By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The last time the Patriots met the Bills, the football team from Buffalo was in a pretty rough spot. Losers of five of their first seven games and having burned through Nathan Peterman, Buffalo dragged career backup Derek Anderson out of retirement to try to beat the Patriots on Monday Night Football. It didn’t work out. The Bills put just six points on the board and lost by 19.
This time around, the Patriots are losers of two straight and just abruptly lost their leading receiver late in the week. They could really use a layup of a football game come Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately for New England, these aren’t the same Bills.
That’s not to say that the Bills are suddenly a bunch of world beaters on an explosive tear through the NFL. Yet after dropping games against the Dolphins and Steelers, there may not be a team that the Patriots can take for granted at this point.
What likely gets lost the most in the Bills’ 5-9 win-loss record is the fact that Buffalo has boasted an elite defense all season long. As you’ll likely recall, Buffalo kept Tom Brady’s offense out of the end zone for the first three quarters of the game back in late October, and the New England offense was only able to mount one touchdown drive all night long. (New England’s other touchdown came on a pick-six by Devin McCourty.)
That night, many wondered how the Patriots’ offense could struggle against a 2-5 Bills team. And without proper preparation, those same people could be wondering the same thing this coming Sunday.
As a basis for familiarity, here’s where the Bills rank in some key defensive categories:
Yards allowed per game
Pass yards allowed per game
Pass yards allowed per attempt
Opponent passer rating
Rush yards allowed per game
Rush yards allowed per attempt
Points allowed per game
As the last stat shows, the Bills’ defense can clearly be exposed. But as the other stats show, the Bills can just as clearly present a formidable front, especially against the pass.
That was certainly the case when they faced Brady in October. Coming off big passing days against Kansas City and at Chicago, Brady was held without a touchdown for the first time all season. His 85.8 passer rating that night was his second-worst of the season to that point, better only than the dreadful night in Detroit in Week 3. (The only lower mark Brady has posted since was in the game against Tennessee.) On a chilly and windy night, Brady did throw for 324 yards, but he did so on 45 attempts, averaging just 7.2 yards per attempt. That was his second-lowest average among games which the Patriots won.
That night in Buffalo, Josh Gordon was reportedly going to be benched to start the game. But he ended up taking 84 percent of the offensive snaps that night. This time around, the Patriots won’t have his services at all, as his mid-week departure from the team takes the leading receiver away from Brady and Josh McDaniels. How the Patriots choose to attack a potent Bills defense after losing Gordon will be an interesting story line on Sunday.
As for the other side of the ball, the Bills are notably less threatening. They rank 31st in both yards (293.4) and points, averaging a measly 15.4 points per game. That’s better than only Arizona this year. While the Patriots’ defense has had its fair share of struggles this year, the Bills’ offense shouldn’t necessarily present a major challenge.
At the same time, the Bills have been a slightly different team since Josh Allen returned in Week 12. In their past four games, they’ve averaged 19.5 points and 355.5 yards per game. That surge — relatively speaking, of course — came after a Matt Barkley-quarterbacked Bills team rolled over the Jets 41-10. Lest a win at the home of the Jets be diminished, one must first recall that the Patriots’ 27-13 win in New Jersey was a tie game at 13-13 late in the third quarter.
Allen himself has been a better quarterback since returning from injury, too. From the start of the year through Week 6, Allen threw two touchdowns and five picks with a 61.8 passer rating. Since returning from injury in Week 12, he’s been slightly better, with four touchdowns, four picks and a 70.1 passer rating. Yet what he’s lacked in passing ability, he’s tried to make up for as a runner — and with success. He’s rushed for 99 or more yards in three of the the past four weeks, rushing for 351 yards and three touchdowns in that time.
Taking the picture as a whole, the Patriots should win this game. They’re a win away from clinching the AFC East and, at the very least, a home playoff game. They’re desperate to get back on a normal track of winning after two gut-wrenching losses. They’re 6-0 at home, they’ve never lost at home when Brady has played a full game, and they’ve never lost at home against a rookie quarterback.
The Bills, at 5-9, don’t have much to play for except pride. Veteran players may be most concerned with avoiding an injury that would ruin their offseason and hurt their future prospects in the league than they are with the scoreboard.
At the same time, nothing is a sure thing in the NFL, and no wins are guaranteed. The Bills, with blowout wins at the Jets and at Minnesota, are evidence of that. If the Patriots aren’t careful, they’ll serve as the latest example.