We have another division match-up on slate for this week, as the Buffalo Bills travel to take on the New England Patriots. The Bills are hoping for a better result than the 25-6 loss on Monday Night Football, but the big difference this time for Buffalo is that rookie Josh Allen will be under center. Meanwhile, the Patriots are coming into this game on a two-game losing streak in December for the first time in a long time. We talked to Bernd Buchmasser from Pats Pulpit to see if fans are starting to panic.
1. Are Patriots fans worried about the past couple games for the team?
I think—and the latest FanPulse results confirm this—there is a general feeling within the Patriots fanbase that the team is not on the same level as those of the past few years heading into late December and the playoffs. And yesterday’s news about Josh Gordon certainly doesn’t help. There are two parts influencing this, if you ask me.
First, the Patriots have struggled defensively two weeks ago and offensively last week, and narrowly lost both games. They don’t look nearly as consistent a unit at this point in the season as they did more or less any year since 2010. They also seem to lack a clear identity on offense and have struggled to defend the run on defense. In short: they look flawed.
The second part is this: Patriots fans have been incredibly spoiled the past two decades. That does not necessarily make them bad fans (at least not all of them), but it sometimes seems to warp their perception of what is or isn’t a successful season: it’s Super Bowl or bust—but New England is still sitting at 9-5, one win away from their 10th straight division title and a shot at the playoffs in a year in which the entire NFL has issues. Are the Patriots as good as they were in 2016, when they were undoubtedly the best team in the NFL heading into the postseason? Certainly not. However, they are still in a good position despite all the flaws outlined above.
2. Do you feel this team needs home-field advantage during playoff time, or is this a team that can get it done on the road?
The road to the Super Bowl is obviously an easier one when traveled at home, and the Patriots have not won a road playoff game since 2006 (in all fairness, though, they have only had to play away from Massachusetts three times since then). That being said, I still think this team has the talent—even without Gordon—to be successful on the road. The main point, again, is consistency: if the Patriots can pull it all together on both sides of the ball, they can go up against any team in football no matter the venue.
However, they have maybe played that way only once this season: in Week 13, when they defeated the Minnesota Vikings—at home. On the road, the Patriots have failed to string plays together, which led to slow starts, which kept the momentum on the opponents’ side.
”You’ve got to play well offensively. You’ve got to do a good job of possessing the ball, third down and so forth. Defensively, big plays and those really get the crowd into it and the kicking game, just playing solid,“ Tom Brady said last week, and while the Patriots have done all those things this season even on the road—which is why I feel confident in their ability to win road playoff games—they have not yet done it all simultaneously. This will be the deciding factor come postseason time.
3. With the dominance the Patriots have had over the Bills, do fans ever consider this a rivalry anymore?
A lot of Patriots fans might disagree with me on that, but I very much consider it a rivalry. Just think of the history the two teams share: the AFL’s first ever divisional playoff game in 1963, O.J. Simpson setting the single-game rushing record against New England in 1973, the “Lawyer Milloy Revenge Game” in 2003, the 2009 season opener, and so on. That alone makes them rivals in my book.
Now, sure, the Patriots have dominated the rivalry the last two decades—but that’s a story most teams share with the Bills and one that will probably not extend beyond the next five years. And then, the rivalry might very much become more competitive again… unless, of course, Josh Allen turns into the 2020s version of the 2000s/2010s Tom Brady and just wins seemingly every single game. But even if that happens, it remains a rivalry.
4. What does this team have to improve on before the postseason starts?
I hate to repeat myself, but it has to become more consistent in all three phases of the game and on the coaching staff. The Patriots need to improve in the red zone on offense and get better on third down, they need to find a way to properly incorporate their best players again (looking at you, Rob Gronkowski and James White), and they need to continue working on their fundamentals along the offensive line.
On defense, they need to find a way to improve against the run both on the interior and on the edge. If that happens, teams will be forced into trying their luck by attacking the unit’s strength—a secondary led by ex-Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who is having a tremendous season—instead of controlling the pace and tempo of the game by just running all over New England.
And they also need to keep the momentum going they have built on special teams. New England’s coverage teams struggled early in the year but the mid-season acquisitions of Albert McClellan and another ex-Bill, Ramon Humber, have helped the unit to improve.
5. If you could only have one of Belichick or Brady return next season, who would you pick?
That’s a tough one, but I’m going with Brady here—simply because of the succession plans. At quarterback, the Patriots have none: neither Brian Hoyer nor Danny Etling (sorry to all of you Hoyer/Etling fans out there) are the future of the franchise at the position. To paraphrase myself: it’s Brady or bust.
The situation looks different when it comes to Belichick, though. While I do think he is the most valuable asset in all of football, I think the Patriots are better prepared for life without him—at least as of today—than for life without Brady.
Josh McDaniels and Brian Flores would make for a solid duo to lead the coaching staff, with McDaniels the likely head coach in case Belichick would not return next year (spoiler: he will return). When it comes to the front office, Nick Caserio has been serving as the Patriots’ de-facto general manager for the past few years and would just take over the title while little would actually change. Remove Brady, on the other hand, and the team—one with neither a high first-round pick to use on a quarterback nor the time to groom him like Jimmy Garoppolo—would probably look a lot worse.