Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots: Matchups, prediction for de facto AFC East title game

Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills face Mac Jones and the New England Patriots in Foxboro with the AFC East essentially on the line.

Drama! Three weeks after playing the weirdest game of the season, the New England Patriots (9-5) and Buffalo Bills (8-6) will run it back — and the stakes could hardly be higher. While neither team can clinch the AFC East with a win, both would come very close to doing so. And a loss for either would open the door to missing the playoffs altogether. So plenty on the line in this 124th meeting of longtime rivals.

Buffalo Bills offense vs. New England Patriots defense

Everything we write about 2021’s first game between these teams must be viewed through this lens: It was a Black Swan event. The 50 mph wind gusts fundamentally changed the game and gave the Patriots a massive structural advantage. New England is better at running the ball than Buffalo is, and the Bills’ offense was totally lost without Josh Allen’s arm. The forecast in Foxboro Sunday calls for snow in the morning, but clear skies and moderate winds by kickoff. It’ll be cold (high 30s), but nothing out of the ordinary for this time of year.

The Bills have averaged 29.7 points in their last three games not played in a windstorm, including 31 in a three-score drubbing of the Panthers Sunday. While the Bills’ record isn’t great, they only have one bad loss (Jaguars in Week 9). Even with their inconsistency, they’re still fifth in scoring (28.1) and ninth in yards per play (5.8). The Patriots, meanwhile, are coming off their worst game in nearly two months, giving up 20 points on defense (another 7 came on special teams) and 226 rushing yards to the Colts.

Josh Allen vs. Patriots defense

Allen was understandably affected by the elements when these teams met in Orchard Park, completing half of his 30 attempts for an average of 4.8 yards per attempt. In his two games since, he’s been better — 55-of-88 passing, 518 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions — but not great.

Playing through a sprained foot certainly didn’t help. But all year has been a step back for Allen, who has already thrown as many interceptions (12) as he did his entire rookie year. But even his B game is still pretty good. Allen is still 12th in EPA (Expected Points Added) per play (0.04) in his last three games.

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The Patriots, meanwhile, have been absolutely fantastic all year against the pass. In the last five weeks, they’ve held Allen, Baker Mayfield, Matt Ryan, Ryan Tannehill, and Carson Wentz — five pretty solid quarterbacks — to a combined 54.5% completion percentage, 4.7 yards per attempt, and a passer rating of 60.2.

Advantage: Patriots

Bills weapons vs. Patriots defensive backs

Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis are both on the COVID-19 list and will not play. Stefon Diggs has been Allen’s favorite target all year, and a little bit of wind three weeks ago didn’t change that. Diggs was targeted a game-high 7 times in the first meeting, finishing with nearly three times as many receiving yards (51) than the entire Patriots roster.

Diggs and Dawson Knox both have 8 touchdown catches, tied for most on the team. However, Davis’ absence will hurt. He leads the team in yards per catch (16.2) and yards per target (10.2) but is just fifth in targets (46).

That diminished group will be going against arguably the best secondary in the NFL. J.C. Jackson leads the AFC in interceptions (7) and the league in passes defensed (20), but it’s no one-man band.

Adrian Phillips is probably having the best year of his eight-year NFL career, picking off 4 passes and holding opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 56.5 and completion percentage of 56.8%. There’s a reason the Pats are second in yards per pass allowed (5.9) and opponent passer rating (70.3) and fifth in third-down defense (34.9%).

Advantage: Patriots

Bills offensive line vs. Patriots defensive front

This wasn’t some lopsided matchup the first time these teams played, but the Patriots definitely had the edge. The Bills averaged 4.0 yards per carry and gave up 2 sacks and 5 QB hits in 57 snaps. Pats defensive tackle Davon Godchaux played out of his mind, leading all players with 10 tackles for loss. He’s been one of many important free-agent pickups for New England this offseason, tallying 53 tackles (2 for loss), 5 QB hits, and a sack.

The Patriots’ best free-agent pickup, of course, was Matt Judon, who leads the AFC East with 12.5 sacks and leads the team in both QB hits (25) and tackles for loss (15). Without him, it’s hard to see how the Pats would rank ninth in sack rate (7.5%).

