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Five more questions with Pats Pulpit for Bills vs. Patriots, Week 17

Different forms of revenge and motivation are in play for Bills vs. Patriots on New Year’s Eve

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

In what may be the team’s final home game of the 2023 NFL season, the Buffalo Bills welcome the New England Patriots to Highmark Stadium for an early afternoon AFC showdown on New Year’s Eve.

The second meeting of the season between these clubs will feature plenty of motivation and more than a few individuals with revenge on the brain. Back in Week 7, the Bills fell prey to a pesky Patriots squad led by quarterback Mac Jones — who happened to have one of his best days as QB1 for New England. The Patriots were the beneficiaries of quarterback Josh Allen’s first-play-from-scrimmage interception, which helped put Buffalo into a 10-point hole early on. But as has been the case often this season, Allen and the offense surged late to take a small lead with little time remaining in regulation. Unfortunately, the Bills weren’t able to finish the job on defense, allowing Jones to march down the field on the wrong side of the two-minute warning and leaving Buffalo with scant seconds to pull off now-once-again unlikely victory. After that win, the Patriots lost their next five games.

Fast-forward 10 weeks and things look much different for both teams. Bailey Zappe is now New England’s QB1, a fairly clear sign that Mac Jones is not the team’s future at quarterback. The Patriots are 4-11 while the Bills are 9-6. New England appears to have succumbed to the weight of their season, while Buffalo seems intent on using their own as fuel towards bigger goals.

This weekend’s matchup means different things for each club. For the Patriots, it’s an opportunity to play spoiler to Buffalo’s playoff odds, while for the Bills it’s exacting revenge against their AFC East foes while using the win to better-position them for what many hope will become an AFC East title game in Week 18.

This week, I once again had the pleasure of speaking with writer Taylor Keyes of Pats Pulpit. Contained below, Taylor tackled everything from head coach Bill Belichick’s future with the Patriots, to his thoughts and insight on Bailey Zappe, observations about the team’s biggest needs moving forward, as well key building blocks among the current roster. Taylor also spoke to the idea of New England playing spoilers in Week 17, including that which concerns wagers and the idea of coming out victorious.

1. As an outsider, it’s surprising to learn about the rumors regarding Bill Belichick’s tenure coming to an end. In your opinion, how much truth is there to all the noise — and is it really possible that Robert Kraft’s ready to move on after only a few down seasons following two decades of incredible success?

There’s absolutely some truth to the rumors. Belichick’s offenses have been a laughing stock since Brady’s retirement due to poor talent acquisition and development. New England has also had one of the league’s worst special teams units over the past two seasons despite rostering more players who don’t contribute on offense or defense than most teams. NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran, who’s as plugged in as anyone around here, reported that Robert Kraft decided to move on after the team’s loss in Germany, which Kraft really wanted to win. Curran clarified that the decision wasn’t set in stone when Ian Rapoport pushed back on the report, but Belichick is clearly not on solid ground. Former NFL Network insider Mike Giardi also reported that the future Hall of Fame coach has told certain staff members he’s uncertain if he’ll return.

All that said, the team has won two of its last three games, and players have been vocal about wanting to play hard for Belichick. Jabrill Peppers said after their upset win in Pittsburgh that he didn’t like the flak his coach has been getting, noting how well he prepares them each week, even if the results don’t show it. I still think Bill can coach the hell out of a football team, and he’s still one of the greatest defensive minds in the game. His ability to retain buy-in and keep effort high in a lost season is also invaluable. If he’s willing to take a back seat in the personnel department, I think most fans would be glad to see him return.

2. In Week 7 it was Mac Jones. This weekend, it appears Bailey Zappe will lead the charge for the Patriots. Having watched a piece on him leading up to the draft that year, I took a shine to him as a prospect and person. What can you tell me about Zappe as a player, how he fares compared to Jones, and what the Bills are likely to expect from him on the field?

Zappe briefly filled in for Jones when the former starter suffered a high ankle sprain last season and performed admirably. But he looked more like a quality backup than a potential starter, taking what was there in a watered-down system against some truly awful defenses.

