The Patriots' Season Once Again Comes Down to a Showdown in Buffalo
In what has been a somber week for the Buffalo Bills, they came in on Friday morning for another day of practice ahead of their final game of the season. Only this wasn't a normal start to a day of practice and meetings, as Sean McDermott and the Bills coaching staff had quite the surprise for the team. Damar Hamlin, awake without a breathing tube and talking live over facetime to his teammates for the first time. He had just one simple message "Love you boys."
Just a day prior in a joint press conference with McDermott, Josh Allen stated that he does feel that he and his teammates are ready to play on Sunday, and this wonderful news they got on Friday probably helped a great deal. Now as a result of the Bengals-Bills Monday Night Football game officially being declared a no-contest, things get interesting moving forward. While the Bills' chances at the AFC one seed hang on a Las Vegas Raiders upset win over the Kansas City Chiefs, they will have something to play for this weekend.
Should the Chiefs and Bills both win, or both lose, the AFC Championship game (should it be between them) would be a neutral site game as a result of the no-contest leaving the Bills without 17 games played. A Bengals win-Chiefs loss scenario would also create a neutral site AFC Championship as well. This means that the Patriots are not going to catch a break on Sunday on a day when they need a win. Yes, they can get in with a loss, but I wouldn't bank on them getting the help they need, more on that later.
Date: Sunday, January 8th
Start Time: 1:00 EST
Location: Orchard Park, New York
Stadium: Highmark Stadium
TV Info: CBS (Jim Nantz and Tony Romo on the call)
Uniform Info: White Jerseys, Blue Pants
Click here to Donate to Damar Hamlin's Toy Drive GoFundMe
Taking the one full drive against the Bengals out of the equation, the Bills' defense had a couple of good recent outings against the Bears and Jets on the ground but didn't find that same level of success against the Miami Dolphins. Raheem Mostert and Salvon Ahmed were borderline unstoppable in the freezing cold, which was surprising given the talent the Bills have upfront. They didn't shut down their other two opponents on the ground per se, but things looked much better. Last go around against the Patriots, they allowed 5.4 a carry from Rhamondre Stevenson, but given the number of carries (10), and the fact that the Patriots were playing from behind all game, I don't feel that's a good sample to go off of for this tilt.
The Bills' pass defense meanwhile continues to do some good work, holding Tua Tagovailoa, Mike White, and Justin Fields to 621 combined yards (207 yards per game). Additionally, Buffalo has allowed just three touchdowns through the air as of late, those coming from Dante Pettis, Tyreek Hill, and Jaylen Waddle. Having Tre'Davious White back and with his game legs under him now is big.
However, Buffalo could be without Terron Johnson on Sunday. During the Cincinnati game, he left with a concussion but was a full participant in the final practice of the week. Should he be ruled out, that would likely leave Buffalo with just White, Kaiir Elam, Dane Jackson, and Siran Neal at corner, of those that are on the active roster. The Bills ended up releasing Xavier Rhodes earlier in the week to bring in Jared Mayden, a practice squad safety from the Jets. As for who will be filling in for Demar Hamlin, that responsibility will likely fall to Jaquan Johnson, who is set to be the third starting safety across from Jordan Poyer this season.
Josh Allen has more or less been in the opposite spot as the Bills rushing defense recently. Phenomenal against the Dolphins (62.5 Completion Percentage, 304 Yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 119 Passer Rating), but surprisingly poor against the Jets and Bears (58.5 Completion Percentage, 319 Yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 78.9 Passer Rating). Luckily, the Bills were able to put up nearly 30 second-half points in that Bears game, but this hasn't been the greatest stretch for Allen since he made the leap to end all leaps. With that said, I would be prepared for something much closer to that Dolphins game this Sunday. Going to be a ton of emotion and the Bills have a ton to play for as it is.
Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis are going to create a ton of problems as you could imagine, but Buffalo also recently brought back Cole Beasley. He only has two catches in two games back with Bills Mafia, but he was big for Josh Allen last season as an 82-catch 693-yard third option. He hasn't historically done much against New England outside of the second game in 2019, but it wouldn't be shocking to see Allen try to get some report back before the Bills' playoff run.
A surprise in the first Patriots-Bills game was the success of James Cook on the ground, and more so his usage. At that point in the year, he had just two games with over five carries, and he got a season-high 14 against the Patriots, putting up 64 yards. Just two weeks ago in Chicago, he was just shy of 100 yards rushing on 11 carries, and put up the second touchdown of his rookie season. Devin Singletary meanwhile did go over 100 yards on one more carry but has had some less-than-stellar outings. My main point here is that I wonder if Buffalo leans on Cook more in this game. Maybe not right away, but in the second half for sure.
