Buffalo Bills vs. New Orleans Saints: Matchups, prediction for Thanksgiving nightcap

Week 12 features a Thanksgiving Day Buffalo Bills vs. New Orleans Saints matchup of playoff contenders aiming to right the ship.

The Buffalo Bills (6-4) and New Orleans Saints (5-5) are two playoff contenders heading in the wrong direction. One will wake up on Black Friday with a clear path to the postseason. The other will be in real danger of watching the playoffs on TV. The Bills have lost two out of three to surrender their lead in the AFC East. The Saints are on a three-game skid and clinging onto the seventh seed for dear life. How will Thanksgiving’s Buffalo Bills vs. New Orleans Saints matchup shake out?

Buffalo Bills offense vs. New Orleans Saints defense

Perhaps no group in the entire NFL has mystified more than Buffalo’s offense. They’re incredibly talented but frustratingly inconsistent. They’ve sandwiched two stinkers around a 45-point outburst against the New York Jets. The Bills are second in scoring (29.5 ppg) and sixth in yards per play (6.0), but they’re 12th in giveaways (12).

Buffalo has scored 227 points in six wins (37.8 per game) but 68 points in four losses (17 per game). Put it all together, and the Bills are sixth in expected points added per play (EPA) — but the sense is there’s meat left on the bone.

Luckily for Buffalo, they’re catching a Saints defense that’s slumping big time. New Orleans has allowed 117 points since Halloween, including 40 in a beatdown in Philadelphia last week. The Eagles ran for a ridiculous 242 yards on 50 carries, controlling the ball for more than 37 minutes.

Given the Saints’ injuries on offense, they have no chance of saving their season without a big-time turnaround. They have it in them. Even with their recent struggles, New Orleans still ranks sixth in defensive EPA/play (-0.06).

Josh Allen vs. Saints defense

Pretty much every metric will tell you that Josh Allen is better than he was in 2019 but worse than he was in 2020. While he hasn’t been at his best, Allen is still above his career averages in completion percentage (65.7), touchdown rate (5.5), interception rate (2.1), yards per attempt (7.4), passer rating (97.1), and QBR (58.7).

So it makes sense he’s still the NFL’s No. 7 quarterback in EPA + CPOE — which isn’t bad, but also a bit below what the Bills were probably expecting when they gave him $100 million fully guaranteed before the season.

The Saints actually did a decent job against the last dual-threat quarterback they faced. Jalen Hurts needed 24 pass attempts to manage 147 yards, and his 3.8 yards per carry average looks even less impressive when you consider 24 of his 68 yards came on one rush. On the year, New Orleans ranks 25th in yards per pass allowed (7.2) but 14th in third-down defense (39.4%) and seventh in interception rate (3.2%).

Advantage: Allen

Bills weapons vs. Saints defensive backs

On an offense loaded with stars, the Bills’ most efficient pass catchers are No. 4 receiver Gabriel Davis (11 yards per target) and tight end Dawson Knox (10.1). What’s more — Knox trails only Stefon Diggs among Bills players with 5 touchdown catches (and he’s managed to do that with 54 fewer targets).

Diggs is fifth in the AFC in receiving yards (773), while Emmanuel Sanders’ 16.1 yards per catch is third in the conference among qualifying players. Running back Devin Singletary is averaging 5 yards per carry.

Quarterbacks don’t fear Marshon Lattimore this year. He’s been targeted 6.8 times per game in 2021, his highest figure since at least 2018. Lattimore has given up 4 touchdowns, 9.9 yards per target, and a passer rating of 106.2, but he’s also broken up 10 passes.

He’s not the only Saints defender to give up big plays. Safety Marcus Williams has allowed an insane 22.1 yards per catch. Corner Paulson Adebo has been pretty solid on the year, aside from 4 touchdown passes allowed. C.J. Gardner-Johnson is out for at least another week with a foot injury he suffered in Week 9.

Advantage: Bills

Bills offensive line vs. Saints front seven

Advanced statisticians love the Bills’ offensive line. Football Outsiders ranks the group sixth in adjusted line yards (4.7) and fifth in adjusted sack rate (4.9%). The Bills’ starting five — Dion Dawkins, Ike Boettger, Mitch Morse, Cody Ford, and Daryl Williams, from left to right — had arguably their best run-blocking game of the year in Week 11, averaging 7 yards per carry. Starting left guard Jon Feliciano is not expected to play. Spencer Brown missed the Colts game due to COVID-19.

New Orleans’ three-headed pass rush is dangerous. Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport (who is out with a shoulder injury), and Tanoh Kpassagnon have combined for 13.5 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and 31 quarterback hits. And while last week’s run defense was abysmal, that was the exception, not the rule, of 2021 to date.

