The Buffalo Bills enter play against the New England Patriots this week coming off a 2-1 “home stand.” That part has to be in air quotes because the middle game in that three-game stretch of home contests was actually played in London. At 4-2 and sitting firmly in second place in the AFC East Division, the Bills are well ahead of their former nemesis, as the Patriots find themselves at 1-5, in last place in the division, and in the bottom-six teams in the league.
In no way is that meant to imply that this week’s contest is going to be a blowout in Buffalo’s favor. We only need to look back to last week’s win, a 14-9 slog against the 1-5 New York Giants, to see an example of a team with a superior record struggling with a team that appears to be inferior on paper. While the Patriots have won just once, they have lost three games by a touchdown or less. In a league where just one break can change the outcome, the Patriots aren’t too far away from being 4-2 on the season.
With that in mind, Buffalo is going to need some big performances from their big players in order to come out of Massachusetts with a win this week. Here are the five (or so) players we’ll be watching this week.
QB Josh Allen
Perhaps it’s something about playing those teams from New Jersey that affected Allen this year, but he had his two worst performances against the New York Jets and the New York Giants. Of course, it could also come down to the fact that one of those teams has an elite defense and the other has a head coach who once played Mr. Miyagi to Allen’s Daniel LaRusso. Whatever the case may be, Allen needs to be better this week than he was last week, when he completed 19-of-30 passes for just 169 yards, adding two touchdowns and an interception. He’ll need to do so against a defense currently ranked No. 12 in passing yards allowed. Establishing an early rhythm, something Buffalo couldn’t do last weekend against the Giants, is going to be essential this week. I want to see some quick throws where offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey gives Allen some layups on the first drive or two. That will soften the defense for some of the big plays and deep-overs that Allen and the Bills love to execute. Allen is dealing with some shoulder soreness, as well, so that’s something else to monitor this week.
A Pass-Catcher Not Named Stefon Diggs
Look, I understand: From Allen’s perspective, of course he’s going to look at his elite WR1 more often than not. From Dorsey’s perspective, of course he’s going to design most of his pass plays with his elite WR1 as the first read. However, at some point, someone else has to step up and prove that he can be the guy who consistently slots in as a second-look, or a security blanket, for Allen. Perhaps this week it’s Gabe Davis, or maybe it’s Deonte Harty’s time to shine. Maybe Khalil Shakir continues to increase his share of snaps, or maybe Allen looks more to tight end Dawson Knox. However, my guess is that this is the week where rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid becomes a bigger focal point on offense. He’s cleared concussion protocol after missing last week vs. the Giants due to the head injury, and the Bills haven’t quite used him as dangerously as they can so far. Also, Allen hasn’t exactly targeted him when he’s come open as a second or third read. Currently, Diggs has more targets (66) than Allen’s next two top targets combined (55 between Gabe Davis and Dawson Knox). Kincaid has seen just 19 targets so far in his young career. Throw it to him seven or eight times this week and I think good things will happen.
DT Jordan Phillips
Last week, it was Phillips who started alongside Ed Oliver in place of the injured DaQuan Jones. Phillips ended up logging 37 defensive snaps, which was just one less than Tim Settle and Poona Ford had combined. Will that remain the case this week? Although Phillips has the size of a one-tech, he’s really more of a three-tech penetrator, so the team is asking him to play out of position a bit in place of Jones. However, Phillips is likely the better player overall when compared to Settle and Ford, so it makes sense for the Bills to want their best guys out there. Oliver had his quietest outing of the season last week against the Giants, which came as a bit of a surprise given how porous their offensive line has been so far. Phillips has just one tackle for loss, one sack, and two quarterback hits on the season so far, but this week would be a nice time for him to put some pressure right up the middle on quarterback Mac Jones.
EDGE Von Miller
The veteran edge rusher has been quiet in his first two games back from ACL surgery this season, and while I’m not really concerned, it would definitely be nice to see a flash of the old Von sooner rather than later. Last week against the Giants, Miller increased his snap count, which was a step forward. He also showed some pretty good bend around the edge in terms of his upper-body movements. He does still look a little hesitant in his cuts, which is understandable given the nature of his injury and the point where he is in the recovery process. Coming back into live regular-season action isn’t easy at any position, let alone one where you’re constantly cutting sharply wile engaged with 300-plus-pound men. If Miller played 23% of the snaps in London and 35% of the snaps last week. I imagine he’ll top out around 40% this week. All I’m looking for here is some progress — and maybe a quarterback hit, too.
CB Taron Johnson
I don’t believe that the Patriots’ slot wideouts are particularly dangerous, nor do I think that Johnson is going to struggle in run support when the Patriots run out 12 personnel. This is more a chance to show some love for a guy who does the dirty work day in and day out, whether it involves hitting the box as a run defender, sticking with someone like wide receiver Tyreek Hill in deep coverage, or wrestling with 6’6” tight ends like Darren Waller to save a victory. Johnson is second on the team in tackles with 31, first on the team in forced fumbles with two, and tied for third on the team in pass breakups with two. Regardless of the situation, Johnson is ready for action. I think he makes his first interception of the year this week.