It's been quite some time for the Buffalo Bills, but at long last, they are hosting a Monday Night Football game at New Era Field, with the eyes of the football world on them for three-plus hours. And to ramp up the fun a bit more, they'll be up against the best team in the NFL for the last decade-plus -- and their division rivals -- the New England Patriots.
Considering the last result for the Bills, they'll likely need some things to go their way to pull out an upset victory this time around. The Patriots come into the game three wins ahead of the Bills in the division, and also as double-digit favorites on the road.
What are some things to keep an eye on from a Bills perspective? Five things to watch for when the Bills take on the Patriots:
1) McCoy cleared for action
- The Bills benefitted from having an extra day to prepare, but they had to be hoping all week that their top running back, LeSean McCoy, could clear concussion protocol by the end of the weekend, and be available to them on Monday night. That's precisely what happened, as the Bills now get their only explosive playmaker on offense in a game where they're likely going to need up a lot of points. I would expect that the trio of running backs -- McCoy, Chris Ivory, and Marcus Murphy -- get a hefty workload for the Bills to lean on offensively, and not just in the sterotypical way, either. I wouldn't be surprised to see offensive coordinator Brian Daboll bring back his two running back formation that he's shown in previous weeks, just to get the Patriots defense thinking pre-snap. That trio will also be used out of the backfield on screens, swings, and dump downs because those represent both the highest percentage throws for a quarterback that is inexperienced in the offense, and as the least amount of time the offensive line will have to block. If the Bills stand a chance in this matchup, McCoy will have to dominate the Patriots all evening, and he'll have to do it with some help from his teammates in the backfield, too.
2) The most significant stretch of Shaq Lawson's career starts Monday
- With Trent Murphy labeled as 'week-to-week' with a knee injury, that means only one thing: that third-year pro and former first-round pick Shaq Lawson can do quite a bit for his career outlook with how he performs over the games that Murphy is forced to miss. Given that Murphy wasn't on the practice field even for stretching, an educated guess would be that he'll miss more than just this week. No matter how much time it is, Lawson must take advantage of it. Lawson has had a strong start to the season with his performances in more of a limited role. When on the field, Lawson made his biggest impact when operating against the run, controlling the edge and taking on the blocker well enough to allow his teammates to make a play at or close to the line of scrimmage. However, the one question mark that persists is how well Lawson can rush the passer. Through his first two seasons, and in a smaller percentage of snaps in 2018, Lawson has been stonewalled far too often in his pursuit of the quarterback. However, with Murphy set to miss some time, Lawson will be on the field somewhere between 60-to-70-percent of defensive snaps, with that many more pass rushing opportunities. Now in his third season -- which is usually the one where you find out if the player can make a jump, or is more of a role player -- Lawson has the right attitude and has worked quite hard through the spring and summer to put himself in a position to make an impact for the team. Now it's just a matter of showing that his work through those months can result in more than just a steady run defender. If he wants to prove his talents as a first-round pick, he must get into the backfield and create pressures, and plus-situations for the defense. He can make a real name for himself on this Monday night stage in particular, too. Given that draft status, he'll be a fascinating player to track in this game.
3) The Week Eight Tre'Davious challenge
- All year, except for the Week One loss to the Baltimore Ravens, we've seen Tre'Davious White shadow the team's top wide receiver when the Bills' cornerbacks are in man coverage. He has certainly gone up against some talented and productive individuals, with Houston's DeAndre Hopkins springing to mind as the top one so far. Hopkins is no doubt the most productive receiver of the bunch that he's faced and outworks everybody on the field. With due respect to Hopkins, I don't know that White will be up against a more naturally gifted receiver in 2018 than New England's Josh Gordon. Last week, Tom Brady started to get Gordon more involved, getting the explosive wide receiver to 100 yards on four catches -- and I'd expect him to continue to feed Gordon in this matchup. Now, you can certainly make a case for White to shadow either slot receiver Julian Edelman or tight end Rob Gronkowski, but I think the Bills have developed enough trust in talented rookie nickel corner Taron Johnson to cover Edelman, and in the athleticism and size that they have at linebacker and safety to try and limit Gronkowski. With Gordon lined up on the outside, that is a nightmarish mismatch waiting to happen if he's one-on-one against Phillip Gaines. White has passed every test thrown at him when in man coverage of these excellent wide receivers, and if he's able to hold Gordon to a minimal evening, it will go quite far in his quest to be labeled one of the best at his position in the NFL.
4) Are the Bills getting close to a change on the OL?
