BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots have won six straight games, turning their season around and getting themselves smack dab in the middle of the fight for the top seed in the AFC. It’s been an improbable run, and it has the team and the fans rather excited.
But all of those positive vibes can come crashing down if the Patriots take the field Monday night in Orchard Park and get soundly beaten by the Bills. That’s kind of how life works in the NFL.
With that in mind, it feels safe to say this is the biggest game of the year for both teams.
In the Patriots’ case, a win in Buffalo will create a slight cushion in the AFC East while building tremendous amounts of confidence within the locker room as New England heads into the bye.
For the Bills, a win will satisfy the psychotic energy from the 71,000 crazed Bills fans packing Highmark Stadium (when did they start calling it that?) on what’s sure to be a frigid Monday evening. It will also vault the Bills back into first place, where they’ll hope to stay for the rest of the year.
While any game always has the potential to be a dud, this one could be really, really good.
And with this matchup coming so late in the season, it’s a good time to catch up on all things Buffalo.
One Big Win, One BAD Loss
The Bills won their first playoff game in 25 years last season. Then they went ahead and won a second playoff game. But that momentum was halted in the AFC Championship Game, which they lost 38-24 in Kansas City, thus ending their dreams of reaching the Super Bowl (where Tom Brady would have probably evaporated their souls anyway).
So when the Bills made the trip to Kansas City in Week 5, you know that they wanted to be at their best. And they were.
Josh Allen threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 59 yards and another score, the defense picked off Patrick Mahomes twice, and the Bills took a 31-13 lead into the fourth quarter. They’d eventually win, 38-20, which was important for a team fighting to play at a Super Bowl level.
Alas … Buffalo lost to the Titans the following week … and then lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 9. That 9-6 wasn’t indicative of the Bills being worse than the dreadful Jaguars, but it showed how bad the Bills can be when they don’t enter a game with their best focus.
The Bills also have a loss to the 5-5-1 Steelers on their resume, but that took place way back in Week 1. They also lost to the Colts two weeks ago, in a game that saw Jonathan Taylor rush for 185 yards and four touchdowns.
Step-Back Season For Josh Allen
Josh Allen is still good. But he’s not the MVP candidate he was a year ago.
He’s already matched last year’s interception total with 10, and his completion percentage has dipped from 69.2 percent to 66.8 percent. His yards per attempt has also dropped from 7.9 to 7.4, and his passer rating has gone down from 107.2 to 99.1.
Still, Allen is plenty good, and he remains a serious threat with his legs. Allen has rushed for 383 yards and three touchdowns on 69 attempts this season.
He’s had a couple of great games — the aforementioned Chiefs game, a four-touchdown/zero-interception game vs. Washington — but also some stinkers. He had two picks and no touchdowns vs. the mighty Jags and he had two touchdowns and two picks in the Colts loss. He was 30-for-51 in the loss to Pittsburgh.
So it hasn’t been a great season for Allen. And he’s got quite the challenge lying in front of him: two games vs. the Patriots in a four-week span, with a trip to Tampa Bay to face the defending champs (and a home date vs. Carolina) sandwiched in the middle.
If he comes out on Monday night and looks like 2020 Josh Allen, then the Patriots are in trouble. It’s up to the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense and No. 4 overall defense to prevent that from happening.
Diggs, Diggs, Diggs
The Bills’ best weapon is unquestionably the man wearing No. 14. Stefon Diggs leads the Bills in receptions and receiving yards, and he’s tied with tight end Dawson Knox for the team lead in touchdown receptions.
Interestingly, though, in games where Diggs has had 80 or more receiving yards, the Bills are just 2-2. They beat the lowly Texans and Jets when Diggs had his best games (162 yards vs. New York, 114 yards vs. Houston), but lost to Tennessee and Jacksonville when he had 89 and 85 yards, respectively.
That makes you wonder if the Patriots might focus on shutting down the likes of Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley and the aforementioned Knox to limit the overall potency of the Bills’ passing attack.
On the ground, Allen is the most dangerous threat, as Devin Singletary has produced at a pedestrian level (459 yards, 2 TDs, on 98 carries) on the ground.
Tre’Davious White Out
A top-ranked pass defense is made up of more than just one guy, obviously. But the loss of Tre’Davious White for the season figures to be a huge one for the Buffalo D.
With White, the Bills have built a passing defense that ranks second in yards allowed per game and first in yards allowed per play.
The Bills aren’t racking up sacks (they have 21) on the year but they’ve picked off 16 passes — in second place in the NFL, fewer than only the Patriots with 19.
White accounts for only one of those interceptions, but his absence will obviously make everyone else’s job that much harder in the Buffalo secondary.
Overall, the Bills have the No. 1 ranked defense in terms of yards allowed and the No. 2-ranked defense in terms of points allowed. In that category, the only team ahead of them once again is New England. (The Bills were gashed for 264 rushing yards vs. Indy, but they’ve been solid against the run outside of that one game this year.)
Even without White, this figures to be a game driven by defense.
With points likely being at a premium, the kickers figure to play critical roles for their teams. We know Nick Folk can handle that; he’s coming off a five field goal day vs. Tennessee.
For Buffalo, it’ll be second-year kicker Tyler Bass handling the duties. He was one of the kickers that the Patriots passed on when they selected Justin Rohrwasser in 2020. That turned out to be the wrong choice, as Rohrwasser never made the active roster and currently is without an NFL job.
Bass has very good this year, hitting all nine of his field goals fewer than 40 yards, going 3-for-4 in the 40-49-yard range, and going 2-for-4 on field goals of 50 or more yards. He’s also a perfect 34-for-34 on PATs.
His habit of sticking one strip of eye black to his face may make him a bit of a nerd … but he’s good at kicking, and that’s what matters.
And lastly, with the them established that this should be a very tightly contested game, it’s time to look at giveaways and takeaways.
In addition to the 10 interceptions, Allen has coughed up six fumbles. Opponents have recovered two of those.
Singletary has five fumbles on the year, but the Bills have recovered all of those.
Overall, the Bills have turned the ball over 16 times, tied for 10th-most in the NFL.
But they’ve turned in 25 takeaways on defense, tied with New England for second-most in the NFL. As such, they rank third in the NFL in turnover differential at plus-9, one behind the Patriots.
That’s … right in line with the theme of most of this snapshot. The Bills and Patriots are neck-and-neck with each other. On paper, both Monday night’s game and the rematch figure to be decided by which team involves the best game-plan wrinkles and which team executes the most crisply when the games begin.
Predicting a winner may be a fool’s errand. But this sounds like an excellent recipe for some good old-fashioned entertainment.