For the second consecutive year, the Buffalo Bills are sitting at 8-3 and in prime position to make the playoffs. Another similarity from last year is that the national spotlight will be on the Bills during these final weeks of the season. Last year, the Bills finished with two nationally televised games, Sunday night and Saturday afternoon. This year they will play four nationally televised games in a row. The first of those will take place on Monday Night Football against the defending NFC Champion 49ers. Let’s break down this matchup.
The Last Five
Bills 45 49ers 16 (2016)
49ers 45 Bills 3 (2012)
49ers 10 Bills 3 (2008)
Bills 41 49ers 7 (2004)
49ers 35 Bills 0 (2001)
Wow. The first thing that stuck out to me as I was writing those scores was obvious: these two teams do not play close games. With the exception of the 2008 game, which was one of the most boring games that I remember watching in my youth, when these two teams play, the games are not close. Aside from that game, the point differentials have been 35, 34, 42, and 29. Yikes! Maybe it is the travel to the opposite coast, but when these two teams have lined up across from each other, chances are a competitive game of football will not be played. Will that change this Monday night?
What To Watch For: Bills
Defense? Is that you? – 2020 has been a year to forget for so many people. The question has been asked, “When will things go back to normal?” Well, luckily for Bills fans, things appear a little more normal these days with the defense slowly returning to form, back to the level of play that we had expected to see from the 2019 team. You always want to play your best football late in the season, and that is exactly what the Bills are doing. According to DVOA rankings, the Bills defense was ranked 30th overall in weeks 1-6. In weeks 7-12, the Bills defense jumped to 7th overall. Maybe Beane and McDermott were right to wait it out at the trade deadline and not mortgage the future for a loaner player. As of now, their patience seems to be paying off. Matt Milano is set to return from IR, which is a great thing for the Bills defense, even though his replacement, A.J. Klein, is the reigning AFC player of the week.
Allen Accuracy – While he has been on a different level from what we saw last year, Josh Allen has struggled a bit lately with his accuracy, something we didn’t see much of in the first half of the year. In the past four games, Allen has four interceptions. For reference, he had four interceptions in his first seven games of the year. After playing at an MVP pace for Weeks 1-4, and averaging a 124.0 quarterback rating in those games, he has cooled off, averaging an 87.2 quarterback rating, including an outlier of 138.5 against the Seahawks. Without that game, Allen’s average quarterback rating would drop considerably. We know by now with Allen that quarterback rating and completion percentage do not tell the complete story. To me, the slight uptick in interceptions have been a concern. While we knew it was impossible to keep up the rate that he started the year on, Allen will want to limit mistakes as the team turns its attention to some of the best teams in the league that lie ahead both on the schedule and in the playoffs.
Primetime Blues – Since taking over as the Bills coach in 2017, Sean McDermott is 26-16 in football games that start at 1 pm. He is 4-7 in games that start at any other time. After the Bills’ back-to-back losses earlier this year on Tuesday and Monday night, fans wrote off the desire for primetime games, claiming that the Bills played their best a 1 pm and flying under the radar. The Bills need to reverse their national audience trend starting this week, as this is the first of four nationally televised football games for them. Even though they might not play the best under the national lights, they have earned the spotlight, and it is time for them to deliver under them.
What To Watch For: 49ers
A “Home” Game – The San Francisco 49ers will be credited with being the home team for this football game, even though they are nothing of the sort. Due to COVID restrictions put in place in Santa Clara County, the 49ers were forced to find a new home for their next two home games. Their home away from home is Glendale, Arizona. This game will be played in State Farm Stadium, the home of the Arizona Cardinals. Bills fans remember what this scenario is like, as the 2014 snowstorm forced the Bills to play their home game against the Jets on Monday Night Football in Detroit. While that game worked out pretty well for the Bills, this is still an obstacle that the 49ers were not expecting. The benefits of a home game are structure and routine, lack of travel, family support, and familiarity with the facilities. The 49ers will have none of that as they prepare for this game. They will have to travel, they will have to stay in a hotel, they will separate from their families, just as the Bills do. While the Bills still have to travel to the West coast for a game, they are playing in a game against the 49ers in a stadium that they have left three weeks ago. It is the Bills who will know the facilities and the structure of gameday in Glendale better than the “home team” 49ers, something that I think might loom large on Monday night.
Deebo Samuel – The 49ers are one of many teams who have had their seasons decimated due to injury. Coming off of a strong rookie year where he had over 800 receiving yards, Samuel was expected to have a huge season in his sophomore campaign. After an offseason foot injury caused him to miss the first three games of the season, he returned for four games before getting injured once more. This time a hamstring injury sidelined Samuel for three more games. Finally healthy, Samuel showed what the 49ers had hoped to see going into the year. Last week against the Rams, Samuel finished with 11 catches for 133 yards. Despite only playing in five games this year, Samuel leads the NFL in yards after the catch per reception with 12.9 yards. San Francisco is counting on their top receiver duo of Deebo Samuel and this year’s 1st round rookie, Brandon Aiyuk, to lead a late-season playoff push. The Bills have had their hands full many times this year with capable receivers, and this week will be yet another challenge for a secondary unit that has been up to the challenge time and time again this year.
Saleh’s Defense – The Bills know what it is like to have a coordinator with the talent to be a head coach on their team. The same can be said for the 49ers and defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh. Saleh has earned praise during his time as 49ers DC, as the team rode his unit to the Super Bowl last year. The defense is again performing at a high level, helping the team remain “in the hunt”, despite being without their starting quarterback for most of the year. The 49ers rank 4th in passing yards allowed per game and 10th in rushing yards allowed per game. The 49ers are coming off of a win over the Rams in which they forced four turnovers. Given the concerns about Allen’s recent accuracy, this is an area that could prove to be a difference-maker on Monday night.
Bills 28 49ers 20 For the second straight week the Bills will play a team that is better than their record indicates, as injuries have decimated San Francisco’s season. The 49ers have set a franchise record with 74 different starters during the year, and they will certainly break that record again, as there are still five games to go. Despite facing a hot defense, I think the Bills will begin to reverse the trend in their primetime games and edge out the 49ers in this one. I believe the game being played away from Levi Stadium will prove to be a difference-maker in this one, as it will shake the 49ers’ mental stability going into this game. The 49ers have not played well at home this year, spotting a 1-4 record. I can’t imagine they will play much better when the home game is actually away from home, too. The Bills caught a break catching Nick Mullens in this game instead of Jimmy Garappolo, and their fast-improving defense must take advantage of the mismatch at the quarterback position.