The Buffalo Bills travel to Massachusetts to take on the New England Patriots in a showdown for first place in the AFC East. When the teams met in Orchard Park just 17 days ago, extreme winds prevented the teams from executing anything close to a modern game plan. As we all know, the Patriots won 14-10 in that one.
With a win on Sunday, Buffalo would take possession of first place in the division based on their superior record within the division. A win would put Buffalo at 4-1 in AFC East games, while New England would drop to 3-2. A loss, though, would all but hand the divisional crown back to Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
Which players are going to have to step up this week? Here’s our list.
QB Josh Allen
Even in those blustery conditions, Allen was able to put together a decent day against New England. He completed 15-of-30 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. Those may seem like pedestrian numbers, but with wind gusts in excess of 40 miles per hour for much of the evening, it was no small feat. Allen has played well in his last three matchups against the Patriots, two of which featured some pretty poor weather. In his last trip to Foxboro Stadium, Allen was 27-of-36 for 320 yards and four touchdowns. If the line protects him, he’ll have the chance to put up strong numbers again. With a front seven as talented as New England’s, however, that protection isn’t a guarantee. Allen will need to be decisive in his reads and accurate in his throws. As Josh goes, the Bills go. He’ll be up to the task.
WR Isaiah McKenzie
“Lil’ Dirty” is in line for an awful lot of snaps this week, as starting slot receiver Cole Beasley will miss the game thanks to a positive COVID-19 test. While Beasley is clearly the superior receiver, McKenzie offers his own unique skill set, as he is much quicker than Beasley is in space. McKenzie also give the Bills a boost in the running game, as offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can use McKenzie to press the edges of the defense. While much of the talk has been about Buffalo’s run defense coming into this one, the Patriots were just gashed by the Indianapolis Colts to the tune of 226 yards on 39 carries. For reference, when Buffalo played the Colts, they allowed 264 yards on 46 attempts. No team is perfect, and the Patriots aren’t going to stop everything on the ground just because of the logo on their helmet. Over the last few weeks, Buffalo has seemed to remember that their rushing attack is much more effective when it goes off-tackle as opposed to right up the middle, a lesson that Daboll will hopefully put to good use this weekend. Expect McKenzie to play a big role in the game—as a runner, a receiver, and a decoy.
The Offensive Line
Yep—I’m copping out and going with all five up front. The Bills absolutely can’t afford the kinds of issues with protection that happened last week. They can’t have a lineman (Spencer Brown) commit five penalties. They can’t allow Allen to be hit on double-digit drop backs. They need to man up and protect their guy. Daboll needs to design plays, especially early on, that give Allen a chance, too. Establishing a rhythm will keep the defensive front off balance. The five guys up front, whether it includes two starters returning from the COVID-19 list in Pro Bowl left tackle Dion Dawkins and guard Jon Feliciano or not, needs to be better.
DT Ed Oliver
I can’t do it twice, so this time I’ll single out one guy. Star Lotulelei has been solid all year when healthy. Harrison Phillips is having his best year as a pro. Oliver has flashed, especially in pass-rush situations, but his quick penetration has left him susceptible to traps all throughout. Jonathan Vilma said on ESPN this week that head coach Sean McDermott told him that, at some point, a player on defense “just has to get wet.” What McDermott meant was that, eventually, someone just has to dive in and make a play. If Oliver can sniff out the run and stay wary of the trap, he has the ability to blow up New England’s interior run game. That would lead to some 3rd & LONG scenarios, which is exactly what Buffalo wants. The Pats are going to try to use Oliver’s aggressiveness against him. He needs to make plays on Sunday.
S Jordan Poyer
I really just wanted to write about him because he’s one of the best safeties in football, yet he isn’t a Pro Bowl player. Granted, the Pro Bowl is to the NFL what high school year book superlatives are to insecure teenagers everywhere, but as long as these things are tied into the incentives that players make in contracts, it does matter. When a guy can notch 83 tackles, nine pass breakups, five interceptions, and a sack from the safety position, he’s exceptionally good. You bet the Patriots are going to game plan so that they know where he is at all times. Expect Poyer to make a big play that turns this game somewhere in the third quarter. I think it’ll be a strip-sack on Mac Jones, but it could just as easily be an interception.