ORCHARD PARK — While the Buffalo Bills have won the last two AFC East division crowns and advanced to the AFC Championship Game last season, there is a sense in Western New York that there’s still something missing from the resume they are compiling under coach Sean McDermott.
Defensive end Jerry Hughes tried to downplay it, saying, “Even though we’ve struggled with that organization in the past, we don’t put too much emphasis on who we’re playing. We’re just excited to go out there and play and handle business. And I think that’s what makes this group of guys so great, because they’re competitors. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing, it doesn’t matter what time of day, the weather, where the location is, it’ll be on ice on a Saturday, Sunday night, they’re going to show up ready to roll.”
And that’s fine, but beating the Patriots — especially for as long Bill Belichick is there — will still mean more than beating anyone else.
The Bills have had the better of the matchups in the last two years, winning three of four, and have grabbed control of the division after the Patriots had a nearly unimpeded stranglehold on it between 2001 and 2019. But the opportunity to defeat Belichick in the postseason is something that would bring further legitimacy to Buffalo’s recent success.
That chance arrives Saturday night in an AFC wild-card game at Highmark Stadium that will likely go down as one of the coldest games in league history.
“I think for us it’s just going to be an old-school slobber-knocker,” said Hughes. “We’ve seen them two times this year. The third time is like Ali said. It’s that whole Thrilla in Manilla type thing. It’s going to be fun. The ice is going to be there, the cold is going to be there, it’s going to be Buffalo Bills football. So we’re going to need to be mentally tough, it’s going to be physical. We’re excited for the challenge.”
Here’s my preview of the game:
1. Bills need to force the Patriots to rely on QB Mac Jones
This did not happen in the first meeting Dec. 6 when gale force winds convinced the Patriots coaching staff to neuter the rookie and have him attempt only three passes while relying on a strong running game during a 14-10 New England victory.
Despite knowing that the Patriots would be running on almost every play, the Bills were unable to stop it as Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and Brandon Bolden produced a 222-yard gashing, keyed by Harris’ 64-yard TD run that gave the Patriots a first-quarter lead they never relinquished.
In relatively benign conditions the day after Christmas at Foxborough, the Bills still had a tough time against the run, particularly with Harris who rushed for 103 of New England’s 149 yards. But because the Bills were able to play from in front, they forced the Patriots to lean more on Jones and he could not deliver.
Jones completed just 14 of 32 passes for 145 yards and threw two interceptions. When the Bills pressured Jones he was 2 of 10 for 21 yards with one pick, and Buffalo’s outstanding secondary — which ranked No. 1 in the league this season — completely shut down New England’s group of pass catchers, especially on third down as the Patriots were a gruesome 1-of-10.
The Bills need to follow the same script from that second game where they got on top early and dictated how the game was played. New England had to react to everything the Bills were doing, and in the end, Buffalo rolled 33-21. In the three losses they had in their last four games, the Patriots were outscored by a combined 37 points in the first half.
2. Winning at the line of scrimmage could be decisive
This was a problem for the Bills on both sides of the ball at various points during the season. A team that was expected to run away and hide with the AFC East title was sitting at 7-6 and two games behind New England with four weeks to go, and a big reason was that Buffalo’s big men were underperforming.
On defense, despite several additions in the past few years via the draft and free agency, the line was not getting enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, nor was it holding up particularly well at the point of attack. Never was this more apparent than when Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor, and then the Patriots three-headed crew ran roughshod and the Bills lost all three of those games.
However, things have changed. In closing the season with four wins to claim the division, the Bills have recorded 19 sacks and they wound up tied for 10th in yards allowed per rushing attempt at 4.2 as DTs Ed Oliver and Harrison Phillips have been outstanding.
On offense, the line really had a tough time coming together as the Bills were forced to mix and match combinations due to injuries and COVID-19. But after left guard Ike Boettger went down during the Dec. 12 loss to Tampa Bay, Ryan Bates took over and ever since, the Bills have shown great improvement.
