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Patriots vs. Bills preview: The AFC East comes down to this Week 16 matchup

Related: NFL playoff picture: A lot is on the line for the Patriots and Bills in Week 16

Carolina Panthers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

It all comes down to this. While the AFC East will not be decided based on the New England Patriots’ game against the Buffalo Bills alone, the contest goes a long way towards determining who will win the division crown in 2021.

A Patriots victory would allow them to jump to 10-5 and make sure the Bills won’t defend the title. A Buffalo victory, on the other hand, would tie both teams at 9-6 and give the Bills the tiebreaker due to a better division record. Needless to say that a lot is on the line for both clubs, and that their Week 16 matchup at Gillette Stadium will be a high-stakes affair for all involved.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the Patriots’ upcoming opponent, though. Welcome to Week 16.

Offense

Points scored: 28.1/game (5th)

Yards gained: 377.9/game (7th)

Passing offense: 349-for-536, 3,598 yards, 31 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 0.158 EPA (7th), 22.7% DVOA (11th)

Rushing offense: 356 carries, 1692 yards, 4.8 yards/attempt, 14 touchdowns, -0.077 EPA (15th), -4.8% DVOA (15th)

The Bills field one of the most complete teams in the NFL, and their offense is a big reason for their success. The unit is ranked near the top of the league in most statistical categories, with Josh Allen and the passing game in particular being a challenge for opposing offenses. If there is one weakness it is turnover: Buffalo has given the football away 19th time already, the 14th highest such number in the league.

Defense

Points against: 17.4/game (2nd)

Yards given up: 287.9/game (1st)

Passing defense: 263-for-455, 2,458 yards, 11 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, -0.085 EPA (3rd), -19.5% DVOA (2nd)

Rushing defense: 376 carries, 1,573 yards, 4.2 yards/attempt, 15 touchdowns, -0.135 EPA (4th), -13.4% DVOA (10th)

Despite losing All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White in Week 12, the Bills defense has a strong case as one of the best in the NFL. Ranking in the top five in almost every major category, the unit has made life hard on most of the opponents it has faced so far this season. While the Patriots did find success against Buffalo on the ground earlier this year, a repeat performance should not be counted on.

Week 1 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: L 23-16

Week 2 at Miami Dolphins: W 35-0

Week 3 vs. Washington Football Team: W 43-21

Week 4 vs. Houston Texans: W 40-0

Week 5 at Kansas City Chiefs: W 38-20

Week 6 at Tennessee Titans: L 34-31

Week 7: Bye

Week 8 vs. Miami Dolphins: W 26-11

Week 9 at Jacksonville Jaguars: L 9-6

Week 10 at New York Jets: W 45-17

Week 11 vs. Indianapolis Colts: L 41-15

Week 12 at New Orleans Saints: W 31-6

Week 13 vs. New England Patriots: L 14-10

Week 14 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: L 33-27 (OT)

Week 15 at Carolina Panthers: W 31-14

The Bills started their season with a disappointing home loss against the Steelers before rebounding with a four-game winning streak — one that featured a statement 38-20 road win over the Chiefs in a rematch of the 2020 AFC Championship Game. At 4-1, however, Buffalo started to show some weaknesses.

The team lost in Tennessee before a win over the Dolphins that was closer than the final score indicated. In Week 9, the Bills suffered a tough defeat at the hands of the one-win Jaguars. They did bounce back with a beatdown of the Jets, but were blown out at home the following week to lose the AFC East lead.

Their Thanksgiving win over the Saints saw them rebound in style, but Buffalo suffered back-to-back defeats the next two games: the team lost a defensive affair to the Patriots in Week 13 before a comeback attempt against the Buccaneers came up just short. In Week 15, meanwhile, the Bills flexed their muscles again by blowing out an overmatched opponent.

Offense

QB Josh Allen; RB Devin Singletary; WR Stefon Diggs, WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Gabriel Davis; TE Dawson Knox; LT Spencer Brown, LG Ike Boettger, C Mitch Morse, RG Cody Ford, RT Daryl Williams

The Bills’ high-flying offense features considerable talent across the board, but it does have some questions heading into Week 16. Buffalo, after all, has three starters on the Covid-19 reserve list: starting slot receiver Cole Beasley will definitively be out, while left tackle Dion Dawkins and left guard Jon Feliciano are no safe bets to return after already missing last week’s game in Carolina. Wideout Emmanuel Sanders, meanwhile, is dealing with a knee injury and could be a no-show as well on Sunday.

