Just three weeks after a terrible loss to the Patriots on Monday Night Football and questions about the teams’ status as contenders, the Bills find themselves back on top of the AFC East again. The Bills are two wins away from back-to-back division titles; the first game is the final NFC South match-up of the year.
The Last Five
2017: Bills 23 Falcons 17
2013: Falcons 34 Bills 31 (OT)
2009: Falcons 31 Bills 3
2005: Falcons 24 Bills 16
2001: Falcons 33 Bills 30
The Bills and Falcons have only played 12 times, with the Bills leading the series 7-5. Since the new millennium, this series has been dominated by Atlanta. The one exception was their most recent meeting in 2017. That game is best remembered as a statement game early in Sean McDermott’s tenure as Bills coach. Week 4 in 2017 saw the Bills improve to 3-1 on the season while knocking off the 3-0 Falcons in their new stadium. Defeating the defending NFC Champions on their home field was the first sign that the 2017 Bills had some life to them and had a chance to be a sneaky good team that year. As we will never forget, the early-season indications proved to be true as that was the team that ultimately ended the 17-year playoff drought.
What To Watch For: Bills
McKenzie Usage? – Aside from Josh Allen, the star of last week’s win in New England was wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie, who turned in a career day starting at slot receiver for the Bills. McKenzie finished with 11 catches for 125 yards and 1 TD. Many of McKenzie’s catches came on 3rd down, including some timely catches on the final touchdown drive to put the game away for the Bills. McKenzie was thrust into the starting lineup with Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis on the COVID-19/Reserve list last week.
With both players activated from the list and eligible to play this Sunday, the Bills’ plan at slot receiver is a question mark. Should the Bills return to Beasley in the slot and bring McKenzie in occasionally? Or should the Bills keep rolling with the hot hand that made one of the best defenses in the league look silly? Daboll’s usage of McKenzie on Sunday and beyond will be noteworthy for fans.
Focus – We have seen the Bills falter against inferior rosters on multiple occasions this year. Despite questionable losses to the Steelers, Jaguars, Patriots in a wind storm, and the Colts, the Bills still find themselves on top of the division and with a clear path to the title: win their final two games. If the past two and a half weeks are any indication, it appears the Bills have finally figured it out and have turned the corner on the inconsistencies that plagued them for most of the year. With no more room for “wake-up call” losses, will the Bills show that they have truly put their past struggles behind them and continue their push to the division title? Or will they falter against a beatable team once again?
What To Watch For: Falcons
Dynamic Duo – The Falcons are 7-8 on the year and still very much in the mix for a Wild Card playoff spot in the NFC. A big reason why is the Falcons remain in the hunt is their dynamic duo on offense: running back Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Kyle Pitts. This week Stefon Diggs said that he sees Patterson as the most talented player with the ball in his hands since Adrian Peterson, which is quite the compliment for the 30-year-old dual-threat who was a teammate of Diggs in Minnesota.
Patterson has over 500 receiving yards and 500 rushing yards this season, a player who has proven to be a dependable player for Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense to lean on. If a player has taken Atlanta by storm this year, Kyle Pitts is the 21-year old rookie tight end. Pitts, the 4th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, lives up to the unusually high pick for a tight end. He leads the Falcons with 64 receptions for 949 yards. Pitts does most of his damage between the ’20s, as he only has 1 TD on the year. The 6’6″ tight end is 17th in the league, with an average of 14.8 yards per catch. The Falcons’ path to an upset victory on Sunday goes through the two P’s: Patterson and Pitts.
O-Line Struggles – The Falcons’ offensive line was a question mark going into this season, with red flags being discussed by Atlanta fans and media alike. Matt Ryan has been sacked in all but two games this year. Ryan is averaging 2.4 seconds to throw this year. Josh Allen, for comparison, is averaging the same. Ryan has been knocked down a whopping 80 times this year, which leads all quarterbacks. The next closest is Carson Wentz with 62. Matt Ryan is being blitzed at the 3rd highest rate this year.
With the Bills having the 5th best pass rush win rate as a team (at 47%), the Falcons offensive line will be in for a test on Sunday. Bills DE Jerry Hughes is 10th in the NFL in pass rush win rate for an edge defense, and DT Ed Oliver, who is questionable for this game, is 5th for the tackle position. More so than in previous years, it seems winning the line of scrimmage is becoming the number one predictor of success this season. On paper, the Bills have a clear advantage in that category, so how the Falcons combat it will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.
Bills 32 Falcons 20 With how the Bills have responded since halftime in the Tampa Bay game, I don’t see a reason to think they will be taking their foot off of the gas anytime soon. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Atlanta struggle with the projected snow throughout the game. While I don’t see this game as the blowout, most expect the Bills will still win this game convincingly and move to one game from another AFC East title.