- Through the first month of the season, from an overall perspective, the play of the offensive line wasn't as bad as it was made out to be. However, over the last two games, in particular, that same offensive line has become a significant deterrent to the potential success on that side of the ball. The Bills are getting beat at the point of attack far too often, and it winds up giving the defense the opportunity to end the play before the skill players even have a chance to get it started. Head coach Sean McDermott has taken notice of this, too. He has stressed for each of the last two games that they have to be able to win at the line of scrimmage to give their team a chance. Should the current trend of getting beaten at the line continue, you have to wonder how close the Bills are to make a change or two. Of the potential options, based on who has not been playing well the last two weeks, I would focus on the right side of the line. Jordan Mills has taken a step back from a solid start to the season at right tackle and is on the ground far too often, while right guard John Miller runs hot and cold -- with it mostly running cold. The two names to keep an eye on here are reserve offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles and rookie guard Wyatt Teller. Sirles has been active the past few weeks, so if the struggles for Mills continues, they could opt to see what Sirles brings to the table. As for Teller, he has been inactive every game this season as a healthy scratch, but given the likely offensive game plan and the number of injured players, it could make sense to dress the rookie just in case Miller starts to struggle. Now, I think it would be smart to keep the expectations in check if one or both of these players enter into the game. Sirles was a street free agent all of a month ago, and Teller has yet to take a regular season snap and is only a fifth-round pick. Remember, the Bills made the switch at center to start Russell Bodine over Ryan Groy, and while he's been a minor upgrade, Bodine has still been a liability on offense. Different doesn't always represent much better. Sometimes different is just different. However, sometimes different is necessary, and I really think Sean McDermott is close to wanting something a bit different along that starting five.
5) Keeping a close eye on the trade deadline
- Over the weekend, a report came in from NFL.com that said the Bills, unless they got an offer that they couldn't refuse, was keen on hanging on to starting running back LeSean McCoy through the trade deadline -- and even into 2019, the final year of his contract. I don't debate the merits of the report, in fact, it's the complete opposite. However, that message is out there for a reason. There weren't any strong reports or overtures over the weekend that linked McCoy to a specific team or trade, and the message of this report was mainly the same thing as we saw when the initial speculation about the Philadelphia Eagles came to light. You always have to analyze it from this context, "Why would the Bills want this out there?" And in this case, you can add the word 'again,' to the back end of the question. We all know that GM Brandon Beane is content with making trades that make sense for his team. We also know that the running back market, based on the Carlos Hyde trade, is not the best. If for nothing else, I think the McCoy report is to let teams around the league know that they're willing to talk, but they aren't going to settle for a late round pick just for the sake of getting him off the roster. No matter what, I'm still keeping an eye on McCoy as the Tuesday trade deadline draws near because if a team gets deadline desperate for a shot in the arm on offense, I think the Bills would willingly listen and consider. The other name to keep an eye on here is wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who with a second straight solid game could endear himself to a team in need of a wide receiver for a second-half run. I think it would probably take a little more than just a throwaway draft pick to get the Bills to move Benjamin, but his cost will be lower than the one for McCoy.
OUT: QB Josh Allen (right elbow), RB Taiwan Jones (neck), DE Trent Murphy (knee)
OUT: RB Sony Michel (knee), TE Jacob Hollister (hamstring), CB Eric Rowe (groin), C Brian Schwenke (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: T Trenton Brown (ankle), T Marcus Cannon (concussion), WR Josh Gordon (hamstring), DE Geno Grissom (ankle), TE Rob Gronkowski (ankle, back), LB Dont'a Hightower (knee), DE John Simon (shoulder), DE Deatrich Wise (ankle, knee)
Bills Projected Inactives: QB Josh Allen, RB Taiwan Jones, WR Cam Phillips, T Conor McDermott, G Ike Boettger, DE Trent Murphy, CB Ryan Lewis
- I think six of these inactives are set due to injury and recent usage. However, I did play one hunch -- with undrafted rookie wideout Cam Phillips inactive and rookie guard Wyatt Teller active. As I mentioned previously, Sean McDermott has not been happy with what's happened at the line of scrimmage. Making Teller active gives them flexibility should right guard John Miller start to struggle again. If that's not the case, Phillips will likely be active as the fifth wideout and Teller will get his eighth straight game in street clothes.
Prediction: Patriots over Bills
- These are two teams going in opposite directions at the moment. The Indianapolis Colts thumped the Bills last weekend, and while I think the defense will have a better showing than what we saw a week ago, they likely won't be able to keep less than 20 points off the board against a Tom Brady-led offense. The Bills lack true explosiveness to their offensive attack and considering that it will be Derek Anderson leading the way for the Bills once again -- in just his second week of starting, mind you, only the most optimistic of fans could tell you with a straight face that Anderson's Bills offense could outscore Brady's Patriots. If the Bills get down early, that will mean more throwing for Anderson. And as we saw last week, more throwing for Anderson results in more turnovers. The buildup to the game will feature a loud crowd seeing their first home Monday Night Football game in quite some time. But when the seats empty and all that remains is the final score on the video board, this game has all the potential to get ugly for the Bills for a second straight week and for a lopsided score to remain. If the Bills were to pull the upset, considering all of the factors of their opponent, personnel, and that their starting quarterback has been with the team for less than a month, it would be one of the biggest regular-season upsets in the team's history. If they force turnovers and get shortened fields, things could start to get weird, but with the Bills lacking a real scoring punch on offense, it limits their potential to exploit Patriots gaffes.