By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Nothing screams holiday cheer like a pair of division rivals trying to rip each other’s heads off.
The Patriots and Bills will clash at Gillette Stadium on Christmas Eve, and there is a lot on the line for the AFC East foes. While you can question whether or not it’s actually a rivalry, with the Patriots winning 27 of the last 31 matchups, this one will have a little extra tinsel to it with the playoffs just a few weeks ago (for some, at least) and some bad blood from their Week 13 meeting in Buffalo.
The Bills are hanging on to their postseason lives, while the Patriots are looking to inch closer to a first-round bye. Both hope to deliver a win to their fans ahead of Christmas, so here’s what we’ll be watching for when things kick off on Sunday afternoon:
Will Bills Be Naughty Or Nice To Gronk?
We’ll start by reiterating that Rob Gronkowski was a big dummy a few weeks ago when he pounced on a defenseless Tre’Davious White following his “frustrating” afternoon in Buffalo, and he certainly deserves a spot on the naughty list for the cheap shot. He’s lucky White wasn’t seriously hurt and deserved the one-game suspension the NFL slapped him with.
The Bills were hell-bent on getting revenge in the days following the incident, but have changed their tune a bit as of late. White no longer thinks Gronk is a dirty player and has said on several occasions that the best revenge is beating the Patriots on their home field, keeping their playoff chances alive in the process. His teammates are also saying all the right things leading up to Sunday’s matchup, making it seem like they’ve buried the incident in a giant pile of snow.
Which means the Bills will probably do something stupid on Sunday, and not just a few extra shoves or bumps during and after plays. If the Patriots get out to a big lead early, Buffalo’s frustration may reach a breaking point and someone could really take aim at Gronk. That doesn’t mean the Patriots should just wrap up their tight end and leave him under the tree, but they should probably limit his snaps just a tad if they are hanging holly all over the Bills.
It may be Christmas and all, but don’t expect everyone to be merry and bright to each other when this one kicks off.
Stuffed Stocking From No. 87
Cheap shots aside, Gronk has certainly crushed the Bills throughout his career. He has torched his hometown team to the tune of 11 touchdowns in 12 games, with the Patriots 10-2 in those contests. Buffalo kept him out of the end zone a few weeks ago and constantly threw a pair of defenders in his face, but Gronkowski still had nine receptions for 147 yards in New England’s win.
Not to mention, he’s pretty much been the Patriots’ offense in his last two games. Tom Brady has gone the big teddy bear’s way 24 times over his last two games, and he’s caught 18 of those passes for 315 yards. Gronk has gone two straight games without a touchdown (though that two-point conversion in Pittsburgh last Sunday was pretty darn big) so he’ll be itching to spike the eggnog — sorry, football — on Christmas Eve.
Run, Run Patriots
Chances are the Bills won’t be able to limit Gronk, but if they are up to no good with the All Pro, Brady may want to turn the attention elsewhere. If that’s the case, he’s got a stable of running backs who can pull the sleigh.
The Patriots will be without Rex Burkhead, but Dion Lewis, James White and even Mike Gillislee should be able to run wild against this Bills defense. Buffalo sits at 25th in the NFL in overall rushing yards allowed and is giving up 4.2 yards per attempt, and the Patriots would be wise to exploit this faction of their defense again after picking up 191 yards and two touchdowns on the ground three weeks ago.
Lewis has been playing some of the best football of his career lately, and Gillislee will be highly motivated to fill the Burkhead void against his former team after being inactive for nearly two months.
Van Noy Still On The Shelf?
The Patriots defense has not been good lately, and if we call out the Bills’ run defense for being bad, we should mention that the Patriots are worse. They give up 122.3 yards per game (26th in the NFL) and 4.9 yards per carry (last in the league).
That doesn’t bode well with duel-threat LeSean McCoy coming to town on Sunday, but the defense may receive a huge boost if Kyle Van Noy can return. The linebacker has been moving much better at practice this week after missing the last two games with a calf injury. His return would have a ripple effect throughout the D.
Nothing spreads holiday cheer like someone glued to the National Football League, a thought that would make even Ebenezer Goodell’s heart grow three times its normal size. But when the Patriots put a bow on Sunday’s game with the Bills, it’s worth keeping an eye on one of the late-afternoon games.
The Patriots can clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Jacksonville loss in San Francisco on Sunday or a Steelers loss in Houston on Monday. So you at least have a good excuse to fawn over Jimmy G and the 49ers while everyone else sits down for the Christmas Eve feast on Sunday night.
And if the Patriots win and both the Jags and Steelers lose in Week 16, then New England will have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Not a bad way to wrap up this Christmas season.
Tune in to Patriots-Bills on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins at 11:30am with Patriots GameDay, with kickoff set for 1pm! After the game, stay on WBZ-TV for complete reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!