SCOUTING THE MATCHUPS
The Patriots and Bills will meet for the third time this season, this one with the season on the line.
When the Patriots run – Edge: Patriots
The Patriots have been able to run the ball effectively on a consistent basis down the stretch. That was the case in both meetings against Buffalo, especially in the first one. We all remember that windy Monday night in Orchard Park when the Patriots attempted just three passes for the entire game, yet still piled up 222 yards on the ground. In some ways New England was even more efficient in the second meeting when it averaged 5.5 yards per carry while piling up 149 yards. Damien Harris topped 100 yards in both games and he’ll be relied upon once again the get the offense in gear. Rhamondre Stevenson was outstanding in the first game, picking up tough yards while running into the wind often against stacked boxes with heavy personnel. He missed the rematch due to a concussion, though, and Harris was on his own. Buffalo’s run defense remains suspect. The Bills finished 13th in the league, allowing an average of 109.8 yards per game and 11th with 4.2 yards per rush. The Patriots need the ground game to be productive, particularly early, in order to move the ball and avoid falling behind. The Bills are healthier up front than they were in the regular season, while left tackle Isaiah Wynn left the finale in Miami with an ankle injury. That will be worth monitoring during the short week leading up to Saturday night.
When the Patriots pass – Edge: Bills
The Patriots ability to run is always important but especially so against the Bills. Buffalo boasts the top-ranked pass defense in football, allowing 163 yards per game through the air and just 5.2 yards per pass. The Bills secondary also is capable of taking the ball away with 19 interceptions (third in interception rate). The group is led by a pair of terrific safeties in Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, who led the team with five apiece. Even after losing Pro Bowl corner Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL, the Bills continued to perform well in pass defense. On the flip side Mac Jones appears to have a hit a bit of a rookie wall down the stretch. He threw five picks in his last four games and his early struggles contributed to the Patriots big deficits in losses to Indy, Buffalo and Miami. Still, the rookie turned in a solid season with 22 touchdowns and 13 picks while completing over 67 percent of his passes for a Patriots offense that is still searching for consistency. For the most part he operated efficiently while leaning on Jakobi Meyers (83 catches, 866 yards, 2 TDs), Kendrick Bourne (55-800-5) and tight end Hunter Henry (50-603-9). The Bills did a great job of neutralizing that trio in the second game, limiting them to a combined nine catches for 101 yards and no TDs. Jones will need to be more efficient so the offense can offer some balance and more production.
When the Bills run – Edge: Patriots
The Patriots run defense has been suspect all season long but the Bills really don’t rely on the running game enough for it to make a huge difference. Devin Singletary is Buffalo’s leading rusher with 870 yards in 188 carries for a solid 4.6-yard average with seven touchdowns. Singletary is not the type of runner the Bills can just line up and send between the tackles on a consistent basis, however. Josh Allen, on the other, hand is capable of filling the gaps for the Bills ground game. He averaged over 6 yards per carry while racking up 763 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He will need to be accounted for throughout the game. Ultimately, Buffalo prefers to throw and the offensive line is better suited to that style. So even though New England allows 123.7 yards per game on the ground (23rd) and 4.5 yards per carry (25th), it’s unlikely that Buffalo will try to take advantage of that weakness, even if rookie stalwart Christian Barmore is unable to go. Barmore left the Miami game late with a knee injury and although reports indicated he may have avoided a serious issue, his status is still uncertain. That would be a big loss for a front that is already struggling to stop the run. Miami entered the finale as one of the worst rushing teams in the league and piled up 195 yards on the ground. Lawrence Guy, Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and Davon Godchaux among others will need to improve significantly and not allow Singletary to enjoy success.
When the Bills pass – Edge: Bills
Allen has been erratic at times but he’s capable of lighting it up with the best of them. Despite his inconsistencies he still tossed 36 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while passing for 4,407 yards. He’s enjoyed some tremendous games against the Patriots in two of the last three outings, the most recent coming December 26 when he helped the Bills rack up 33 points while throwing for 314 yards and three touchdowns. His legs are also a concern as he led Buffalo with 64 yards on 12 carries, many coming in key spots to pick up first downs. It will be interesting to see if Bill Belichick opts to use personnel to combat his running, a role that safety Kyle Dugger may be suited for assuming he’s healthy. Dugger missed the Miami game with a hand injury. Allen has plenty of options to throw to including All-Pro Stephon Diggs, who led the team with 103 catches for 1,225 yards and 10 touchdowns. Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis, both of whom missed the last meeting due to COVID protocols, are dangerous as well. Also, tight end Dawson Knox has nine touchdowns and is a capable receiver. Belichick chose to drop into coverage and rarely sent pressure at Allen in the last meeting, forcing him to take the underneath throws by staying patient. That’s exactly what Allen did, and it will be interesting to see how the Patriots secondary adjusts this time around. J.C. Jackson needs to do a better job against Diggs while the rest of the secondary can’t allow complementary pieces like Isaiah McKenzie to do damage. The Patriots will have their hands full in this matchup.
Special Teams – Edge: Bills
At some point when the mistakes continue to happen virtually every week they can no longer be termed “uncharacteristic.” That’s been the case most of the year for the Patriots special teams, which are normally a strength but this year have been anything but. Penalties and poor execution (three blocked punts allowed), not to mention very little production from the return game, have been constants for most of the season. Only the near-perfect Nick Folk (36 of 39 field goals) has prevented this from being a disaster. Buffalo kicker Tyler Bass has been almost as good, connecting on 28 of 32 field goal and all 51 PATs. Both punters, the Patriots Jake Bailey and Buffalo’s Matt Haack, are solid with neither allowing much in the way of returns all season. The Patriots allow 8.6 yards per punt return and the Bills just 5.6, so neither side has allowed much in the way of field position. The Bills have had some struggles in the return game, alternating between McKenzie and Marquez Stevenson. Stevenson was recently benched after a fumble in Week 17 against Atlanta. Hyde has also been used on punts occasionally. Gunner Olszewski handles both kicks and punts for the Patriots and has been held in check in recent weeks.