ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WROC) — Three things on my mind (other than the unbelievable cold) as the Bills get ready to take on the Patriots in their playoff opener…
No Snooze Buttons
There’s so much about this game that feels like it might be decided in the first quarter.
The Patriots are a team that benefits directly from, and might even need, success early. In their last three losses, they were down two scores relatively quickly. They trailed 14-0 at the Colts in the second quarter. They were down 17-7 at the half against the Bills. They were down 14-zip last week against the Dolphins in the first quarter.
One of the commonalities of those three games is that all three featured a non offense-propelled touchdown that put the Patriots in a hole. Indy blocked a punt for a score. The Dolphins ran an interception back for a TD on their first defensive possession. The Bills had a deflected interception that eventually led to a touchdown as well.
The Patriots are just not built to rally from multi-score deficits. They are a defense-first, run-second team. To be fair, New England did close to a one-score game during the 4th quarter of all three of the above mentioned losses. However, they also never really threatened to win any of them.
The New England defense is also noticeably worse in the first quarter than they are the rest of the game. They’ve allowed 12 first quarter TDs this year, but not more than eight in any of the other three quarters. Six of those 12 first quarter touchdowns have come since the start of December.
Throw in the blistering cold that will certainly depress any desire to fight back from a bad spot and it feels like the first team that gets up 10 points will be an overwhelming favorite to win.
Run For Respect
The Bills ended up finishing with better run offense rankings than pass offense. It’s counterintuitive because the Bills passing game is still what drives this offense and this team. However, they do need to be at least somewhat effective in the run game.
One of the things Buffalo has done a better job with lately is punishing teams for using a lighter box. That’s really all they need to do. Just make defenses respect the run. Make that part of the offense something that can’t be ignored.
In addition, Devin Singletary has put together his best run of three or four consecutive games leading up to this postseason. The numbers haven’t been there every single time for Singletary, but the battle and the fight has been. I think it’s a big reason why the Bills have been much more successful in the red zone. Singletary has three scoring runs from inside the five in the last three weeks. In the last two seasons, the Bills didn’t more than four of those from someone not named Josh Allen over the course of sixteen games.
The Patriots defense has very good, but it is also very susceptible to the run game. They are 25th in the NFL for yards per carry allowed. Duke Bleeping Johnson got them last week for a buck-17. The Buffalo run game has to be a threat in this playoff contest for the Bills to win. Not dominant. Just dangerous enough to make the Patriots take note.
Special Sauce For Big Mac
One of the big surprises for me in the last Bills-Patriots game was the amount of pressure the Bills were able to get on Mac Jones. The New England offensive line has been very good most of the season at protecting Jones long enough so he can read defenses at a rookie speed. That was not the case against Buffalo in Foxboro. Jones never looked comfortable in a zero impact game where he threw two interceptions and missed 17 of 31 passes.
As it turns out, that game has been part of a trend for the Bills. They have 19 sacks in their last four games. Granted, 14 of those came in the last two weeks against the lackluster Falcons and Jets, including nine against the Jets alone.
While the rookies on the edge really aren’t showing much of a sign that they will be factors in the pass rush, there is plenty of production coming from the middle. Ed Oliver has been a terror since Thanksgiving. Harrison Phillips has been fairly strong the last few weeks as well.
The Patriots run the ball on everybody. They ran the ball effectively in both games against the Bills. They probably will do that again. If Buffalo can continue getting pressure on the quarterback at the same rate as the last month, it will very likely make the Patriots one-dimensional. That probably won’t be enough dimensions to win a playoff game. Not on the road and not against the Bills.
The re-watch of the Bills win over New England was amazing. The offense was simply a work of art that afternoon. Allen was brilliant. The offensive line was superb. It was damn near perfect.
It’s so good a performance, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect another like it. It was the first game ever a Bill Belichick defense did not force a punt. The Bills aren’t doing something that didn’t happen in 350-some games and then doing it again three weeks later. Even if Allen is certainly capable of another very high-level performance.
On the flip side, the Patriots have gotten just about zero from their quarterback in the two games against the NFL’s number one defense and yet, they still scored five touchdowns. Again, the Bills could totally shut Jones down again. It would not be a surprise for a rookie QB starting a playoff game on the road. However, simple regression to the mean may chop a significant amount of the massive quarterback edge Buffalo enjoyed in their win over the Patriots.
Buffalo will have one gigantic advantage for this game: health. Everyone the Bills don’t have on injured reserve is good to go while the Patriots are dealing with a host of guys who may or may not play. Chief among them are offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn who did not practice all week and number two corner Jalen Mills who will miss this game on the Covid list. It’s really hard to overestimate how playing with a full deck could benefit the Bills. Especially in a game where every little thing is going to matter.
Speaking of little things, the Bills generally very good special teams suddenly have a very big issue. Sean McDermott trusts their return men so little that last week the best play for punt returns was Micah Hyde catching it after three hops. New England has one of the more underrated return men in the league in Gunner Olszewski. Special teams yardage can easily play a big role in tight playoff games.
The Bills have talked all week about how passing in the cold will feel like throwing and catching a brick. Stefon Diggs discussed that against Atlanta maybe Allen should take a little bit off his passes to make them more catchable. Diggs did say that with a smile. Clearly, some of the comment’s goal was to bust his buddy’s chops. However, I thought on the field that Allen opened that game with too many fastballs for those conditions. There’s just no way anyone can prepare for what this game is going to be like. The cold is going to have some sort of impact and the most likely area it will affect is the passing game. That will hurt the Bills more than it hurts the Patriots.
This game is going to be a battle of wills. Who can survive the cold. Who can play a physical enough game to win. In a dome, I’d be more confident Buffalo could just throw the ball all over New England and the Patriots won’t keep up. That could still happen, but I don’t think so. I think this game might end up being the most difficult one for the Bills to win on the road to the Super Bowl. That thought includes a potential trip next week to Arrowhead to face the defending conference champion Chiefs.
I could go on and on about all the different nooks and crannies to this game. It’s why I was very excited about this matchup. The X and O battle between McDermott and Belichick will be superb.
We saw the Bills offense go supernova like they did in Foxboro against Kansas City and after halftime in Tampa, so the bedazzling against the Patriots is certainly not a one-off. For the sake of making a prediction, I’m going to take that possibility off the table. That leaves a closer, one score type game. In that case, I’ll take the Hall of Fame coach and the team that’s more physical. Give me the upset. Patriots win 21-20.