Zappe struggled mightily over the summer in Bill O’Brien’s system, which asks much more of its quarterbacks both pre- and post-snap. He was so bad that the team risked exposing him to waivers during roster cuts to make room at other positions, but they brought him back shortly after. Zappe’s number was called late in a few awful Mac Jones performances, but he wasn’t much of a step up. Even when Zappe was handed the keys after halftime against the Giants, poor decisions led to ultra-conservative playcalling. This pattern continued in a 6-0 shutout against the Chargers, but he flashed in the 1st half against the Steelers and Chiefs before crumbling under turnover-worthy plays and bad decisions in the 2nd half of those games.

Zappe was strip-sacked on the first play against the Broncos last week after a late read that was exacerbated by poor ball security but bounced back strong with a career-best performance. He completed all five of his deep passes and showed impressive command at the line of scrimmage. His pocket mobility and pressure evasion also flashed. I didn’t think Zappe had a real shot at being an NFL starter before that game, but if he builds on last week’s performance against a tough Bills defense, it could make things interesting for New England this offseason.

3. The Patriots’ strength is their defense, while the offense leaves much to be desired in terms of efficiency and scoring. What do you observe to be among the biggest needs on both sides of the ball?

Even if Zappe keeps playing well, I think New England needs to draft a quarterback with a superpower like Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, or Jayden Daniels. True pocket passers don’t get a lot of love in this era if they aren’t Joe Burrow, but even Tua Tagovailoa can shred a defense with his accuracy and anticipation. The receiving corps also needs more explosive talent, though Demario Douglas has been a bright spot. New England’s offensive line has been battered by injury, and both of their tackles are set to be free agents. I’d like them to bring in strong veteran depth inside, re-sign tackle/guard Mike Onwenu, and address left tackle through free agency or the draft.

Defensively, the team could use a true free safety so Jabrill Peppers can spend more time near the line of scrimmage where his playmaking can truly shine. Cornerback and edge could also use depth, but the emergence of linebacker Mack Wilson as a situational pass rusher and the recent acquisition of Marco Wilson might shore up each spot.

4. Which players do you see as building blocks for the Patriots moving forward?

Cornerback Christian Gonzalez earned Defensive Rookie of the Month for September for his efforts against some of the league’s best players. He was lost to a shoulder injury in Week 4 but is an obvious blue-chipper for New England down the road.

Defensive tackle Christian Barmore has emerged as an All-Pro/Pro Bowl-caliber talent in his first healthy season. He’s been their best player on either side of the ball and should be a priority extension candidate entering his fourth season.

Running back Rhamondre Stevenson is out for the year with an ankle injury and had a slow start to the season, but he was playing like one of the league’s best backs mid-season and should continue to be an offensive focal point.

Wide receiver Demario Douglas’ route-running has been inconsistent, and he’s suffered two concussions just this season, but he’s the team’s most explosive skill player and has more catches than any rookie in the Bill Belichick era. His future is looking bright, especially with his mentality and work ethic.

5. This weekend’s matchup finds the Patriots as 14-point underdogs with DraftKings Sportsbook. The Bills and their fans know better than to take this game lightly, despite what records, stats, and that spread might otherwise imply. Given the way the Patriots controlled the game in Week 7, do you expect them to play the role of spoilers on Sunday, either in terms of the spread, or executing the season sweep of the Bills?

While I’m hoping New England retains a top draft pick, I do think they have the potential to upset Buffalo. Belichick’s blitz schemes have the Bills’ front fits in Week 7, and they’ve done a solid job containing mobile quarterbacks and not giving up big plays in recent weeks. Zappe’s improved play also offers a shred of hope.

That said, the offensive line could be missing both starters on the left side, Ezekiel Elliott has had nowhere to run due to poor blocking, and injuries in the secondary could be exposed by a quarterback familiar with New England’s scheme. So, while I do think an upset is possible, I also think it’s highly unlikely if the Bills bring their A-game at home.

My thanks, as always, to Taylor Keyes for once again taking the time to chat Bills-Patriots ahead of Sunday’s New Year’s Eve showdown. To read my responses, head over to Pats Pulpit for the companion article linked here (when available) (and on the Buffalo Rumblings home page).

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