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Thanksgiving Preview: Buffalo Bills @ New Orleans Saints

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Whether or not the players and coaches will admit it in public, the Buffalo Bills are on the brink. Their 2021 season could become one of the worst collapses in Buffalo sports history. A Thanksgiving game with a national audience might be exactly what the Bills need to turn the page on the roller coaster. To start their climb back up the AFC standings. After a day of food and family, the Bills will have the honor of closing out the annual day of football against the New Orleans Saints.

The Last Five

Saints 47 Bills 10 (2017)
Saints 35 Bills 17 (2013)
Saints 27 Bills 7 (2009)
Saints 19 Bills 7 (2005)
Saints 24 Bills 6 (2001)

The Buffalo Bills haven’t beaten the Saints this millennium. The Saints lead the all-time series 7-4 and have won five in a row against the Bills. As an NFC team, the Bills only see the Saints every four years. Many of the games above are a blur, with most happening during the playoff drought. We knew the Bills had no chance of winning against Drew Brees and the Saints in their prime. Two games come to mind when the Bills and Saints play. First, one of the best plays from the drought, and one that sums up the drought perfectly.

The second is one of the worst games I have ever seen live at the stadium. A 47-10 thrashing back in 2017 lead Sean McDermott to bench Tyrod Taylor in favor of Nathan Peterman. As if the score wasn’t humiliating enough, the Saints called 22 straight run plays against Sean McDermott’s defense. The Bills are looking to create a new chapter in this matchup, and there is no better day to start than Thanksgiving Day.

What To Watch For: Buffalo Bills

Which Bills team?

The Buffalo Bills have been so inconsistent, dare I say terrible, at times this year that people will wonder which Bills team they’ll see on the field. Are we going to get the offense that scored at will against the Chiefs and Titans earlier this year? Or the inept version that couldn’t find the endzone against the Jacksonville Jaguars and was physically dominated by the Indianapolis Colts defense? Are we going to see the defense that did not allow a touchdown in 3 of their 10 games? Or the one that was shredded to pieces by Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor? Will we see the quarterback who is an MVP favorite, worthy of a $258 million price tag? Or will we see the inaccurate and turnover-prone Josh Allen?

Regardless of how far the Bills go this year, this will always be the question. On any given Sunday, any team in the league can lay an egg. But the Bills have shown us that every other Sunday they lay the egg. 50/50 odds are not what this team was built for.

Coaching Decisions

Everything about the loss to the Colts on Sunday was ugly and head coach Sean McDermott was not exempt from criticism. The Bills started their last drive of the first half at their own 25 with two minutes left and all three timeouts, trailing 24-7. They somehow found themselves at the Colts 36 yard line with 27 seconds left, a running clock, and two timeouts. Poor clock management forced the Bills to settle for a 57 yard field goal at the end of the half. One, that if made, would have cut the deficit to 24-10, still probably too much for the team to overcome. The Bills needed seven points on that drive to have a pulse, they ended up with none.

Another questionable call was settling for yet another FG attempt mid-way through the 3rd quarter with the Bills trailing by the same score, 24-7. McDermott decided to trot out Bass for a 49 yard attempt instead of trying his luck at 4th & 5 from the Colts’ 31 yard line. He defended his decision by saying the offense wasn’t in a rhythm up to that point. He is right about that. However, settling for a FG, and cutting the lead to 14 in a game you are being dominated, doesn’t do much to help your offense find a rhythm either.

Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll will have eyes on him during this game as well. Sean McDermott was very direct when asked on Monday if a 14-0 early deficit warranted the Bills to disregard their game plan. His short and direct response surprised many and certainly sent a signal to Daboll, “It shouldn’t”. Knowing how the Bills want to establish the run, and how quick they were to abandon it on Sunday, makes me question if McDermott and Daboll are on the same page philosophically when it comes to the offensive game plans this year.

Defense

Prior to this game, the Buffalo Bills defense was playing legendary caliber football. Takeaways were coming at an insane rate. The Bills held their opponents without a touchdown in three of their nine games, with two shutouts. It turns out the Bills were just feasting on backup quarterbacks and dysfunctional franchises. Both times the Bills faced a dominant RB this year, they were shredded to pieces. Bills fans had flashbacks to the disappointing Rex Ryan defenses as Jonathan Taylor unloaded for 5 TDs in three hours. Up next is another backup quarterback. While the Bills will have to wait a few weeks for a more realistic defensive test, shutting down another below average quarterback would be a step in the right direction for a team that needs confidence on the defensive side of the ball.

What To Watch For: New Orleans Saints

Injuries

After seeing what Jonathan Taylor and the Colts did to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, the Saints have certainly spent the week dreaming of this matchup. The problem is, Alvin Kamara is one of many who may not be healthy enough to play in this game. The injury bug is hitting the Saints hard, specifically at the running back position. This is unfortunate, considering their opponent struggled to stop the run last week. Both Kamara and backup Mark Ingram did not practice Tuesday, which was a downgrade from Ingram’s Monday status of limited. The Wednesday practice will give us the best idea on the chances of both players suiting up. Even if one or both are able to go, it is clear that they would be far from 100%. This takes away a huge part of the Saints’ path to victory against the Bills.

To make matters worse, Saints All-Pro tackle Ryan Ramczyk did not practice on Tuesday and could miss the game. While the Bills defensive line has been hot and cold getting to the quarterback, gifting them a backup tackle would not be ideal for the Saints.

Slow Starts

Since replacing an injured Jameis Winston, Trevor Siemian has yet to lead the Saints to victory. An 0-3 record for Siemian has fans ready for Taysom Hill to take over the starting gig. While many around the NFL believe that will be the case, the move is not expected to happen this week because of the short week. On paper, Siemian’s numbers in his three starts look good enough to lead a team to victory. But when it comes to Siemian, the numbers can be misleading. His passing numbers are being inflated by garbage time comeback attempts once the game is out of reach.

With Siemian in the lineup, the Saints have a bad habit of starting slow and hinging their bets on a 4th quarter comeback. Against the Falcons, the Saints faced a 24-6 4th quarter deficit before eventually taking the lead and losing on a last second FG. In their loss against the Titans it was a 20-6 deficit until late in the 4th quarter. And last week against the Eagles, Siemian and the Saints faced a 33-7 deficit before scoring 22 points in the 4th quarter. This is a trend that is being stressed to the team by head coach Sean Payton. One they will try to avoid as they play an offense that has the potential to score quickly and often.

Prediction: Bills 34 Saints 26

The offensive injuries for the Saints will be too much to overcome against the Bills. After being doubted all week, I think the Bills settled back into an underdog mentality, one that they thrive in. Matt Breida (offense) and Marquez Stevenson (special team) will make a noticeable impact in expanded roles. They tend to play some of their best ball after laying an egg the week before. After the Jets win, Josh Allen said they weren’t going to continue the roller coaster of best team, worst team on a weekly basis. Bills fans better hope this week is the start of the steepest ascension yet, with the team not hitting the top until February.