By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — So, the Patriots are in the playoffs, and they’re underdogs. This does not happen often.
During the two decades of dominance, the Patriots were not favored in just seven of their 41 playoff games. And all but two of those games came in the championship round or Super Bowl, and none of them happened in the Wild Card round. (The Patriots rarely played in the Wild Card round in the Tom Brady era, of course, playing just four times in the opening round during their 17 trips to the postseason.)
But it is a new era, as the Patriots head to Buffalo (formerly New Era field, coincidentally enough) as 4-point underdogs against the Bills in the Wild Card matchup. That number opened at 4.5 and has only moved a little, showing that the Bills are true favorites as far as the oddsmakers are concerned.
While the Patriots did beat the Bills in their own stadium on Dec. 6, that game took place under once-in-a-career conditions for the players. The Bills then convincingly won the rematch three weeks later, en route to seizing the AFC East crown for a second straight season.
The Patriots also lost three of their last four games, with their lone win coming against the lowly Jaguars. They lost on the road to two AFC teams that finished in the middle of the pack but outside of the playoff picture in Indianapolis and Miami.
So, the spread favoring the home team feels about right.
If you don’t love the Patriots’ chances on Saturday night, then your instincts are correct. If you don’t even like the Patriots’ chances in Buffalo, you might be on to something as well.
But, well, this is sports. And sports things happen all the time in sports. That’s what makes them sports.
So if you’re looking for a reason to find some optimism for the Patriots’ chances in winning this rubber match, we’ll do you a few better by providing four key spots that could or should favor New England in this one.
JOSH ALLEN AT HOME
Josh Allen came back to earth in year four, with his statistics and efficiency dropping notably from 2020 to 2021. His completion percentage dipped 5.9 points, he threw for 137 fewer yards and one fewer touchdown despite playing an extra game, he threw five more picks, his yards per attempt dropped 0.9 yards, his yards per game dropped by 24.8 yards, and his passer rating went from 107.2 to 92.2. He led zero fourth-quarter comebacks and zero game-winning drives, and the Bills won two fewer games despite the 17-game schedule.
An MVP candidate, he was not.
At the same time, you never would have known that if you watched him carve up the Patriots in Week 16 with some passes that were at times too preposterous for even a video game character to make.
Josh Allen my goodness pic.twitter.com/BlgaRMbBar
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) December 27, 2021
Every single one of those passes was just stupid. It was one of the most impressive performances by a visiting quarterback in New England we’ve seen during this era.
But it’s also not surprising that it came on the road. Because at home? Josh Allen hasn’t been so hot. Check out the splits.
JOSH ALLEN, AT HOME, 2021 SEASON
2,048 yards, 6.1 Y/A, 227.6 Y/G
17 TDs, 7 INTs
JOSH ALLEN, ON ROAD, 2021 SEASON
2,359 yards, 7.6 Y/A, 294.9 Y/G
19 TDs, 8 INTs
Allen is a far superior quarterback on the road, which the Patriots saw firsthand. (Allen was 15-for-30 for 145 yards with one touchdown and no picks in the Bills’ home loss to New England.) Of Allen’s six best games this season (in terms of passer rating), five of them came on the road. And the one at home — his second-best single-game passer rating of the season — came all the way back in Week 3, against Washington.
Allen was damn near perfect with a ton of highly difficult throws in Week 16. Repeating that performance would be unlikely for anyone.
Between the home-road splits and Allen’s raised antennae about having cold piggies on Saturday night, it feels unlikely that the video game Josh Allen shows up for this one.
(A pessimist would probably mention that Mac Jones was much better at home compared to on the road. But this story is about OPTIMISM. And running games travel.)
LACK OF CONVENTIONAL RUNNING ATTACK
So, you want to beat the Patriots? Have you considered running the football?
The Patriots carry the 22nd-ranked run defense into the playoffs, and the second-ranked pass defense. It’s even worse in terms of yards per attempt, where the Patriots rank 25th in the NFL at 4.53 yards per carry.
When the Patriots allowed more than 100 yards rushing this season, they went 3-6. When they held opponents under 100 rushing yards, they went 7-1.
That figures to be a fatal flaw for the Patriots in their postseason quest … but it may not kill them in Buffalo.
While the Bills do have an overall strong rushing attack, it’s not a conventional running game. Josh Allen accounts for 763 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns, which is a significant chunk of Buffalo’s rushing totals. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss combined for 1,215 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns on the year. Singletary is good, but containing him shouldn’t be too hard. He topped 100 yards just once all year, and he had 10 games with fewer than 50 rushing yards.
