The Patriots (2-4), finding themselves off to their worst start since 2000, are 2.5 games behind the Bills (5-2) in the AFC East. They've only lost this division once since 2003, and even then, they held the same record as the Dolphins at 11-5 in 2009 when Tom Brady missed all but the season opener.
There's plenty of season left, and this is just one game, but it feels more important. This is a great chance for New England to close the gap and rally back up the standings, but a loss would also be a proverbial passing of the torch from the Patriots to Bills as official AFC East heavyweights.
The Bills aren't just in this position because the Patriots have nosedived since Brady left town. They look like legitimate contenders. After finishing 10-6 last season, Buffalo has taken the next step as Josh Allen has played at a Pro Bowl level. His 84.2 QBR ranks third in the NFL, and more importantly, he's lowered his interception rate each year from 3.8 to 2.0 to 1.5 percent.
Still, Buffalo hasn't cemented its place atop the division yet. The Bills barely squeaked by the lowly Jets last week and had to rally from down 10-0 without scoring a touchdown. They have nearly as much to prove as the Patriots do.
Another loss wouldn't be a death blow to the Patriots — after all, they do play those Jets next week — but they're trending in the wrong direction with three straight losses. But they do need to play competitively. Like the Patriots of old, who have won seven straight against the Bills by an average margin of 14.4 points.
New England at Buffalo
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Bills -4
Three Things to Watch
1. What's going on with Cam Newton?
Any breakdown of the Patriots has to begin with Newton. He's the reason they were so competitive to start the season and the reason their season has come apart. The 2015 MVP has said he's healthy, but his play as of late says otherwise. Of note, he's had trouble this season throwing to his right, an issue he faced when dealing when a shoulder injury two years ago.
Newton's struggles since recovering from COVID-19 (26-of-40 passing, 255 yards, five interceptions) are especially worrisome because we don't fully understand the short- or long-term effects of the disease. He has already told reporters that he hasn't experienced brain fog — although it's dubious whether he'd admit that if he did have that side effect — but he is clearly not playing like his normal self.
Part of Newton's issues have also been related to his teammates; he's just not getting any help. Patriots receivers are getting the least separation in the league, according to Next Gen Stats, which has forced him to make tougher throws. Julian Edelman has been ineffective when healthy, and he's going to miss Sunday's game after undergoing knee surgery. Among the 100 players with at least 19 receptions this season, N'Keal Harry ranks 77th with 9.1 ypr. And the team is getting absolutely nothing from tight ends (eight receptions for 98 yards).
Still, Newton's used to playing with little help after taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl with Kelvin Benjamin, Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess, and Corey Brown. He needs to make better decisions and take advantage of a secondary that ranks just 21st in the league with four interceptions.
2. Can the Bills' offense get back on track?
Buffalo averaged 30.8 points per game through Week 4 but has taken a downturn in the last three games. The team is only averaging 17 points per week against three middling defenses. They may not need more than 21 points to beat the Patriots this week, but this could be a long-term issue.
Allen's play, in particular, lately has been concerning. His completion percentage has fallen from 70.9 to 63.1 percent. His yards per attempt are down from 9.0 to 6.2. The interception problem is back too. Allen didn't try to push the ball down the field much in last week's game, and the offense works best when he airs out his arm.
Getting the running game back to functional may be key too. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss are both under four yards per carry, although the rookie Moss picked up a career-high 47 yards last week on four attempts.
The gap between their total offense (376.3 ypg, 13th) and total offense (24.9 ppg, 20th) can be partially explained by their poor luck in the red zone. Their 60.7 percent scoring rate inside the 20 may lead the division, but it's just 22nd in the NFL. Getting that corrected soon will be crucial.
3. Controlling the clock
The Patriots' one saving grace this season has been their running game. Newton has been effective as ever, and the patchwork backfield of Sony Michel (6.7 ypc), Damien Harris (5.4), James White (4.3), and Rex Burkhead (3.9) has helped form the league's fourth-ranked rushing attack.
Injuries have and continue to be a problem, though. Michel is out with a quad injury, and Harris suffered an ankle injury during practice. White and Burkhead haven't been as effective as they've been in years past, but the strong offensive line has helped make up for that.
Sunday provides a juicy matchup for the Patriots because Buffalo's front seven has probably been the team's weakest point all season. The Bills have given up triple-digit rushing performances each of the last three weeks, including a 245-yard effort from the Chiefs. However, the Bills did notably have possession of the ball for a majority of two of those three games. The Pats will need to find similar success on the ground but dictate the pace of the game by limiting turnovers unlike in past weeks.
There are a lot of new normals we all have to get used to in 2020, and the Patriots not being great is one of them. There's still hope for a playoff spot, but until Cam Newton proves he is healthy and effective, it's hard to bet on them. Without strong quarterback play, it will take a heroic defensive effort — which is not out of the realm of possibility.
Still, this game should tell us a lot about the future of the division. Are the Bills just Sisyphus, hopelessly trying to push that boulder up the AFC East mountain? Or can they finally overcome their biggest obstacle and knock off the Patriots?