both defenses stacking up so evenly, this game comes down to which young quarterback can make plays while also not turning over the football. Despite the Bills’ inability to protect the ball, I think they have the offense to cover up their blemishes, mainly because if Allen is on, he can hurt defenses with his arm and ability to extend plays with his legs. The same can’t be said for Jones. I like the Bills to retake the AFC East in a low-scoring affair.
Prediction: Bills 22, Patriots 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.