The New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills square off this week as two franchises headed in totally different directions. The 4-11 Patriots are looking at a potential regime change for the first time since the 1999 season, whereas the Bills are looking at qualifying for the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
None of that mattered in the first meeting between these two teams this year, however. The Patriots won 29-25 on a fourth-quarter, game-winning drive from quarterback Mac Jones. The Alabama product has since been benched, but that doesn’t make New England any less dangerous than they were to the Bills all the way back in October.
If Buffalo is going to exit their final regular-season home game of the 2023 NFL season with a win, bringing them to 10-6 and potentially clinching a playoff berth, they’ll need to be better than they were in the first meeting against New England. In order to do that, they’ll need to tamp down the Patriots’ key players.
Here are five Patriots to watch this weekend.
QB Bailey Zappe
Zappe is coming off his best game of the season last week, a 26-23 victory over the Denver Broncos that saw him complete 76% of his passes for 256 yards and two scores. When he has time and he can hit his first read, Zappe is definitely someone who can cause defenses trouble. However, if Buffalo can continue to pressure the quarterback and disguise their coverages, keeping Zappe in situations where he’s behind the sticks or trying to adjust to something that happens after the snap, then the Bills are at the advantage. Buffalo’s defense with head coach Sean McDermott is typically a nightmare for quarterbacks like Zappe, who has only six starts and 248 total attempts under his belt. However, they let Easton Stick of the Los Angeles Chargers look pretty comfortable last week, as he threw for 215 yards while completing 23-of-33 passes. Buffalo can’t allow Zappe to have a similar performance.
RB Ezekiel Elliott
Zeke didn’t have a ton of yardage in the first meeting, rushing for just 31 yards on 11 carries. However, he did score a touchdown, and he’s had some pretty big games with Rhamondre Stevenson out of late. Stevenson is on Injured Reserve now, so his season is over, but Elliott still has the potential to do damage if a defense doesn’t respect him. The Bills have been very good against the run since signing veteran defensive tackle Lival Joseph, and it’s quite possible that DaQuan Jones, who has been out since Week 5 with a torn pectoral muscle, will be active this weekend. Buffalo’s defensive line has been excellent this season, and if they can be excellent again this week, they’ll force the Patriots into a game script that they don’t want, which is one where Zappe has to beat the Bills with his arm. Stopping the run is paramount to success this weekend.
WR DeVante Parker
Whether the big wideout is Kendrick Bourne, who will miss this matchup thanks to an ACL tear, or Devante Parker, who caught just one ball in the first meeting between these teams, I still shudder every time a bigger receiver plays for the other team. Bourne had six grabs for 63 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting, and while Parker had just one catch for eight yards, he has given the Bills trouble in the past. With cornerback Rasul Douglas on the outside, he is a corner who finally has the size to match up with some bigger, stronger receivers, but it’s no secret that size at wideout has given Sean McDermott’s defense problems over the years. Making sure that Parker isn’t allowed to run wild will be helpful, and limiting wide receiver Demario Douglas will be helpful, too. However, I’d take my chances with the smaller, shiftier player trying to find space in Buffalo’s zone defense before I shrugged my shoulders about a bigger player who can win even when he’s covered. Take care of Parker and the tight ends this week, and the pass defense should look great.
DL Christian Barmore
The big fella just had a huge game last week, notching three sacks and a forced fumble to help the Pats defeat Denver. He has 18 tackles, 4.5 sacks, four tackles for loss, and seven quarterback hits in New England’s last three games. The last thing Buffalo needs is a 315-pound behemoth blowing up the line of scrimmage and hitting quarterback Josh Allen. Buffalo will need to slide their protections his way, committing double teams on the interior to prevent Barmore from blowing up their offensive game plan. Some draws, traps, and quick throws might frustrate the big lineman, who is really coming into his own this season. It’s all the more impressive given that he doesn’t have star pass rusher Matt Judon to keep attention off of him, too.
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
We talked about him before the last matchup, but Bentley is going to be a big part of the mirror/spy plan on Josh Allen this weekend. Many teams have begun playing a “double-mirror” look against great scrambling quarterbacks, rushing just three players in contain while deploying two players who fire off only when the quarterback breaks the pocket. Bentley is a great athlete who can rush the passer, take Allen down when he runs, and also clog passing lanes. He had nine tackles and a pass breakup in the first meeting, and if the Bills want to be successful on offense, they’re going to need to know where he is at all times. Buffalo’s improved running game could cause issues in the game plan if head coach Bill Belichick goes for the double-mirror look, as the Bills could be one step ahead in their run-block schemes. Look for some more read-option looks and play-action passes this week to try and negate New England’s talented linebackers.