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NFL playoffs Patriots vs. Bills preview: Welcome to Round 3

Related: Quick-hit thoughts on the Patriots’ upcoming wild card playoff game against the Bills

Buffalo Bills Training Camp Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ return to the playoffs starts with a wild-card matchup against a familiar foe: the sixth-seed Patriots will travel to Orchard Park to take on the third-seeded Buffalo Bills. The game will be the third this season between the two AFC East rivals, with all of them taking place since December alone.

The experience of those previous two games will help both teams prepare for the opponent, but at the end of the day the execution on the field will decide who advances to the divisional round. Recently, the Bills have been the better of the two teams in this regard: Buffalo enters the playoffs with four straight wins, while New England lost three of its last four — including a 33-21 loss against the Bills in Week 16.

Now, however, both teams are 0-0. Welcome to the playoffs.

Offense

Points scored: 28.4/game (3rd)

Yards gained: 381.9/game (5th)

Passing offense: 415-for-655, 4,284 yards, 36 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 0.165 EPA (8th), 20.6% DVOA (13th)

Rushing offense: 461 carries, 2,209 yards, 4.8 yards/attempt, 20 touchdowns, 0.050 EPA (12th), 2.8% DVOA (9th)

As evidenced by their +194 scoring differential, the Bills are one of the most complete teams in the NFL. The offense 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 turnovers: Buffalo has given the football away 22 times already, ninth among the league’s 14 playoff teams.

Defense

Points against: 17.0/game (1st)

Yards given up: 272.8/game (1st)

Passing defense: 297-for-530, 2,771 yards, 12 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, -0.114 EPA (1st), -23.0% DVOA (1st)

Rushing defense: 442 carries, 1,866 yards, 4.2 yards/attempt, 19 touchdowns, -0.107 EPA (11th), -11.9% DVOA (11th)

Ranking near the top of the league in almost every major category, the Bills defense has a strong case as the best in the NFL. The unit has made life hard on most of the opponents it has faced so far this season, especially in the passing game, including a Patriots team that struggled to consistently move the ball down the field in Week 16 and turned the ball over twice.

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

Week 16 at New England Patriots: W 33-21

Week 17 vs. Atlanta Falcons: W 29-15

Week 18 vs. New York Jets: W 27-10

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.

That game kicked off a four-game winning streak to end the regular season — one that saw Buffalo also beat the Patriots in their Week 16 rematch in Foxborough.

Offense

QB Josh Allen; RB Devin Singletary; WR Stefon Diggs, WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Cole Beasley; TE Dawson Knox; LT Dion Dawkins, LG Ryan Bates, C Mitch Morse, RG Daryl Williams, RT Spencer Brown

The last time the Patriots faced the Bills they had to do so without two of their top four wide receivers: Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis were both unavailable after being sent to the Covid-19 reserve list. Buffalo was still able to hang 33 points on one of the best scoring defenses in the NFL, which shows just how deep the team’s offense is.

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 19. Buffalo’s talent extends beyond the starting lineup, though: players such as Mario Addison, Star Lotulelei or A.J. Epenesa 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 went to rookie receiver Marquez Stevenson down the stretch. Since taking the job in Week 12, he has returned 14 punts for an average of 9.4 yards per runback. McKenzie, meanwhile, enters the playoffs having gaining 24.3 yards per kickoff return.

QB Josh Allen: An impressive athlete who can beat defenses with his right arm and his legs, Allen continues right where he left off last season. One of the best quarterbacks in the league, he ended the regular season having completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 4,407 yards and 36 touchdowns. Turnovers have been a concern — he has thrown 15 interceptions so far and lost three of his eight fumbles — but he is certainly living up to the massive contract extension he received in the offseason.

WR Isaiah McKenzie: Typically the Bills’ fifth receiver behind Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis, McKenzie played a prominent role for the team in Week 16 against the Patriots. Taking over the WR3 role with both Beasley and Davis out, he caught 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. McKenzie has only played a marginal role in the two games since, but it will be interested to see how Buffalo will use him on Saturday.

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 twice already this year — and also capable of dropping back into coverage.

S Micah Hyde/S Jordan Poyer: Buffalo’s pass defense is arguably the best in the NFL, in large part due to its outstanding safety duo. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer combine experience, interchangeability and playmaking skills, allowing the entire defense to hide its intentions pre-snap. For the Patriots to find success against them, quarterback Mac Jones needs to be able to win the matchup against Hyde and Poyer.

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 124 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: 46 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 42 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. The Bills did get their revenge three weeks later, though, leaving Gillette Stadium with a 33-21 win in their pockets.