From the Patriots’ perspective, it’s all about stopping Allen. When he gets going with his legs, he can change games. That much can be seen just from his two matchups with New England. He had 39 rushing yards on six carries in Buffalo’s loss, and he ran 12 times for 64 yards in the Bills’ win.
That element is key to the Bill’s success (they’re 5-1 when he rushes for more than 50 yards), and it’s not easy to contain. But, the Patriots kept him in check once this season. So long as they remember to not play man coverage and turn their backs on the QB too much, they might be able to devise a plan that forces Allen to beat them as a passer rather than a runner.
The Patriots’ three best players in their December win in Buffalo were Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Mother Nature.
All three will be suiting up on Saturday night.
While the winds won’t be gusting like they were on that Monday night game, it will be cold. Incredibly, unbelievably cold. With temperatures in the single digits, it’ll be the type of cold that nobody can prepare for.
That’s something that should help level the playing field. And with the Bills being a better team — on paper, in the standings, statistically, etc. — then a neutralizing factor like the weather should be a benefit to the Patriots.
Much like the weather itself, it is difficult to forecast exactly how the arctic air will impact this game. Looking just at Patriots history, some of the colder games have resulted in some mixed bags in terms of the passing game.
Tom Brady threw for 348 yards with a long touchdown and two picks in Kansas City in the 2018 playoffs, while Patrick Mahomes threw for 395 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Passing wasn’t easy on that cold night, but it was possible … for two of the all-time greats.
Way back in the 2003 playoffs, when the Patriots hosted the Titans in a playoff game on a night that New Englanders still remember as maybe the coldest they’ve ever experienced, co-MVP Steve McNair threw for just 210 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Brady threw for 201 yards (on 41 attempts) with one touchdown and no picks. Passing on that evening was a chore.
A year after that, with sub-zero wind chills in Pittsburgh, Brady efficiently threw for 207 yards, this time on just 21 attempts, while throwing two touchdowns with no picks. Ben Roethlisberger had a tougher time, going 14-for-24 for 226 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
All of that is to say … the unbearable cold may limit the passing game, and it may not. But passing with great efficiency figures to be a challenge for both teams, so that 12th man in the huddle — excuse me, 12th woman, a natural goddess even — should be a boost for the visiting team and its potent rushing attack.
BB IN ROUND 3
This one falls on the specious/speculative side of things, but anecdotally … wouldn’t you much prefer having Bill Belichick over Sean McDermott (or any head coach, really) when two teams are meeting for a third time in a season? All of that tape, all of that intel … which coach is going to best make use of the information, go to school, revise a game plan, and send his players onto the field in the best position to win the game?
Mmmmmmost people are going to go with Belichick on that one.
Of course, that doesn’t guarantee anything. Belichick is a better coach than Doug Pederson and Gary Kubiak, but he’s lost playoff games against both. The games are ultimately and obviously decided by the players. But the Patriots clearly have another advantage on the sideline for this one. (And that’s without accounting for Sean McDermott’s tendency to boil like a teapot whenever his Bills meet the Patriots, leading to poor clock management, terrible decisions to throw challenge flags, and unnecessary hurdles for his team to overcome.)
History — brief though it may be — is undecided on this matter. When the Patriots faced the Jets three times in 2006, Belichick’s team handled Eric Mangini’s squad handily, winning the playoff rubber match 37-16 at Gillette Stadium. But when the Patriots faced the Jets three times in 2010, it was Rex Ryan’s crew that shocked New England and the football world with a 28-21 playoff win in Foxboro.
If you really want to glean some more from that history, the Patriots lost their second meeting with the Jets in 2006 before beating them in the playoffs. In 2010, it was the opposite, with the Patriots absolutely embarrassing the Jets in meeting No. 2 before falling flat in the playoff game.
This year, the Patriots won their first meeting with Buffalo but lost the rematch. The commonly held belief that more can be learned and gained from a loss than a win might help the Patriots there. And having Belichick in that situation — like most situations — once again gives the Patriots more of an edge.
None of this is to suggest that the Patriots will win the game. After all, the last two times that Belichick has coached on Wild Card weekend, it’s gone poorly. The 2009 and 2019 teams — substandard by Patriots standards — were proven to not really be in the playoff class, losing at home to the Ravens in ’09 and Titans in ’19. It’s surely a very real possibility that his year’s team — which is an improved unit from 2020 but still carries some major flaws into Wild Card weekend — finds the same fate.
But life is short, and it doesn’t hurt to try to find some optimism in a cold, cruel world. Or at least that’s what people say.
In any event, this list is for those who want a reason to believe.