The Buffalo Bills play host to the New England Patriots today in a matchup that has big implications. A victory for Buffalo could give them a clear path to winning the AFC East while the Patriots are fighting to keep their season alive. Head coach Sean McDermott has yet to defeat New England since coming to Buffalo but will look to change that on Sunday. To preview the match up we talked to Bernd Buchmasser from Pats Pulpit.
1) How have the opt-outs that the Patriots experienced affected the team?
New England has probably been hit harder by the COVID-19 opt-outs than any other team in the NFL — not just in terms of quantity but quality as well. The team essentially lost core players in all three phases of the game: right tackle Marcus Cannon and the number one tight end from a year ago, Matt LaCosse, opted out, as did linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung; four-unit special teamer Brandon Bolden also decided to sit out the 2020 season. Losing all those players becomes even more problematic when considering that the Patriots also saw plenty of talent depart in free agency as well.
While the team was able to replace Cannon and Chung quite well with Jermaine Eluemunor/Michael Onwenu and Adrian Phillips, respectively, losing Hightower in particular hurt: he was not just the team’s best off-the-ball linebacker, but also the defensive on-field signal caller and a team captain. Having him available would certainly improve a run defense that has had its issues so far this season.
2) Do you feel that Cam Newton will be able to rebound from his recent struggles?
Based on his performance before the Coronavirus diagnosis earlier this month, I do think that he certainly is capable of playing at a higher level in New England’s offense than he had shown the last two weeks. That said, I think the pressure may be less on him and more on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to put Newton in a position to be successful: while the Patriots’ running game has looked good at times this season, McDaniels’ insistence to keep running on early downs might be one of the main reasons for New England’s struggles.
The Patriots are dead last in the NFL in pass rate below expectation — the Bills are second by throwing more than they are expected to based on situation, down and distance etc. — and have struggled to generate plenty of momentum on the ground as of late. With defenses focusing on stopping the run, and McDaniels not mixing things up as much as he probably should, New England has had major problems sustaining drives recently. I think a more varied approach to play calling could also help get Newton back into a better rhythm again.
3) The question has to be asked, do the fans and the team miss Brady?
Short answer: yes.
Slightly longer answer: yes, because Brady is a New England legend and always will have a special place in the heart of the region after winning six Super Bowls and powering the greatest two-decade run pro football has ever seen. From a team perspective, I also believe that the Patriots are worse off with Newton than with Brady — although I do believe the former can find still find success even after his recent struggles. Brady, on the other hand, has shown that he is still a top-five quarterback, and playing his best football since 2017. The Patriots simply do not have that kind of quality under center, so there is obviously a drop-off there in terms of execution and consistency.
4) What area would you like the team to improve in the most?
If I had to point to one, I would say ball security. New England has always built its offense around taking care of the football and not shooting itself in the foot — two areas that are currently not working as well as they should with the team already having 14 giveaways on its résumé. Over the last two games since Cam Newton’s return alone, the Patriots have turned the football over seven times. Needless to say that that is not a winning recipe in the NFL, and one that not only hurts the offense but puts considerable pressure on the defense as well.
Taking care of the football will not solve all of New England’s offensive issues, but it is the first and easiest step to addressing them, in my humble opinion.
5) Can this team make a late run for another postseason birth?
Based on the last two weeks alone, I would say no. However, I do agree with Bills offensive lineman Mitch Morse, who said that the Patriots’ “2-4 record doesn’t show how talented this team is.” Talent alone, of course, does not win football games if the execution is spotty, but it can help. New England may not have as much of it as it had in year’s past, but the coaching staff is still led by Bill Belichick. If there is one coach I would trust with turning this ship around, it is him.
Add the fact that the playoff field has been increased under the new CBA, and it certainly seems possible that the Patriots sneak in even if they do not win the AFC East. Of course, the story in New England has been the same every day: it’s one game at a time.