The Buffalo Bills went down to Miami with the hopes of securing a winning first half of the 2016 season, and came back not only with a loss and disappointment, but with multiple injury concerns as well. Now the Bills have the daunting task of taking down one of the best teams in the league while incredibly shorthanded.
Can the Bills make it a game and potentially sweep the New England Patriots this season? Five things to watch for during the game:
1) Brady’s back
- After the Buffalo Bills shutout the Patriots at home — which, by the way, don’t think for a second that Bill Belichick has forgotten about that, seeing as how it was his first shutout suffered at home since he became head coach there — linebacker Preston Brown said that defenders could “take a nap” on one side of the field. That was due to rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett’s inability to read the whole field consistently enough, creating more predictability for the defense to take advantage of. With Tom Brady back in the saddle for New England, there is no more napping allowed for the Bills defense. In fact, if they even close their eyes — even for a second — Brady will spot it and fire the ball past them for a huge gain. Brady has been utterly dominant since he’s returned to action. He’s thrown for 8 touchdowns, hasn’t thrown an interception, he’s averaging 335 yards per game, and the Patriots have averaged 31.6 points per game. Extend that to just how good he’s been in the month of October over the last three seasons: Brady and the Patriots have won all 11 of those games, and he’s thrown 33 touchdowns to just one interception over that time. The names around him change, but he remains the same — an unflinching assassin that has carved up defenses year in, and year out. The top two cornerbacks on the Bills, Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, have not been nearly as efficient as they were in 2015 to start the season and will now be tested by the best quarterback they’ll face all year.
2) Tough sledding on offense for Bills
- Last week in Miami, the Buffalo Bills made the decision to use LeSean McCoy just days removed from him suffering a hamstring injury. Unsurprisingly, that ended up biting them in the rear end, as he’s now likely unable to play against New England following an ineffective performance versus Miami in which the runner was merely a shell of himself. McCoy is doubtful, which means the Bills will used Mike Gillislee as their primary back (more on that in a bit). At wide receiver, they suffered yet another injury to seemingly snakebitten position, as wide receiver Marquise Goodwin has been declared out with a concussion. Put that on top of the long-term injuries of Sammy Watkins and Greg Salas, along with Robert Woods current questionable status due to a foot injury. Judging it off the Bills latest roster maneuver on Saturday, the decision to not bring on another wideout ahead of the game likely means they’re confident enough that Woods will play. How effective he’ll be, though, is an entirely different story — and mixed with the likes of Justin Hunter, Walt Powell, Brandon Tate, and potentially Reggie Bush, the passing game isn’t likely to instill fear into a Patriots secondary that’s playing very well in 2016. The Bills will hope to utilize tight end Charles Clay as a big pass catching option, and that might be the area that the Patriots are most susceptible. Other than that, though, due to both a lack in playmakers, and the talent on New England’s defense, both scoring and sustained drives will likely be tough to come by. The Bills will need to force turnovers and create shortened-field opportunities to put up the points necessary to beat a Tom Brady-led attack.
3) No Aaron Williams presents huge advantage for Patriots
- When Miami wide receiver Jarvis Landry dished out his illegal crackback block on Bills starting safety Aaron Williams, among all the other things wrong with it, he also created a colossal disadvantage for the Bills against the Patriots. New England boasts two extremely gifted and sizable tight ends — and both sport a great deal of agility to go along with it. Rob Gronkowski and Marcellus Bennett would have been enough of a chore to deal with had the Bills been able to have Williams in the lineup, but without him, there is large potential for the duo to have an incredibly productive day. Inside linebacker Zach Brown will likely draw some coverage responsibilities, and perhaps cornerbacks will be asked to do it at times as well. For the most part, though, a safety is going to have to cover one of the two, and without Williams, that means one of Robert Blanton, Jonathan Meeks, or Duke Williams will have to step into the starting lineup. All three have struggled in coverage, and Duke Williams is at the point where the Bills have him at the bottom of the depth chart because of busts in coverage this season. I would expect to see a hearty amount of both Blanton and Meeks playing besides normal starter Corey Graham, and in situations that best benefits their individual skill-sets. In passing downs, Blanton looks to be the obvious choice, while on running plays, Meeks could see some time. Graham could even spend some time covering either Bennett or Gronkowski. With both players, though, each will likely struggle when faced with the task of stopping one of those extremely talented tight ends.
