Two of the four AFC teams to have already clinched a playoff spot will face off Saturday evening at Gillette Stadium when the Patriots (11-3) host the Bills (10-4) in a rare meaningful late-December AFC East battle.
Oftentimes by the holiday season the Patriots have wrapped up the division crown as well as a postseason bye as the rest of the world is wrapping its Christmas gifts.
But this season Buffalo reaches the penultimate week of the regular season riding high, Sean McDermott’s team having already punched a ticket to the postseason with an outside shot of still securing the division crown.
New England will clinch the division with a win in the last two weeks, either over Buffalo or Miami in the finale, but also has to continue to fight for one of the top two seeds and the ever-important playoff bye come January.
The two teams hit the last couple weeks playing a somewhat similar style of football, led by impressive defenses and with quarterbacks – aging legend Tom Brady for New England and second-year former first-round pick Josh Allen for Buffalo -- focused as much on avoiding turnovers and costly sacks as they are putting up big numbers through the air.
Based on the first meeting this season – a 16-10 Patriots win in Buffalo in which the visitors needed a blocked punt for a touchdown to secure the victory – and the similar records, there isn’t nearly the divide between the two division rivals that existed when New England won 15 straight in the series from 2003-10, even if Bill Belichick’s team has actually won six straight of late.
“It's a big game for both teams, so we're going to go out there and try to play our best,” Brady said of the playoff feel in the cold December air of Foxborough. “This is a great team that's been playing really well all year. They've got a great defense. It's going to be a tough challenge.”
Belichick agreed with the idea that this is a playoff game a couple weeks before the postseason actually begins.
“Absolutely. That’s what we’re here for. Yep. You work all year to put yourself in a position to play in a game like this where you can win the division,” Belichick said. “So, you couldn’t say that in Week 4, or Week 6, or Week 8 – whatever it was. Well, we’re saying that now, so now is the time for us to play and coach our best football. That’s what we’re all here for.”
Sure the Patriots have enjoyed past years in which they cruised to the postseason, but there is also something to be said for the atmosphere of a key game against a division rival late in December.
“I think everybody puts a lot into it and that's for moments like this,” Brady concluded. “Everyone – you work out all offseason, you train to be a part of these games. And this is a big game against a very good team. That's what it's all about. That's why we're here, to play in games like this.”
To win games like this.
Here are some key areas to focus on in this critical late-season meeting between the Patriots and Bills.
Pick on Josh Allen – The key to the Bills’ sustained winning this season is all about an impressive defense and Allen’s ability to avoid turnovers. After throwing three interceptions before leaving due to injury in the Week 4 loss to the Patriots, Allen has thrown three interceptions total in the 10 games since. Of course Stephon Gilmore and the New England defense lead the NFL with 25 interceptions, six more than the second-best Steelers. Even the lowly Bengals were hanging in with the Patriots until Andy Dalton started throwing to the wrong team – four times – including a pick-six for Gilmore. If Allen takes care of the ball – choosing to punt rather than revert to his strong-armed gunslinger instincts – it will give the visitors the first step toward the upset. That’s easier said than done against the Defensive Player of the Year favorite Gilmore and the rest of the New England playmaking pass defense.
Julian Edelman’s health – A week ago in Cincinnati all the injuries finally caught up with Edelman, the gutty slot option catching just two passes for 9 yards. Edelman overcame chest/rib and shoulder injuries most of the season, but the knee injury that’s slowed him of late took him out of his comfort zone. He probably should not have even played against the Bengals. Now, he may have to fight through it again at far less than 100 percent against the Bills’ No. 3 defense. It’s hard to imagine Edelman looking healthier this week after another game’s wear and tear as well as a short recovery time. The Patriots probably can’t afford to rest Edelman against Buffalo. Of course there may be some strong pressure to rest him some point soon with an eye on getting him back to his usual production in time for the postseason. Edelman’s health and production could be the key for the Patriots on Sunday and in January.
Devin intervention – The Patriots run defense didn’t have to deal with rookie running back Devin Singletary in the first meeting. Now, the young ball carrier is on fire. Singletary has rushed for 87 yards or more in three of the last four games. He’s averaging 5.4 yards a carry on the season. Meanwhile the New England run defense is coming off one of its worst performance of the year after allowing Joe Mixon and the Bengals to pick up 164 yards and 5.1 yards per rush. Tackling has been an issue all year on run defense, dating back to the Week 4 meeting with Frank Gore and Co. The Bills are going to try to run the ball and if they have the kind of success the Bengals did, it takes a lot of pressure off Allen and the passing game. And presents problems for the Patriots.
Special attention – Neither of these teams has what might be described as a high-scoring offense right now. Both teams have impressive defenses more than capable of stagnating almost any opposing attack. There is a good chance this game will be a one-score affair into the second half and maybe into the final minutes. That puts a premium on the third phase. New England escaped Buffalo thanks to a blocked punt for a touchdown. A recovery on a muffed punt was a key last week in Cincy. Whether it’s yet another blocked punt or a big kick, there is a good chance there will be at least one play in the kicking game that could very well decide this division battle. New England’s special teams units have been a key aspect of the winning formula all season. That probably needs to continue Saturday evening against the Bills.
It’s how you start…and finish – The Bills are one of the best teams in the NFL in terms of late comebacks this season. The Patriots aren’t really built to come back, even with Brady at the helm. Whichever team can get an early advantage could ride that momentum through the rest of the game. Last time the Patriots played at Gillette, they were booed by the homes fans while heading to the locker room for halftime on the way to the loss to the Chiefs. To keep the home crowd happy and build some confidence in the team on the field, the Patriots certainly would like to get off to a fast start. The game clearly won’t be over in the first quarter, but the way these teams play the squad that controls the early going could be well on its way to victory. A repeat of last week’s opening effort on defense, in which the Bengals ran the ball right down New England’s throat on its opening drive, simply can’t be repeated.
Prediction – Las Vegas expects this to be a very low-scoring game, but still has the Patriots as nearly a touchdown favorite. In many ways the game comes down to one thing – Allen’s ability to avoid interceptions. If he turns the ball over, things will snowball in the Patriots’ favor in the cold. Allen deserves credit for the way he has played. But it’s still hard to assume he won’t turn the ball over against the best takeaway defense in the NFL. Edelman’s health and the inefficient passing game are huge factors. New England’s running game is coming off a solid performance, but the Bills’ defense is a much bigger challenge. The Patriots haven’t lost consecutive games at home since 2008. Of course, this has been a pretty unique season in a lot of ways. Still, in the end, Brady, Belichick and the Patriots get the benefit of the doubt inside Gillette Stadium. So we’ll go with a 20-16 win for New England. But there is no doubt that this game could go either way in oh so many ways.