New England Patriots
Before getting into things, there was a notable 5 pm Friday news dump from the Patriots. Both cornerback Jack Jones, and punter Jake Bailey, both of which who are on IR, were moved from the reserve/injured list, to the reserve/suspended list. In the immortal paraphrased words of Brian Windhorst, "Now why is that?" Bailey's case is that with this 'suspension', his guaranteed salary in his 2023 contract is now voided. Meaning that the Patriots can let go of him despite signing a four-year extension not even a half year ago. For Jones, it appears there was some miscommunication between him and the team, according to his agent Jamal Tooson, regarding his rehab. Hopefully, this doesn't result in Jones, who looked phenomenal this season, ending up in the Bill Belichick Shadow Realm™ moving forward.
While the Patriots were able to get stops against the Bills the first go around, they still converted 9-15 chances on third down. Two that jump out looking back were, firstly, a 3rd&11 on the Bills' opening drive where they converted on a backyard football pass to Nyheim Hynes. The Bills went on to score a field goal on that drive after facing a 3rd&20. The second, more obvious infraction, was the Josh Allen touchdown to Gabe Davis, which all but ended the game. If those two plays aren't successful for Buffalo, that's seven fewer points on the board at the minimum. You're not going to realistically hold Josh Allen to say, 5-15 on third downs, but simply getting timely stops would go a long way. Finally, some good news on defense, in that no one was ruled out after Friday's practice. The bad news is that Jalen Mills is once again out, as of today.
With one game to go on the year, Rhamondre Stevenson is just 14 yards shy of 1000 yards rushing. Assuming he gets that and then some, he would be just the sixth Patriots running back to eclipse that benchmark. The other five? Antowain Smith (2001), Corey Dillon (2004), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2010), Stevan Ridley (2012), and LeGarrette Blount (2016). Given that he's been open about the toll this season has taken on him physically, hopefully, he can reach a big early career milestone. Additionally, with Damien Harris back, the rushing attack won't completely fall on his shoulders.
Michael McCorkle Jones, believe it or not, is ending the year on a relatively good note. He's thrown just one interception from the Colts game on, and outside of maybe the Raiders game, hard to say his play has actively cost the Patriots wins in this stretch. With that said, the Bills have given him fits to this point in his career. He's never thrown for over 250 yards against them, and as a matter of fact, Jones has only done that three times this entire season. Now of course there are abundantly clear reasons for this, but that would be a nice way to close things out, especially on the road in a big spot.
Points Spread: NE +7 (-110) | BUF -7 (-110)
Moneyline: NE (+260) | BUF (-320)
Over/Under: O 43.5 (-110) | U 43.5 (-110)
I know what you're likely thinking; Bills' home game, a huge spot for that team and fanbase, they're gonna win by 20 points no problem. Well, believe it or not, Buffalo has surprisingly been a very subpar team against the spread at home this season, just 2-4 on the season (Cleveland game counted as a neutral site). Based on those six games, the Bills will either win by 30-plus (vs Titans and vs Steelers) or be in a one-to-two possession game that goes either way outright, but lose ATS. There has been zero in between for them.
Should the Patriots cover in this game, that would put them at 5-3-1 on the road for the season, which could be a top-five record in football depending on the book. What would worry me here is that the Patriots have just covered once on the road in the last two months, and it was against a Colt McCoy-led Cardinals team. I could see this going either way, but I'd lean toward a Patriots cover and the over for this Week 18 clash.
It's Deja Vu all over again. A playoff game (in all but name this go around) for the Patriots on the road in Buffalo. To get straight to the point, I simply don't think the Patriots are going to go into Buffalo, in this environment, after the last several weeks that team and town have been through, and come out with a win. Ultimately, this is where the several losses in very winnable games come back to haunt the Patriots. And that stinks for this defense which has been fantastic all season. Statistically, they've been one of the best, if not the best defense in the AFC this season and got let down by the coordinator on the other side of the ball, and the guy who put him in that spot.
Now, what would need to happen for the Patriots to make the postseason with a loss? Keeping things in the division, the New York Jets need to beat the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. That is a heavyweight matchup of January Joe Flacco vs Skyler Thompson, so I'd give the Jets the advantage there. Next, the Cleveland Browns would need to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. And most importantly, the Jacksonville Jaguars would need to beat the Tennessee Titans tonight for the AFC South crown. If Tennessee wins in this scenario, Jacksonville at 8-9 would get in over New England on their AFC opponent record (7-5 vs 6-6).
Now if you are like me and would rather let the season end on Sunday and hope for the best possible draft pick, this is what you are rooting for. Wins by the Titans, Browns, Jets, Seahawks, and the Commanders. That would situate the Patriots with the 11th overall pick in the first round. Pretty solid spot given some of the talent that's projected to be in this upcoming class.
Final Score: Buffalo Bills 27, New England Patriots 21
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