Despite limping into their bye on a 3-5 stretch, the Buffalo Bills, despite all they've gone through this year, still maintain a chance at winning the AFC East, once again. Taking three in a row now against Kansas City, Dallas, and Los Angeles, they now meet again with the team that kicked off that 3-5 stretch, the Patriots. Much to my, and I'd imagine many others' surprise, they went into Denver last week and secured a win despite an opening play strip sack and successfully blowing a 16-point fourth-quarter lead.
IDL Christian Barmore had one of the best individual performances by a Patriots in the last 10 years (that's not an exaggeration), and some timely special teams plays from Marte Mapu on a kickoff fumble and Chad Ryland on the game-winning kick, ultimately sealed the deal for this seemingly down and out team, but don't tell the guys in the locker room that. For all their faults, they've objectively played hard in just about every game to this point, and if you're the Buffalo Bills needing a win to stay on par with Miami, that's some bad news.
Date: Sunday, December 31
Start Time: 1:00 EST
Location: Orchard Park, New York
Stadium: Highmark Stadium
TV Info: CBS (Kevin Harlan and Trent Green on the call)
Patriots Uniform Info: White Tops, Blue Pants
Players Already Ruled Out Before Sunday
Buffalo Bills: N/A
New England Patriots: Juju Smith-Schuster (WR), Jabrill Peppers (SAF), Kayshon Boutte (WR)
Despite season-ending injuries to Matt Milano and Tre White, plus the fact they've allowed over 325 total yards in six straight, this Bills defense is currently on track to finish in the top 10 in the bulk of relevant categories. Why that's the case is simple. Firstly, the Bills have been getting after it in the sacks and pressures department all year, their depth guys have done a good enough job of holding things together (for now), and their newer pieces, namely Leonard Floyd and Rasul Douglas, have been excellent. Likely to set a new personal best in sacks (currently at 10.5 on the year), Floyd has set himself up beautifully for a big payday come March after signing in Buffalo for just $7,000,000.
Meanwhile, one Bills' defender who has come up for all the wrong reasons is Von Miller. A month ago on the dot, a warrant for his arrest went out for Domestic Violence in his home state of Texas, in which he turned himself in shortly after. Meanwhile, Bills GM Brandon Beane went on the record about a week later, stating that the team did not expect Miller to be placed on the commissioner's exempt list, effectively following Park Ave's lead on any potential discipline. Miller also spoke publically for the first time two days ago and called the allegations "completely wrong, and 100% blown out of proportion." All in all, not exactly a great look for the the Bills, Miller, or Park Ave, but of course, this is all alleged for the time being. Miller, meanwhile, has been a shell of himself coming off of a torn ACL last season, having no sacks and just five pressures to his name in 11 games.
The key cog to this Bills defensive unit is a guy we touched on before the opening Bills matchup, linebacker Terrell Bernard. Currently, there's only one player in the league who has at least 120 tackles, three sacks, five PBUs, and three interceptions, and Bernard is that gentleman. Especially after Matt Milano went down, for Bernard to have the year he's had in what's really his first full season is nothing short of remarkable. Might not make First Team All-Pro because of guys like Fred Warner and Roquan Smith, but it won't be for the lack of effort. No matter what, No. 43 in blue will be the key guy to watch when the Bills defense is on the field. Ed Oliver and Greg Rosseau are another pair of guys who've been having good years for Buffalo and are also worth watching.
With the Bills letting go of Ken Dorsey and giving the controls of the offense to Joe Brady, the mastermind behind the now legendary 2019 LSU passing attack, the Bills seemingly have some new life on that side of the ball. So what changed? As crazy as it may sound, relying much less on Stefon Diggs, committing a bit more to being a running team, and letting James Cook do exactly what his name entails.
Before the OC switch, Cook hit the 20 touches mark once in 10 games, and since Brady has taken over the play sheet, he's hit that number in four of five, averaging over 40 more scrimmage yards per game, as a result. At the cost of potentially alienating Diggs as we get closer to the postseason, this had to be done by the Bills. Cook is an undeniable playmaker and the most consistent option for offensive output all year. Ride the hot hand until it goes cold is what I say. Now, will this success continue against a red-hot Patriots front seven? That remains to be seen, but they shouldn't threaten him with a good time.
One quick note on Josh Allen before we switch sides now. He's on an interception per game average through 15 contests, with at least one in 11 of his last 13. I have no reason to believe that won't continue on Sunday. Allen's decision-making has been suspect at best all year, and if the Patriots somehow manage to pull off another upset win, that'll be why.