Left tackle Dion Dawkins made the Pro Bowl, center Mitch Morse has been rock solid, right guard Daryl Williams is back in the position where he belongs, and rookie right tackle Spencer Brown remains a physical force in the run game.
As Hughes said, with the expected weather likely hindering both offenses, this is going to be a physical game and winning at the line of scrimmage will be imperative.
3. Josh Allen needs to be Josh Allen
Who knows where Jones’ career arc will take him, but right now, the reality is that Buffalo has the better QB, a budding superstar, and Allen has already shown the Patriots how magnificent he can be. Just put on the tape of the last two games he has played at Gillette Stadium.
When Allen plays like he did on those days, the Bills’ offense is extremely difficult to stop. He uses his cannon of an arm to fire balls into tight windows that not many QBs can pull off, and then he has the high-voltage ability to shred a defense when he leaves the pocket, either on a scramble or a designed run.
The Patriots had no answers on Dec. 26 when he threw for 314 yards and ran for 64. “Josh is one of the best players in the league,” said Belichick. “Dynamic player, the ball is in his hands a lot, he can do a lot of things with it, make all the throws at all levels of the field, obviously run with the ball, scramble, extend plays, and throw it. He’s a tough guy to stop.”
But this is where the weather might come into play. In the frigid conditions, even the greatest players can be hamstrung and will surrender some of their athleticism and that would certainly work against Buffalo.
The Bills need Allen to be effective as a passer because even though they have run the ball better lately with Devin Singletary, they are still not an offense that can line up and batter defenses on the ground. They must be multi-dimensional to unleash the full strength of their offense and Allen and his array of receivers will have to find a way to overcome the weather, not to mention do it against a very good Patriots defense.
4. Other key points to consider in Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots matchup
► This is the Bills 35th playoff game in team history (16-18 record); the Patriots have won 37 playoff games, most in NFL history.
► Incredibly, this is the first time since 1998 that the Patriots have entered the postseason as a wild-card team. They have played in the wild-card round four times as a division champion under Belichick, but this is the first time they will be going on the road.
► The Patriots are 6-1 when they rush for over 140 yards including 1-1 against the Bills.
► The Patriots are 8-0 when they win the turnover battle, 1-6 when they lose it, 1-1 when it’s even.
► The Patriots spent big money in free agency on TEs Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, but in the last game against Buffalo, they combined for one catch on six targets for nine yards.
► The Bills receivers didn’t always help Allen as they combined for 30 dropped passes, the sixth-highest total any QB suffered.
► Devin Singletary’s six TDs in the last four games were tied for the most in the NFL over that span.
► Buffalo led the NFL with a point differential of plus-194 which set a franchise record. At plus-159, the Patriots were third in point differential.
► Mainly because Mac Jones threw an awful lot of short passes, the Patriots set a team record for completion percentage at 68%.
► New England had three punts blocked this season, the most ever for a Belichick team.
Sal’s prediction: Buffalo Bills 20, New England Patriots 13
There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the most intriguing matchup of wild-card weekend because of the history between these two teams and the fact that the Bills are still fighting to put nearly 20 years of humiliation at the hands of New England behind them. Yes, Rams vs. Cardinals also features a divisional matchup, but that pales in comparison to Bills-Patriots.
The pressure is squarely on Buffalo. Sean McDermott has the better roster on both sides of the ball and it feels like the only way the Bills can lose is if they simply have a sloppy performance and hand it to New England via turnovers, penalties, missed assignments, whatever.
Weather figures to be an equalizer, though, and Allen and the Bills are going to have to rise above it, while the Buffalo defense will have to make sure it’s sound against the Patriots ground attack. I think the Bills will achieve both objectives and win a tight game that will be in doubt well into the fourth quarter.
