The rubber match. And no, I’m not talking about the final game of a three game weekend series between the Red Sox and Yankees. I’m talking about the third game in the past six weeks between two other teams from Boston and New York. Despite the Bills winning the regular season AFC East title, the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots will play for AFC East supremacy tonight at Highmark Stadium.
The Last Five
Bills 33 Patriots 21 (2021… 3 weeks ago)
Patriots 14 Bills 10 (2021… 6 weeks ago)
Bills 38 Patriots 9 (2020)
Bills 24 Patriots 21 (2020)
Patriots 24 Bills 17 (2019)
If you take out the hurricane game six weeks ago this Monday night, the Buffalo Bills have had control of this series since Brady left town two years ago. Even in the wind storm, the Bills had a chance to win the game at the end with a goal to go situation. Recent history favors the Bills, but anything is possible in the “second season” that we call the NFL playoffs.
What To Watch For: Buffalo Bills
Allen Has To Be Superman Once More
There is no doubt that the Bills’ best player on Saturday night, once again, must be Josh Allen. I wrote about this in my preview piece right before these two teams played in Foxborough the day after Christmas… and Allen delivered his best game of the season. Quarterback play dominates this league and Josh Allen simply cannot be outperformed by a rookie quarterback. While the Buffalo Bills finished the year on a four-game win streak, Allen ended his year with back-to-back average games.
Truthfully, the Falcons game was really below average, but the weather didn’t do him any favors in that game. Last week, Allen was better, but too many miscommunications with his receivers highlighted another inconsistent game for Allen. I have some concern in Allen’s recent play going into this game, but not enough for me to think he won’t be better than Jones.
One thing to take note of will be how Allen starts the game. Early in his career, he had a tendency to get over hyped for big games and come out of the gate playing tight, forcing throws and turning the ball over. That is something Allen has made a priority to fix, and he has. In their most recent meeting, Allen lead the team down the field with laser-like precision for an opening drive touchdown. The first 15 minutes of Josh Allen could go a long way in how this game ends up.
Beasley or McKenzie?
When these two teams played three weeks ago the Bills were without Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis. As we know, Isaiah McKenzie started at slot receiver in place of Beasley and had himself a career day with 11 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown. Since that game, and since Beasley’s return, McKenzie has only caught three passes.
With so much success with McKenzie in the lineup in their last game against New England, it will be interesting to see how much usage he gets with Cole Beasley healthy. My guess is that Beasley gets about twice the snaps McKenzie gets. If the Patriots are content to settle into a zone defense, Beasley could have himself a day. Having two capable slot receivers available is almost a perfect scenario for the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots are fresh off of getting roasted by McKenzie and might have a plan in place to stop him. For that reason, it would make sense for the Bills to change it up and throw Beasley into the game with all the unique nuances he can bring to the table.
This is the talking point I have refused to talk about until now. It seems almost unavoidable and has to be addressed. If the Bills lose this game, it will have to be addressed. The Bills drafted Allen because he “fit Buffalo”. Allen embodied the blue collar, tough as nails, shoveling snow with your shirt off mantra that is Buffalo. In the infamous words of GM Brandon Beane, Allen has “big hands that are supposedly better suited for this weather”.
The truth is Allen hasn’t looked the best in recent home games with questionable weather. The hurricane game was an anomaly, but the last two home games Allen has struggled at times. Jim Kelly spoke recently about Allen having to learn how to put some touch on the ball when the temperatures are freezing, noting that the ball freezes and gets slippery and harder to catch.
The weather on Saturday is nothing besides cold. No wind, no precipitation, nothing besides freezing temps. If Allen is impacted by the weather and the Bills lose this game, then a legitimate conversations can be had about how they built this roster in a northeast city with an open air stadium. But, until then, let’s refer to Harrison Phillips who said it best on Thursday.
In a playoff game, every aspect of the matchup looms large and every mistake is magnified. Last week was a first for me: watching a punter muff 4 punts in a row, including an eight yard punt on a bad snap. You know that Belichick, known for finding and exploiting the opposition’s weaknesses, is licking his chops this week reviewing the tape of the Bills special teams unit. In a game where one small piece can make the difference, Heath Farwell needs to make sure he has his unit buttoned up.
What To Watch For: New England Patriots
Jones Struggles Down The Stretch
I have tried to take as many subtle jabs at Mac Jones as I could in my two Bills-Pats preview pieces, but the truth is he did have an excellent rookie season. If Allen had that rookie season, we all would have been excited about the future. While, next year, Patriot fans are hoping he can take a jump from game manager to game winner, he has done exactly what the Patriots have asked of him this year.
Since his early anointing as Tom Brady 2.0, Jones struggled down the stretch. In the Patriots’ final four games, Jones went 1-3 while averaging 233 yards per game with 6 TDs and 5 INTs, and a quarterback rating of 80. In his first 13 games, Jones threw 16 TDs, 8 INTs, and had a rating of 97. Leslie Frazier and Sean McDermott are not the men you want to line up across from if you are looking for a rebound game. Similar to when these two teams played in Foxborough, the Bills will want to jump out to an early lead and force Jones to win the game for the Patriots through the air.
The GOAT HC Gets A 3rd Shot At Allen
People have been claiming that the weather could be the equalizer in this game, taking away the Josh Allen advantage. I disagree. In my opinion, Bill Belichick could be the biggest equalizer in this game. A fantastic defensive mind will get his third shot in six weeks at solving Josh Allen. After Allen shredded his defense in their last meeting, Belichick is sure to have made adjustments to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
Give Tiger three chances to sink a put and it’s game over. Give McDavid three chances to score on a breakaway and it’s game over. Let LeBron take three shots at a game winner and it is literally game over for the Lakers in that scenario. Neutralizing the $256 million man would be one of Belichick’s best acts of the season. If there is a head coach out there that can do it, the Bills are facing him tonight.
If injury reports are to be believed, the Patriots might not be able to field a team tonight. In typical shady fashion, the Patriots listed 13 players as questionable for the game. While most of those players will play, the Patriots are missing some key players in a huge moment for them. Starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn will not play tonight. Starting defensive tackle Christian Barmore is a long shot to suit up, as well. Linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Kyle Duggar, who are questionable, both made the trip to Buffalo and are expected to play.
On Tuesday, the team placed starting cornerback Jalen Mills on the COVID list. He was not activated yesterday so the team will be without him today. Rookie corner Shaun Wade was also placed on the list on Monday and will also be out tonight. In response, the Patriots called up two defensive backs from their practice squad on Friday, DeVante Bausby and D’Angelo Ross. In their biggest game of the year, the Patriots are dealing with some availability issues and it could come back to seriously hurt them against the Bills receivers.
Prediction: Bills 30 Patriots 17
I have grown increasingly confident in a Buffalo Bills win as the week has progressed. While Belichick is a great mind and could cause Allen some fits tonight, I can’t see this talented Bills roster losing to a Patriots team that is as banged up as they are, especially on defense. Starting practice squad defensive backs against the Bills is going to be a problem for the Patriots.
Even though we have seen the Bills run game improve over the final month of the year, I think the Bills will remain pass heavy and Allen will feast on a secondary that has trouble covering these Bills receivers when they are at full strength. One thing is for sure, it is going to be absolutely electric tonight. For the first time in a quarter century, the Bills will host a playoff game at full capacity in Orchard Park. We say it every week, but tonight Marv’s words seem more appropriate than ever.