New England Patriots
In the first Bills matchup, the Patriots held the Bills to just three points in the first half before allowing a 15-point fourth-quarter surge. Outside of the fact they got a free possession off a Kendrick Bourne fumble, the Bills did a great job of simply sustaining long drives and getting most, not all, of the key third and fourth down conversion attempts in that second half.
A key difference in this second matchup is the changes in the secondary for the Patriots. Jack Jones and J.C. Jackson, two of the four corners with the highest snap counts in Game 1, are gone for separate reasons, drastically changing this defensive game plan. Jon Jones, who was spectacular in Denver, will most likely get the Diggs assignment, with Shaun Wade rotating in if I had to guess, and that'll be you're key matchup defensively.
Another key matchup will be whoever draws Dalton Kincaid, who caught all eight of his targets in Week 6 for 75 yards. The blueprint for how they may go about things this time lies in the Kansas City matchup. I'd reckon the rookie out of Utah will see a lot of Jalen Mills and Marte Mapu in man coverage looks
Now finally, onto Christian Barmore, who put together a performance not seen since peak Aaron Donald in 2018 (an IDL putting up three sacks, eight total tackles, and five solo). Without explaining too much how good he was, here's the mixtape from Taylor Kyles. This is not hyperbole either. That might be one of the best single-game Patriot outings I've ever seen, it was that good.
Outside of the offensive line, I thought you saw good things from the Patriots offense in Denver. Above all else, Bailey Zappe making some impressive plays under pressure, and the play of DeVante Parker and Pop Douglas. The latter has been a consistent and reliable target for the Patriots for several weeks now, and he's mentioned that he's watched a guy he passed last weekend for the second most catches and yards by a receiver in the Belichick era, my benchmark for being a Patriots WR, Deion Branch. This was his reaction to finding out about passing him and being just three yards shy of having the most productive rookie season as a wideout ever under Bill Belichick in New England.
“Malik Cunningham was with Deion [Branch] and Troy Brown talks about him a lot, too. After that, I actually started watching some film and was like, ‘man'. There’s a lot of cut-ups of him and saw how they were successful and what they did. I added a little bit of that to my game.” - Pop Douglas on Deion Branch
“That’s crazy. It’s crazy. Growing up, I used to hear about Belichick all the time. I didn’t even know until after the game that I needed three more yards. It’s crazy. It’s a blessing for sure.” - Pop Douglas on knowing he's three yards shy of the best rookie season for a Patriots WR since 2002
For all the talk about Belichick not being able to get skill guys (which, in fairness, is about 85% warranted), they seemed to have hit a home run with Douglas. Wouldn't go as far as to say he's a foundational piece just yet, but every team in the league would kill to have a guy like him.
Another issue to go along with the offensive line, and quite frankly is probably responsible as of late, is the lack of a rushing attack from the Patriots. Zeke Elliott, in these last two weeks, had six fewer rushing yards than he did in one night against Pittsburgh, and 'Mondre is officially done for the year. Not a surprise per se, but in any case, this rushing attack getting better to end the year would be a nice storyline.
Points Spread: BUF -14 (-110) | NE +14 (-110)
Moneyline: BUF (-1000) | NE (+660)
Over/Under: O 40.5 (-105) | U 40.5 (-115)
Lines via FanDuel as of Friday, December 29
While I'd feel good about Buffalo outright and the over on Sunday, New England +14 might be the best bet on the board of these options. Buffalo has been a double-digit favorite three times this season, covering in zero of those games while winning outright by a combined 13 points. Especially given their losses on the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots getting 14 points off a win is a must-bet.
Now 0-3 on picks the last three weeks, we're sticking with the process of what got us (me) here. The Bills losing this week would knock them out of winning the East for sure, but that would also open the door up for them to miss the playoffs entirely. They're at home, have a ton of pre-established momentum, and cannot afford to go into Miami next Sunday with a loss. Give me the Bills in wire-to-wire fashion, but not for the lack of effort on the Patriots end, who should give them a tough time.
Final Score: Buffalo Bills 30, New England Patriots 20
Also, since the Broncos film came in a bit later than I would have liked, here are my three stars from last Saturday Night.
Gaffney's Three Stars from Patriots-Broncos
3rd Star - Marte Mapu (3 Tackles, Forced Fumble Leading to a Special Teams TD)
2nd Star - Pop Douglas (5 Catches, 74 Yards)
1st Star - Christian Barmore (3 Sacks, 5 Pressures, 8 Tackles, 2 TFL)
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