4) Can Gillislee step in and have success as lead back?
With McCoy listed by the Bills as doubtful and unlikely to play, that means Mike Gillislee steps into the lead back role — a role he’s only had once before in his professional career. The only time Gillislee has ever stepped out of the complementary role with the offense was in Week 17 of last season. As the complementary option, Gillislee averaged 10.4 yards per carry in the 2015 season. As the top guy versus the Jets in Week 17, he rushed for only 28 yards on 24 carries — an average of 1.2 yards per carry. Granted, that stark of a difference likely isn’t going to be the case again for Gillislee, but the Patriots have been incredibly effective against the run this season. Through the first seven weeks of the season, FootballOutsiders.com has the Patriots ranked as the fifth-best defense when opponent run the ball. Patriots linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower have been extremely impressive in 2016, and will present a big challenge to the bread and butter of the Bills offense — the rushing attack. I think the Bills will have more success than they did a week ago, but going against Brady and company, they’ll likely need to depend on their passing game.
5) Dareus’ debut
- If there’s one area that the Bills can impose their will on New England, regardless of the result last weekend against Miami, it’s against the rushing attack of the Patriots. The Bills will finally get Marcell Dareus on the field for the first time in the 2016 season, and he’ll provide an extreme upgrade over Corbin Bryant as the nose tackle in the middle of the defensive line. Dareus likely won’t get his full workload in just his first week back, but he’ll be a heavy contributor. I expect the Bills to have a bounce back week against the run, mainly due to their play — but also due in part to the Patriots having a clear advantage in the passing game this week. Against the interior of the Patriots offensive line, Dareus can do some damage in the form of occupying multiple blockers to free up linebackers Zach Brown and Preston Brown — something that Bryant simply didn’t even come close to doing against Miami.
OUT: WR Marquise Goodwin (concussion), S Aaron Williams (neck)
DOUBTFUL: RB LeSean McCoy (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: DL Corbin Bryant (shoulder), TE Charles Clay (knee), DL Marcell Dareus (hamstring), RB Mike Gillislee (foot), LT Cordy Glenn (ankle), OLB Jerry Hughes (hand), OLB Lerentee McCray (knee), RG John Miller (shoulder), WR Robert Woods (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Marcellus Bennett (ankle), WR Julian Edelman (foot), DT Woodrow Hamilton (shoulder), CB Jonathan Jones (hip), WR Malcolm Mitchell (hamstring), LB Elandon Roberts (ankle), DT Vincent Valentine (back)
Prediction: Patriots over Bills
- Heading into this matchup in this week in particular, the upcoming contest is a bit of a mismatch. The Bills have sustained a great deal of injuries and specifically to positions that would help try to thwart things that the Patriots do extremely well. The Patriots are more susceptible on defense through the air, but three of the Bills top four receivers are out, and the fourth was barely able to practice this week. The ground game, which they rely heavily on, will have a running back that struggled in his only other game as the lead back, and they’ll be going against one of the better run defenses in the league. Defensively, the Bills’ top coverage safety is out for the game and they’ll be going up against the best duo of tight ends in the NFL. There’s that Tom Brady guy, too, going up against a pair of cornerbacks that haven’t quite found the success from last year just yet in 2016. Add in a scorned Bill Belichick after suffering his only home shutout loss at the hands of the Bills in Week Four, and this sets up as a matchup very much slanted in one way. I just don’t see how the Bills can match the offensive output that the Patriots are likely going to put up with all the injuries that are impacting them this week. It very well could end up being the Bills’ first loss by double digits this season. If Rex Ryan and the Bills pull this one out, it will be the best victory of the year and he’ll deserve all the credit in the world, but the deck is clearly stacked against his team this week.