Typically, every NFL team has anywhere between a half dozen to a dozen players listed on the injury report by this point in the season. So color me shocked when the Patriots had 20 (TWENTY) players listed as either DNP or limited on Wednesday and Thursday. Certainly not ideal circumstances for a team that could be 1-7 after next weekend, but the opposition this weekend is not coming in super healthy either.
The Bills join the Patriots in the losing both of your top defenders in rapid succession club, having lost linebacker Matt Milano and cornerback Tre'Davious White for the season just seven days apart. Getting Von Miller back on the field is a big plus for Buffalo, but nowhere near enough to make up for both of those losses. To the Bills' credit, they've managed to weather this initial storm without their two key contributors, losing to Jacksonville in London, but escaping with a win last Sunday night against the Giants. The level of football they're playing right now may not be enough to win a Super Bowl, but that's a, we'll worry about that when it's playoff time, type of situation. For now, Sean McDermott and co. are 4-2, but with a win this weekend, and some help from the Eagles, can hop back into first place in the AFC East.
Date: Sunday, October 22
Start Time: 1:00 EST
Location: Foxborough, Massachusetts
Stadium: Gillette Stadium
TV Info: CBS (Ian Eagle and Charles Davis on the call)
Patriots Uniform Info: All Blue
Players Already Ruled Out Before Sunday
Buffalo Bills: Ed Oliver (IDL), Damien Harris (RB), Quintin Morris (TE)
New England Patriots: Josh Uche (EDGE), Keion White (EDGE), Riley Reiff (OT)
I'd mentioned this before the season even began in my Enemy Recon series, but this Bills defense was a suspect run-defending unit last year and hasn't done much to shake that so far in 2023. They've allowed 133.6 yards per game on average, and the Raiders are the only team so far to not hit at least 105 yards rushing on them. Not helping out matters this week is the loss of Ed Oliver, who leads the Bills in TFLs, and is also tied for second in sacks with four. Without him or DaQuan Jones up the middle for Buffalo, they could be ripe for the picking up the middle for Rhamondre Stevenson/Ezekiel Elliott.
The loss of Milano is massive for Buffalo, but they have some guys to make up the slack. Terrel Bernard, who entered this year as the Tremaine Edmunds fill-in, has been everything the Bills had been hoping for and then some in year two. Through six weeks, he has 57 tackles, a pair of sacks and interceptions, and PBUs. Additionally, he's the only player in the league with at least 50 tackles and two picks, pretty good says I. The guy getting the real opportunity in place of Milano is rookie Dorrian Williams out of Tulane. He made his first start last Sunday, but Bernard will be a guy to watch all game. Brian Baldinger doesn't simply do breakdowns over just anyone now.
The biggest weakness that hampers this Bills defense now is in the secondary without Tre White. While it didn't show up last week against the Giants, it certainly did against the Jaguars the week prior. With Dane Jackson and Kaiir Elam starting on the outside, Buffalo allowed 200 yards on 13 catches from Calvin Ridley and Christian Kirk. Elam, a first-rounder in 2022, has been scrutinized all year long and has been listed as a possible trade candidate if the Bills want to upgrade on the outside. Hard to say how much he could help his trade stock this week, but he can certainly hurt it more.
I'd say the Bills are about where they should be offensively six weeks in. They've had three poor outings mixed in with three great outings, capped off by a 48-point outing against the Dolphins. The rushing offense being improved is a big part of that, and James Cook has been as good as I'd thought he'd be. He's averaging just under five yards per carry, but he picks up a first down on one out of every 4.5 carries. Give a shoutout to Latavius Murray as well, who's doing solid work in a secondary role.
Nothing has changed much at the top of the pass-catching hierarchy. Stefon Diggs is still that deal, and Contract-Year Gabe Davis™ has stepped up, and the drops haven't been as much of an issue so far this year. The one big chance so far has been the production of Dawson Knox. Some of that can be attributed to Buffalo drafting Dalton Kincaid in the first round, but he's matched his drop total from last season (4) in just six games, and his success rate on catches has dropped by 20 percent from 2022 to 2023. Now as you can see in the above clip, Knox can help in other ways, but he needs to step up as a pass catcher. Buffalo can't bank on Diggs going for 150 every single week.
Onto Allen now, who's been a mixed bag himself. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that his start in New York in Week 1 was the worst of his career, which is saying a lot, given his first two years in the league. To his credit, Allen showed up in a big way against the Dolphins a few weeks back, putting up a perfect passer rating on 25 throws. A big reason for that monster three-week stretch offensively has been that Allen has been kept firmly upright. After allowing five sacks to the Jets, the Bills' stout offensive front has given up just four sacks in their most recent five games, and Allen hasn't been pressured much, if at all compared to the rest of the league. Going to be a tall task for the Patriots to win if they can't get near No. 17.
New England Patriots
What should give Patriots fans the most concern this weekend is that your two best EDGE guys, Josh Uche, and Keion White, have already been ruled out. Those three were ranked first, second, and fourth in pressures generated respectively, and no one who'll be active on Sunday has more than four. That's 100 percent going to change how they play in the secondary, but you can't let Josh Allen pick you apart in zone all game either. So really, it's a no-win situation for the Patriots.
