The New England Patriots will play the Buffalo Bills for a third time this season, thanks to the former not being able to take care of business with losses in three of their last four games. On paper, the wild card matchup against Buffalo looks like a bad one for New England; the Bills are a team that is constructed to dominate the passing game on both sides of the ball.
The good news for the Patriots is the weather will level the playing field a bit, as the forecast projects single-digit temperatures with a wind chill expected to sub-zero. Games in that type of weather turn into physical battles of attrition, something I expect the Patriots to be able to endure a bit more than the Bills despite the fact they play at home and in worse weather this time of year.
As of Saturday morning, the Patriots find themselves as five-point road underdogs to a Bills team that has competed tough against the best the AFC has to offer but also has a few shocking losses to lesser opponents on its résumé. For what it’s worth Buffalo has been a more dominant team on the road compare to playing at home.
So with that said, here is our four-step plan for a New England victory.
No. 1: Challenge the Bills’ physicality early in the run game
Ironically enough, the Bills are not built for physical football. It is possibly their one fatal flaw, which showed up against the Indianapolis Colts and the Patriots earlier in the season.
Dealing with major wind that was sure to force teams out of the air, the Patriots were able to successfully run on the Bills to the tune of 230 rushing yards on 46 non-kneeling runs. There was some success on the ground in the second meeting with the team — Damien Harris racked up 100 yards in both contests — but the Patriots fell behind the score early in Week 16 and allowed the Bills to dictate the terms of how the game was to be played.
In these cold temperatures, both teams will be tested mentally to see if they can bring that toughness to a cold and physical environment. If the game will come down to physicality and toughness, the Patriots are very much in position to pull off an upset.
New England will need both Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson going early with some help from Jakob Johnson and six-offensive line formations to take the fight straight to the Bills. The Patriots will need to win the time of possession in this game in order to be able to limit the number of chances Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen has to put points up on the board.
If there is one area the Patriots have been more successful at attacking in the run game, it’s been the perimeter of the Bills defense. The Patriots were able to get some big runs outside in both matchups, including Harris’ 64-yarder in the first game that started off left tackle. Unfortunately that left tackle, Isaiah Wynn, is out for this game and his backup, Justin Herron, looked terrible filling in against the Miami Dolphins.
Wynn’s absence could be a major concern for the offensive line.
No. 2: Make the Bills offense have to slowly march down the field
30 years ago, Bill Belichick faced a similar dilemma he will face on Saturday. In 1990, the New York Giants were a good defensive team hallmarked by Hall of Famers that also struggled to field an offense by the end of the season due to injuries. They had to go up against a Bills team with an elite passing offense, the K-Gun.
The Giants were still able to narrowly defeat the Bills in Super Bowl XXV. How did they do it? Their offense taking the air out of the ball with a 20-minute time of possession victory was the key, as was a defense that took away the passing game at the expense of Thurman Thomas having more room to run against lighter personnel groupings.
The 2021 Bills are not too dissimilar to that 1990 squad on both sides of the ball. Josh Allen has developed into one of the NFL’s most electric quarterbacks thanks to his Howitzer of a throwing arm combined with good speed and athleticism as a runner that presents a challenge for any opposing defense. The Patriots have seen a lot of that recently, with Allen putting up 34 and 33 points in two of his last three games against New England.
Both games completely got out of hand as the defense simply was unable to make stops in those losses.
One component towards slowing down the Bills offense is making them execute long drives and not being afraid to send pressure in favorable down-and-distance situations. In the second game against Buffalo this season, the Patriots were sagging off way too much on defense at the second level. That allowed the Bills to consistently face 2nd-and-short situations.
The defense will need to do more to force longer distance situations on second and third downs, where it can dial up its type of pressures to confuse Allen — maybe even into making some game-changing turnovers.
No. 3: Hold the edge and don’t let Josh Allen break contain
Rushing a quarterback with the ability to break contain in the pocket is a tough task. And like many other top QB prospects to grace the NFL in the past 10 years, Josh Allen is a major threat as a runner on the edges of the defense.
Bootlegs, designed QB power runs, and scrambles make Allen even more dangerous as a runner than a pocket passer. When he is able to get these plays and if it becomes a question of who the better athlete is rather than offensive versus defensive execution, the Patriots are in trouble. New England found itself in bad situations when Allen was allowed to basically play street ball rules and break down the defense.
That makes the job of linebackers like Matthew Judon, Jamie Collins, and Kyle Van Noy much harder as they can’t afford to rush past the quarterback yet still be able to generate pressure. In the words of Matt Patricia, you don’t want them to rush timid or slow but be able to rush controlled and be prepared for when a play turns into run.
Those guys will need to step up and provide their best game of the season because I expect the Bills to target them on offense and try to push them off the ball or past the QB, depending on the situation.
No. 4: Patriots must slow down the Bills’ pass rush
One more additional benefit towards establishing a clock-chewing running game is putting the Bills’ pass rush on its heels. Buffalo is the toughest team in the NFL to move the ball against in the air, which means the Patriots could be in trouble if they fall behind the chains and have to rely on Mac Jones and the passing offense.
If there is one point to go back on though, the Patriots are typically good at putting a defensive end’s head on a swivel using toss crack from a tight receiver split, screens to draw them upfield and out of the play, and misdirection plays to trick them. By putting those players on their heels, the Patriots can dictate the rhythm when the offense is on the field.
I think they have the plays, it will come down to the execution of those plays.
X-Factors: LB Kyle Van Noy, RB Brandon Bolden
The Patriots will need to rely on these two veteran players to win the battle on third downs.
Van Noy will need to play his best game in years on the edge to make moving the ball more difficult against the Patriots defense. This edge discipline will also have to hold in the run game where Josh Allen gets a lot of designed power and sweeps to attack the edges of the front. Van Noy needs to turn those runs back inside so the second-level defenders can flow with the play and then make the tackle for a lesser gain.
On the offensive side of the ball, Bolden will have to provide his biggest contribution to the team to date on the ground and in the air. One thing he is exceptional at is letting his blocking develop then hitting the right alley for a strong gain. That makes him an underrated weapon in the screen and misdirection game, or if they are able to isolate him against a linebacker not named Matt Milano on a route.
Final Score Prediction: Bills 27, Patriots 20
I think the Patriots have a chance to compete in this game, but they don’t have the horses to overcome what the Bills can throw at them — especially with multiple players dinged up and two starters, Isaiah Wynn and Jalen Mills, out.
The run defense has been problematic for the team down the stretch, especially on the edges and when the ball hits the second level of the defense. In the passing game, the Bills’ receivers are a bad matchup against New England’s cornerbacks even if Mills would be active, and I’m not sure how well the defense as a unit can overcome the matchups.
I expect this to be a game where the Bills are able to keep the Patriots at an arm’s reach away for most of the second half.