The Buffalo Bills lost to the New England Patriots in the first meeting between these two teams. Buffalo played an abysmal game throughout, and they trailed 22-10 with under eight minutes to go in the game. Thanks to a 25-yard touchdown pass and a recovered fumble, the Bills were able to take a 25-22 lead with 1:58 to go. However, the defense was unable to keep then-starting quarterback Mac Jones from leading a game-winning drive.
If the Bills, who at 9-6 are squarely in not only the playoff hunt, but the divisional title conversation, as well, want to find their way into meaningful postseason games, they cannot afford a misstep against the Patriots. Buffalo nearly lost to the Los Angeles Chargers last week, pulling out a 24-22 victory in the fourth quarter. They can’t afford a loss here, as doing so would hand the Miami Dolphins the AFC East crown, and could also lead to a scenario where the team faces a must-win game against those same Dolphins in Week 18.
Here are the five Bills we’re watching this weekend in a must-win contest against the Patriots.
QB Josh Allen
In October, Allen threw a boneheaded interception on his first pass attempt. That turnover led to a touchdown and a 10-0 hole for the Bills before the end of the first quarter. On Sunday, Allen needs to continue his streak of intelligent play, mixing his risk-taking nature with the trust of his progressions and check-downs. With more designed runs coming his way since interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady took over, I assume that we’ll see a mobile Allen making problems for a Patriots defense that he’s had plenty of success against throughout his career. Allen has 18 touchdowns against eight interceptions in 10 regular-season games against New England, and that isn’t including his 21-of-25, 308-yard, five-touchdown demolition in the 2021 Wild Card game. Allen doesn’t necessarily have to go that nuclear in order for the Bills to win, but it would certainly help if he could put together one of those superstar-Josh performances this week.
RB James Cook
Arguably, the most important player on Buffalo’s offense other than No. 17 of late has been the second-year running back. Cook had a solid game in the first meeting (13 carries, 56 yards, three catches, 46 yards, one receiving touchdown), but that kind of game has become commonplace of late. Cook has 532 total yards and three touchdowns on 84 touches in the four games since Joe Brady became the offensive play caller. If Cook can find some space, especially on second down, then Buffalo’s offense can avoid 3rd & Long situations where future Hall of Fame coach and defensive guru Bill Belichick thrives. I expect another 20-touch effort from Buffalo’s budding-star running back for Week 17.
TE Dalton Kincaid
In the first meeting, the rookie caught all eight of his targets for 75 yards. That kicked off a seven-game stretch where Kincaid averaged six grabs for 54 yards per week. He scored twice in that span, as well. In the two games since, Kincaid hasn’t started either, as he’s nursed a shoulder injury that has obviously limited him, and he’s caught just one pass for seven yards in the last two weeks. The tight end clearly is a place where Buffalo can go to beat the Patriots, as Dawson Knox caught five balls for 83 yards and two scores in the aforementioned Wild Card blowout, and Kincaid was a go-to receiver in the first matchup this year. If the rookie tight end can hit some of the production that he had in the first matchup, it will only add depth to what has been a solid Bills offensive attack of late.
LB Terrel Bernard
How’s his ankle? Will he play? If he doesn’t, this spot will switch to Dorian Williams, but Bernard has been outstanding all season long. If he plays, the Patriots will almost certainly try to see just how healthy he is by isolating either one of their tight ends or their running backs in coverage against the speedy second-year linebacker. While his play has been impressive, it’s his understanding of the defense and his ability to communicate changes that’s been extra impressive this season. Longtime backup linebacker Tyrel Dodson has helped to absorb the loss of All-Pro Matt Milano, but if the Bills were to lose Bernard too, things could trend negative. Bernard’s status and his ability to play as he has all season will be a driving factor in the success of this defense.
CB Christian Benford
This guy has been playing his you-know-what off, and he very nearly had an interception in a second-straight game last week. Sure, the holding penalty that he was called for, which negated the interception, helped him to secure the position needed to make the pick — but it was a risk worth taking. Benford has been great all year, and in a game where quarterback Bailey Zappe will need to take some risks outside, Benford and his steady production will be a key part of why Buffalo wins should they be able to come out on top. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne had six catches for 63 yards and a score in the first matchup, but that was before the Bills had cornerback Rasul Douglas. Now that Benford has a better running mate across from him, he’s back to playing really, really well. He leads the team in pass breakups this year with nine, and I expect that he’ll make it to double-figures by the time this one is over.
BONUS PLAYER: DT DaQuan Jones
This might be the first time since Week 5 that we see big No. 92 on the field. If he plays, I’ll be interested to see how it opens things up for defensive tackle Ed Oliver.