The Saints still rank first in yards per carry allowed (3.4) and third in overall rush defense (89.8). “It’s a patient attack,” Saints coach Sean Payton said after the Eagles game. “They stuck with it. Ultimately, we didn’t do a good enough job.”

Advantage: Push

New Orleans Saints offense vs. Buffalo Bills defense

One would assume that the Saints have been a significantly diminished team since Jameis Winston blew out his knee. And in terms of wins and losses, they have. They went 5-2 in games that Winston started this year, but the Saints have lost their last three since Trevor Siemian took over.

The weird part? The offense hasn’t had a noticeable drop-off since Winston’s injury. They’ve averaged 25.1 points and 180.9 passing yards in games Winston started (25 and 256 in Siemian starts). The Saints scored 29 in their loss to Philadelphia without Alvin Kamara, who will miss his third straight game with an MCL sprain.

The Bills’ vaunted defense simply got embarrassed by Jonathan Taylor and the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11. Taylor ran all over Buffalo for 185 yards and 4 touchdowns Sunday, proving that a great offensive line and a back playing like an MVP can beat even the stingiest defensive front.

There’s reason to believe Sunday was an anomaly, however. The Bills on the year are still first in yards per play (4.7), per game (283.7), per pass (5.4), point differential (+11.9), and yard differential (+108.0). Week 11 was just the second time all season the Bills have given up 24 or more points.

Trevor Siemian vs. Bills defense

Siemian is fresh off a 2-interception performance in Week 11, but he had taken care of the ball relatively well up until then. Still, his accuracy is far below NFL standards. His completion percentage (56.9) is the lowest among players who have thrown at least 7 passes. His completion percentage above expectation (-2.8) is the sixth-worst in football this year. But strangely, that’s still better than what Winston managed before his injury. The Saints simply are not an efficient passing team.

And that probably won’t change Sunday against Siemian’s stiffest challenge of the season. Along with ranking first in pass defense efficiency and passer rating against (62.2), the Bills are second in interception rate (4.4%), second in first downs allowed (17.5), fourth in third-down defense (33.1%), and fifth in red-zone D (50%).

Advantage: Bills

Saints weapons vs. Bills defensive backs

This is a hurt group. No Kamara is, of course, a big loss. He averages over 100 scrimmage yards per game and has scored 7 of the team’s 31 touchdowns. Backup running back Mark Ingram is a little banged up too with a knee issue of his own, but he seems OK.

Starting tight end Adam Trautman (25-241-1) went on IR this week with a knee injury. Plus, Michael Thomas won’t play a down in 2021 due to a lingering ankle injury. One bright spot on offense: Marquez Callaway, whose 14.9 yards per catch and 6 receiving touchdowns lead the team.

Bills cornerback Jordan Poyer is having a career year in Year 9. His 4 interceptions rank third in the conference, and his passer rating against is an impressive 41.1. He and fellow ball-hawking safety Micah Hyde are a big reason why the Bills rank second in turnover margin (+10).

But the best player in the secondary still is probably Tre’Davious White, who has allowed just 51.6% of attempts in his coverage area to be completed and has yet to give up a passing touchdown in 2021.

Advantage: Bills

Saints offensive line vs. Bills defensive front

The Saints had just two Week 1 O-line starters against the Eagles (center Erik McCoy and right guard Cesar Ruiz), but they still held up pretty well in pass protection. Siemian wasn’t sacked and the Eagles only hit him 4 times. That’s been a strength most of the season. The Saints have the NFL’s 11th-best sack rate (5.4%).

Run blocking has been more of an issue (21st, 4.1 yards per carry). The club might have back Terron Armstead (who missed Week 11 with knee and shoulder injuries), but Ryan Ramczyk is still at least another week off. Three-time Pro Bowler Andrus Peat is out for the season.

Not enough people appreciate how good Bills weakside linebacker Matt Milano is. He has 10 tackles for loss and has been great in coverage (59.4% completions, 4.2 yards per target, and a rating of 68.9). If there is a concern on the Bills’ defense, it’s their pass rush. Gregory Rousseau and Mario Addison are tied for the team lead in sacks with just 3.

Advantage: Push

Betting line and game prediction

The Saints are laying 6 points at home, and honestly, even that seems generous considering just how injured they are. We think losing the division lead to the Patriots was a wake-up call for Buffalo. Expect the best out of the Bills this week.

Bills vs. Saints Prediction: Bills 30, Saints 17

Adam Beasley is the National NFL Analyst and Insider for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.

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