The one thing I will note is this, a guy who has stepped up, really all year as the Patriots have further used their base package is Anfernee Jennings. He's played over 60 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps these last two weeks, and although most of what he's done may go unnoticed, he's been a quality contributor in year four. He's essentially the yin to Uche's yan, serving as a plus-run defender out of the edge. If the season ended this weekend, I would be more than happy to see Jennings back in Foxborough on a new contract.
The keys for the Patriots should ultimately be keeping contain on Allen first and foremost, but they also need to keep Stefon Diggs in front of them. Whether it's J.C. Jackson or Jonathan Jones on him, they can't let him do what he did in January where he was getting loose down the seams. I'd assume the Bills will have a good day on the ground, but as long as they don't create anything game-breaking, the Patriots should be able to manage.
What's a fair expectation for this offense at this point? Score a touchdown? Mac Jones ending the day with zero turnovers? Because at this point that's where the bar is. If for nothing else, things looked better last week, but that isn't exactly saying much. Something I would like to see this week is for Bill O'Brien to get some designed looks going for Tyquan Thornton. He only got two looks all game, but his 42 percent snap count didn't come as too much of a surprise. Now that he has some of his game legs back underneath him. Thornton said earlier this week he's "Definitely anxious to be back out here and make the plays I can make when my number gets called".
Health, meanwhile, continues to be a massive issue up front for the Patriots. All five of the Patriots' projected starters were limited at the minimum at least twice this week, and Riley Reiff is once again a no-go. Assuming the Patriots can get Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu back, that would certainly help, but at less than 100 percent, how much will they? David Andrews, meanwhile, seems pretty confident that he'll be back out there.
Patriots Hall of Fame Week
Not in the summer this year, but it's time to officially hand out some red jackets on Saturday to Dante Scarnecchia and Mike Vrabel. Scar was in Foxborough on Friday getting fitted for his new digs and was holding court, all the meanwhile.
Hard to overstate what Scar has meant to the Patriots over the decades. Across three stints, six different head coaches (plus an interim stint of his own), and 35 years of service, he might just be the greatest assistant coach in NFL history. Current Patriots' offensive line starters David Andrews and Trent Brown only offered the highest praises for their former position coach ahead of Saturday.
“[Scarnecchia] showed me how to be a pro. It was definitely a fun time. Definitely fun to win. That was the best. Of course, I went on to become the highest paid in history, but in hindsight, I would say that’s the biggest regret of my career – leaving here and not taking the opportunity to keep playing with Tom [Brady] and the rest of that o-line that we put together that year and ultimately being coached by the best o-line coach ever.” - Trent Brown via Mark Daniels/MassLive
“To be a great coach, you’ve got to be a great motivator. You’ve got to get people to believe in you. If you don’t have belief in the things you’re doing, as a player, that can cause issues. [Scarnecchia] worked us, he worked us hard. He knew when to push, and when to pull. He was one of us. He wasn’t built like one of us, but you knew he had your back. He had our back 100 percent, which meant a lot.” - David Andrews via Karen Guregian/MassLive
Mike Vrabel, in just eight years with the Patriots, was able to amass 47 sacks, 11 interceptions, and over 600 tackles. Not to mention he is, by all accounts, the most efficient tight end in NFL history, with all 10 passes he caught going for six points, then another two in Super Bowls 38 and 39. Any great NFL defense needs some glue guys in the front seven, and Vrabel, along with Willy McGinnest, Richard Seymour, and Tedy Bruschi were as good as it's ever been in Foxborough when they were all together from 2001-2004. Even afterward, Vrabel pulled out a career year at 32 years old in 2007. There, Vrabel finished fifth in DPOY voting, racked up a career-high 12.5 sacks, and made his only ever Pro-Bowl and All-Pro teams.
Vrabel's relationship with Tom Brady is another fun anecdote to talk about. He called into Zolak & Bertrand on Friday and knew Brady wasn't going to show up because he texted him ahead of time, then went in on him saying, "He probably has some cosmetic event planned and won’t be able to make it on Saturday morning.” Bill Belichick also reminisced on the battles, physical and verbal, that the two had in practice some 20 years ago.
Points Spread: BUF -8.5 (-110) | NE +8.5 (-110)
Moneyline: BUF (-460) | NE (+360)
Over/Under: O 40.5 (-105) | U 40.5 (-115)
Lines via FanDuel as of Friday, October 20
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I can't think of a time that the Patriots were this high of a home underdog in any of the Matt Cassel games in 2008, much less the two Jacoby Brissett starts in 2016. Take this for whatever it may be worth though, Buffalo is one of five teams since the beginning of 2021 to be a road favorite at least 15 times. Of those five teams, their 8-6-1 record ATS (57.1 winning percentage) is the best out of any of those teams, which includes the Chiefs and 49ers. I'd feel pretty good about Buffalo, both ATS and outright, plus the under. Buffalo had some trouble scoring against the Giants last week and weren't too hot against either the Jets or the Jaguars offensively.
Should the Patriots lose this game, and they probably will, I'm going to be very interested to see how much louder the noise of Bill Belichick's job security increases. A loss would make the Patriots home record over the last two seasons 4-8, good for the fifth worst in football. Gonna guess it'll look like a Bills home game in the fourth quarter, and I don't think Bob Kraft would take that well. One thing is for certain, after this week, the Patriots should at least be selling off to some degree when they fall to 1-6 because things won't get much better.
Final Score: Buffalo Bills 31, New England Patriots 10
Main Image via