By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — At long last, the Patriots finally get to take on the 6-5 Buffalo Bills, who have emerged as the second-best team in the AFC East this season. But when it comes to the head-to-head matchups, it hasn’t been very close.
Tom Brady has been wildly successful against the Bills in his career with a 26-3 record, and enters Sunday at New Era Field with a chance to tie the record for most wins by a quarterback in Buffalo since 2001. The game will also be a homecoming of sorts for Rob Gronkowski, who grew up about 11 miles northeast of Buffalo in Williamsville, N.Y.. He has a chance to shine on Sunday based on his history, as he’s caught 35 passes for 583 yards and seven touchdowns in six career games in Buffalo.
That doesn’t mean the Patriots are without their concerns. Dual threat quarterbacks like Tyrod Taylor have given the Patriots defense trouble as recently as this season, and the Patriots’ banged-up offensive line had trouble protecting Brady last week against the Dolphins. Here’s what to watch for on Sunday:
Will Gronk Go Off?
You already know about the aforementioned seven TDs in six career games in Buffalo, and the fun continues for Gronkowski when you look at his entire career. He has 82 catches for 813 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 career games against the Bills, by far the most against any team in the league (he has eight TDs each against the Steelers, Dolphins, and Jets).
The Bills, however, have only allowed two touchdowns to tight ends so far in 2017. Last week against the Chiefs, they held Travis Kelce to just three catches on four targets for 39 yards. But besides him, they haven’t faced a tight end approaching the caliber of Gronk – and certainly not a QB on Brady’s level.
Buffalo has the ninth-best opposing passer rating (80.5) in the NFL, but they certainly face their biggest test of the season on Sunday. With Gronk coming off a two-touchdown performance last week against the Dolphins, containing him will be one of their top priorities.
Can the Patriots Contain Tyrod Taylor?
It’s not a hot sports radio take to say that the Patriots should be a little concerned about slowing Taylor down. Take it from Bill Belichick himself. The head coach spoke at length about the threat that Taylor can pose with both his arms and his legs, which is a different kind of QB from who the Pats have faced in recent weeks.
The defense has excelled over the course of the Patriots’ seven-game winning streak, but it’s come almost entirely with man-to-man defense against pocket passers. Their last bad showing came against the Panthers’ Cam Newton, one of the league’s top running threats at the position, while cornerback Stephon Gilmore struggled playing zone.
There’s a chance that Gilmore has ironed out his early-season issues, despite mostly just manning up against certain receivers in recent games. He and the rest of the Patriots secondary have been excellent lately, but this is a different kind of offense they’ll have to face. Still, it’s clear that Belichick has made sure the defense takes the Bills seriously, so it’s fair to expect another strong performance, especially considering their recent play.
Will Tom Brady Stay Upright?
Brady may be battling an Achilles injury, but the real health concern for the Patriots offense right now is along the offensive line. It appears that right tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle) will be out again, and backup right tackle LaAdrian Waddle (ankle) is also banged up. Center David Andrews (illness) returned to practice this week, but he has been limited and is no guarantee to play, let alone play well.
The injuries finally started catching up to the Patriots’ O-line last Sunday against the Dolphins, when Brady was hit eight times. Backup center Ted Karras also committed an egregious botched snap that gifted the Dolphins a defensive touchdown. The hope is that Dante Scarnecchia has the unit tightened up after last week’s off game.
The bright side is that the Bills have the second-fewest sacks in the league with just 17 through 11 games. If they can get Andrews back, perhaps the Patriots can solidify things in the trenches and give Brady the time & space he needs to operate.
Could the Bills Break the Stupidity Streak?
The Patriots have played mostly outstanding football over the course of their win streak, and that’s due in large part to the fact that they’re simply playing clean football. Even in last week’s relatively sloppy win over the Dolphins, they still managed to win by 18 points – and Miami outclassed the Patriots in terms of sheer stupidity.
The Pats have been on an incredible run of opponents who simply can’t get out of their own way, most recently with the Dolphins. The Bills are the eighth-most-penalized team in the NFL with 80 accepted against them, compared to 69 for the Patriots, according to NFLPenalties.com. And Bills head coach Sean McDermott didn’t exactly cover himself in glory when he decided to bench Taylor for backup QB Nathan Peterman, which resulted in five inerceptions and a 54-24 loss to the Chargers.
Is the man who just made that decision suddenly going to go toe-to-toe with Belichick? It doesn’t look likely, even with a solid defense and home field. As is tradition, it’s possible that Belichick and the Patriots can escape Buffalo with a win merely by playing smart and waiting for the Bills to shoot themselves in the foot.
BONUS: Fan Debauchery?
Fair or not, Bills fans have earned a reputation for some outrageous behavior both inside and outside the stadium. With the Patriots coming to town, the depravity is likely to continue in some form.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.