Defense

DE Jerry Hughes, DT Ed Oliver, DT Harrison Phillips, DE Gregory Rousseau*; LB Tremaine Edmunds, LB Matt Milano; CB Levi Wallace, CB Dane Jackson, CB Taron Johnson; S Jordan Poyer, S Micah Hyde

*rookie

Even with star cornerback Tre’Davious White on injured reserve, the Bills have a stout defense at all three levels. The front features four former first-round draft picks — Hughes, Oliver, Rousseau, Edmunds — with a strong secondary behind it. That group is led by one of the league’s best safety pairings, and is ranked third in interceptions with 17. Buffalo’s talent extends beyond the starting lineup, though: players such as Mario Addison or Star Lotulelei offer high-quality rotational depth.

Specialists

K Tyler Bass, P Matt Haack, LS Reid Ferguson; KR Isaiah McKenzie, PR Marquez Stevenson*

*rookie

Isaiah McKenzie started out as both kickoff and punt returner, but the latter role recently went to rookie receiver Marquez Stevenson. Since taking the job in Week 12, he has returned nine punts for an average of 9.9 yards per runback. McKenzie, meanwhile, enters Week 16 gaining 24.3 yards per kickoff return.

QB Josh Allen: Allen is among the NFL’s best quarterbacks and should certainly be in the MVP conversation this season. An impressive athlete who can beat defenses with his right arm and his legs, the fourth-year man has completed 65.2 percent of his passes so far this season for 3,734 yards and 31 touchdowns. Turnovers have been a concern — he already surpassed last year’s interception total with 12 and has lost three of his eight fumbles — but he is certainly living up to his massive offseason contract extension so far.

WR Gabriel Davis: While Stefon Diggs is the best wide receiver on the Bills’ roster and the team leader in targets (128), receptions (82), yards (1,007) and touchdowns (8), our eyes will be on Gabriel Davis on Sunday. Not only did Davis score a touchdown in the first matchup with New England, he also projects to play a more prominent role with Cole Beasley out and Emmanuel Sanders nursing a knee injury. Davis has caught 29 passes for 470 yards and six scores so far this year — outstanding production for a nominal WR4.

LB Matt Milano: The Bills have as good an off-the-ball linebacker group as any team in football, with Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano being a productive one-two punch. While Edmunds is the lead communicator and carrying first-round pedigree, Milano is more than just LB2 alongside him: the former fifth-round selection is a disruptive player when coming downhill — something the Patriots experienced first-hand in Week 13 — and also capable of dropping back into coverage.

CB Taron Johnson: The Patriots’ run-heavy game plan in Week 13 allowed them to move Buffalo out of its preferred nickel look and into a more basic 4-3 lineup. This limited Johnson to a playing time share of only 43 percent — his second lowest after a Week 9 contest that saw him leave with a head injury — and regularly took one of the better slot cornerbacks in football off the field. Will New England take a similar approach in Week 15? That remains to be seen, but Johnson’s qualities as a defensive back cannot be denied.

Head coach: Sean McDermott

Coordinators: Brian Daboll (offense), Leslie Frazier (defense), Heath Farwell (special teams)

Ever since Sean McDermott took over as the Bills’ head coach in 2017, the team has been a competitor in the AFC — never more so than the last two seasons. McDermott’s coaching staff plays a big role in this, with former Patriots assistant Brian Daboll helping Josh Allen become one of the best quarterbacks in football, and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazer building one of the league’s top units.

Buffalo also has a familiar name in its ranks. Former Patriots offensive lineman Ryan Wendell, who started 56 games for New England between 2008 and 2015, is serving as the team’s assistant offensive line coach.

The Patriots and Bills have met 123 times so far, with one of the meetings coming in the AFL playoffs back in 1963:

  • Patriots wins: 77 wins (1 playoff win)
  • Bills wins: 45 wins
  • Ties: 1

As founding members of the old AFL, the two organizations have been rivals since their inception in 1959. While the matchup was relatively even for its first four decades, the arrival of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady changed all of that: since Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000, New England has won 35 of 41 meetings — including 56-10 thumping during the 2007 regular season, and a thrilling come-from-behind victory in the 2009 season opener.

Recently, however, the games have been more competitive again. Last season, for example, the Bills swept the Patriots: they came away with a 24-21 victory in early November before a 38-9 blowout the following month. Obviously, though, the 2020 Patriots were markedly different from this year’s version — and the first meeting between the two clubs earlier this year showed just that.

Playing in challenging conditions, New England’s defense and ground game propelled the team to a 14-10 victory.