One thing the Patriots do not do well, however, is stop the run. They’re 26th in yards per carry allowed (4.6). The Bills couldn’t exploit that matchup in the first meeting but should try again. They’re fourth in yards per rush (4.8) but 18th in run-block win rate. Buffalo is a very good pass protection team, but they rank fifth in sack rate (4.9%) and ninth in pass-block win rate (63%).

Advantage: Bills

New England Patriots offense vs. Buffalo Bills defense

The Week 13 matchup was a throwback game in the purest sense. The Patriots won by throwing the fewest passes by any NFL team in the last 47 years. New England’s 94% run rate was the franchise’s highest this millennium, per Next Gen Stats. Fair to say, we can expect the Pats to open it up a bit more Sunday.

But not too much — as last week’s 27-17 loss to the Colts showed. The Patriots’ 19-45 run-pass ratio is not where they want to live. New England has been held under 20 points in back-to-back weeks — after averaging 33.1 points per game in its previous eight.

The Bills’ defense, meanwhile, is trending in the right direction. Yes, they gave up 33 in an overtime loss to the Buccaneers, but Tampa has scored on everyone this year not named the New Orleans Saints.

In Buffalo’s other three games since Thanksgiving, Leslie Frazier’s group has allowed an average of 11.3 points per game. The Bills lead the league in yards per play (4.7), yards per game (287.9), rank second in scoring (17.4), third in third downs (34.4%), and sixth in the red zone (50%). How is this team 8-6?

Mac Jones vs. Bills defense

Is the Mac Jones regression to the mean upon us? After ranking sixth in Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE) at 7.6 and 12th in EPA per play (0.13) in the season’s first 12 weeks, he’s 23rd (-4.5) and 18th (-0.02) in the last three.

Sample size might have something to do with it. He’s played only two games in the last three weeks — and threw 3 passes in one of them. Jones is still the overwhelming favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. But Jones has shown that he best serves the Patriots in a supporting role, not a leading one.

The Bills’ secondary has never had an easier day than it did in Week 13. But Week 15 wasn’t exactly taxing, either. Buffalo throttled Cam Newton and the Panthers’ passing attack last Sunday, breaking up a ridiculous 8 passes and limiting Newton to 18 completions on 38 attempts and a garish 4.1 yards per pass.

The Bills lead the NFL in yards per attempt (5.4), passing yards per game (175.6), and opponents’ passer rating (66.7). Again, how has this team lost six games?

Advantage: Bills

Patriots weapons vs. Bills defensive backs

For an excellent Bills secondary, life after Tre’Davious White has looked like life with Tre’Davious White. In the three games since he went on injured reserve on Nov. 26, the Bills have allowed 521 passing yards and 3 touchdowns. That’s a testament to Dane Jackson, a seventh-round pick who has flourished in his second NFL season.

The Bills haven’t had a big defensive dropoff — the Buccaneers game notwithstanding — because Jackson has played really well in 2021. Opposing quarterbacks have completed just 48.1% of their passes against Jackson and the next touchdown he surrenders will be the first of the season.

He and Buffalo’s talented secondary will face off against a Patriots receiver group in crisis. Kendrick Bourne landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday, and Nelson Agholor and N’Keal Harry both got hurt against the Colts in Week 15. Agholor is out, and Harry is questionable to play.

Advantage: Bills

Patriots offensive line vs. Bills front seven

What the Patriots’ offensive line did against the Bills in the team’s previous meeting should go on the career highlight reels of Isaiah Wynn, Ted Karras, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Trent Brown. Everyone on the planet knew after the Pats’ second drive that they were going to do nothing but run the ball. The Pats rammed it down Buffalo’s throats nonetheless.

The sledding was a bit tougher in Week 15, but New England still managed 4.3 yards per carry against the Colts.

That shouldn’t be a major surprise. New England on the year is 18th in yards per carry (4.23) and 24th in run-block win rate (69%). Yes, the Patriots can run the ball, but it’s not like they’re super-efficient at doing so. Which is what made what they did against the Bills (13th in yards per carry allowed, 4.2) all the more impressive.

Advantage: Push

Betting line and game prediction

  • Spread: Patriots -2 (Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
  • Moneyline: Patriots -130, Bills +110
  • Total: 43.5

Bills vs. Patriots Prediction: Bills 21, Patriots 17

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