The best team in the National Football League so far this season heads to one of the hottest on Sunday as an AFC East battle takes center stage between a pair of familiar rivals. New England has been on a tear ever since getting Tom Brady back at quarterback, which just so happened to be the game right after Buffalo beat the Patriots and rookie third-stringer Jacoby Brissett in Foxborough.
That Bills victory was one of the highlights this season for head coach Rex Ryan, whose bravado got the best of him and the team in an 0-2 start but has played a part in a 4-1 rally since. Firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman in early September also played a part as Buffalo has recommitted to the run game and rank second in the league behind only the Dallas Cowboys. The defense hasn’t quite played up to those same standards but is fairly stingy against the pass.
That will come into play against Brady and the Patriots’ aerial attack, which has been dominant the past few weeks thanks to the two-tight end sets that feature Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. The team’s tandem at tailback hasn’t been too shabby either, ranking sixth in the league in rushing behind LeGarrette Blount and James White. Those are just some of the reasons why New England is in pole position for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs at the halfway point of the year and looking once again like the team that will emerge with the division crown.
Amazingly this is the 114th meeting between the two franchises, with the Patriots holding a 69-43-1 edge. New England has not been swept by a division opponent in 15 years, a notable streak on the line after the Bills’ earlier win this season that was just their fifth in the last 33 games since 2000. Brady, by the way, is 25-3 against the team from upstate New York as a starter and has more wins against Buffalo than any other opponent in the league.
New England at Buffalo
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 30 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Patriots -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Running the Ball
It’s no secret that the Bills love to run the ball and play defense as that’s the ethos their head coach has had since he entered the league. Things might be a little bit more difficult for the league’s No. 2 run game this week however as top tailback LeSean McCoy could be inactive for the game with a hamstring injury. Mike Gillislee and Reggie Bush both have been solid when in the game, particularly the former, but didn’t do much of anything in last week’s loss in Miami. They’ll need to be on top of their games if Buffalo has any chance as quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s passing is predicated on it. The same could be said of the Patriots, who have become more of a passing offense since Tom Brady’s return but need to stay balanced in order to sustain drives on the road.
2. MASH Unit Replacements
In addition to McCoy possibly being out, Buffalo has a lengthy injury report to sort out. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins is already on injured reserve and both Marquise Goodwin (concussion) and Robert Woods (ankle) are questionable this week. Offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson was limited during practice during the week with back issues and nearly the entire linebacker corps — including Jerry Hughes — were limited or did not participate in the days leading up to the game. As for the Patriots, Martellus Bennett and Julian Edelman are both expected to play on Sunday but were limited during the week with lower leg issues. As is typically the case at this point in the year, who will actually suit up for the game is going to play a big role in both depth and playmaking ability for each squad.
3. Shortening the Game
This is obviously a much different New England team thanks to the addition of Brady behind center and the emergence of a healthy Rob Gronkowski. The end result is the Patriots have been piling up the yards and points at an impressive rate and makes this matchup much different from the one that took place in early October. If the Bills want to pull off a feat nobody has accomplished this decade and sweep their division rivals, they have to shorten the game and control the clock. That means long drives that end in points — preferably touchdowns instead of field goals — and forcing some turnovers. It’s an easy game plan to talk about, but a much harder one to execute against Bill Belichick’s team.
The annual war of words between Rex Ryan and the New England Patriots has always been entertaining but turned far more interesting earlier this month when the Bills marched into Foxborough to capture a big victory in the middle of a long win streak. It’s safe to say that as the result of that “W,” Buffalo was the only team in the division to take advantage of Tom Brady’s absence on a four-game suspension to at least inch its way up in the AFC East standings.
Things are a bit different this time around however. Not only is Brady back but the Patriots are playing like the best team in the league and winning blowouts left and right since their leader returned. The defense has been surprisingly good and there’s not one glaring hole in this team that also runs the ball effectively as well. They’re currently in line to be the top seed in the AFC to nobody’s surprise and are not surprisingly favored to avenge their lone loss on the year.
The Bills do have the confidence that they can beat their division rivals however after doing so already this month and being perfectly built to slow the game down and make each squad grind one out. While they’ve been banged up on the injury front, they should be buoyed by the likely return of Pro Bowler Marcell Dareus at defensive tackle. He’ll help plenty in both pressuring Brady and helping slow LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots run game.
It’s probably not going to be enough in the end however, as last week’s loss at the Dolphins showed. New England figures to be fired up for this one given the history between the two clubs and Bill Belichick and company won’t let up if given the chance to punch in a few more scores in the fourth quarter if this one has already been decided.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Bills 13
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.