How to watch, listen to Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots game
When: 8:15 p.m. Saturday
Where: Highmark Stadium
TV: CBS (Ian Eagle, Charles Davis, Evan Washburn)
Satellite radio: Sirius 81, XM 227
Radio: 96.5 FM/950 AM
Series: Patriots lead 77-46-1 counting playoffs
Tipico betting line: Bills -4.5
► Patriots coach Bill Belichick on playing the Bills for a third time: “I’d say what’s a little bit different about this one is just how quickly we’ve played Buffalo with a couple of weeks in between each of the games. We know each other well. I’m sure there’ll be wrinkles, I’m sure there’ll be things that both teams will do that try to keep the other team off balance or to give them a little bit of a different look. I think that’s just part of it, whether it’s three games or you play a team twice every year for multiple years.”
► Patriots QB Mac Jones on the Bills: “I think we’re very familiar with their players and they are very familiar with us. We just have to go there and trust the coaches and our game plan and just execute it a little better than we have in the past games. That’s what it comes down to, execution, and obviously like I said, the teams know each other really well and we have the most respect for the Bills.”
► Patriots LB Kyle Van Noy: “It’s 0-0 to playoff game. The Bills won the division. They’re playing at home. We gotta go up there and win. We have to prepare like this week’s the last week. I mean, it’s all on the line. We have to go in there and be on the top of our game. It hasn’t been working, but what better week to start than this week against a really good team on the road? I’m excited for the challenge, I’m excited to play in a playoff game for all the marbles, and then move on to work another week and get another opportunity.”
Total offense: 381.9 yards (5th); 353.4 (15th)
Rush offense: 129.9 yards (6th); 126.5 (8th)
Pass offense: 252.0 yards (9th); 226.9 (14th)
Points scored: 28.4 (3rd); 27.2 (6th)
Total defense: 272.8 yards (1st); 310.8 (4th)
Rush defense: 109.8 yards (13th); 123.7 (22nd)
Pass defense: 163.0 yards (1st); 187.1 (2nd)
Points allowed: 17.0 (1st); 17.8 (2nd)
Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots individual leaders
Bills: Devin Singletary 188 carries, 870 yards; Josh Allen 122-763; Zack Moss 96-345; Matt Breida 26-125; Isaiah McKenzie 9-47; Emmanuel Sanders 2-31; Mitchell Trubisky 13-24.
Patriots: Damien Harris 202-929; Rhamondre Stevenson 133-606; Brandon Bolden 44-226; Mac Jones 44-129; Kendrick Bourne 12-125; Jonnu Smith 9-40; James White 10-38; J.J. Taylor 19-37.
Bills: Josh Allen 409 of 646, 4,407 yards, 36 TDs,15 interceptions.
Patriots: Mac Jones 352 of 521, 3,801 yards, 22 TDs, 13 interceptions.
Bills: Stefon Diggs 103 catches, 1,225 yards; Cole Beasley 82-693; Dawson Knox 49-587; Emmanuel Sanders 42-626; Devin Singletary 40-228; Gabriel Davis 35-549; Zack Moss 23-197; Isaiah McKenzie 20-178; Tommy Sweeney 9-44; Matt Breida 7-72.
Patriots: Jakobi Meyers 83-866; Kendrick Bourne 55-800; Hunter Henry 50-603; Brandon Bolden 41-405; Nelson Agholor 37-473; Jonnu Smith 28-294; Damien Harris 18-132; Rhamondre Stevenson 14-123; N’Keal Harry 12-184; James White 12-94.
2021 Buffalo Bills schedule
9/12 vs. Steelers, L 16-23
9/19 at Dolphins, W 35-0
9/26 vs. Washington, W 43-21
10/3 vs. Texans, W 40-0
10/10 at Chiefs, W 38-20
10/18 at Titans, L 31-34
10/24 Bye week
10/31 vs. Dolphins, W 26-11
11/7 at Jaguars, L 6-9
11/14 at Jets, W 45-17
11/21 vs. Colts, L 15-41
11/25 at Saints, W 31-6
12/6 vs. Patriots, L 10-14
12/12 at Buccaneers, L 27-33 OT
12/19 vs. Panthers, W 31-14
12/26 at Patriots, W 33-21
1/9 vs. Jets, W 27-10
1/15 vs. Patriots, 8:15 p.m.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Bills vs Patriots: Keys to NFL wild card game and Sal’s pick