(WKBW) — The last time we left the Buffalo Bills, their rookie quarterback engineered a come-from-behind victory at home to dash the slim playoff hopes of their opponents. And on Sunday, they will walk into their final road game of the 2018 season that will help them learn how far they’ve come over the last almost five months.
For the second time this season, the Bills will be up against the New England Patriots — but have the look of a completely different team from when the two sides met on Monday night in late October. While the defense was solid back then, the Bills will have Josh Allen back in the lineup, and they’ve found an undrafted target for him that has helped open up the offense.
Do the Bills stand a chance this time around? Five things to watch for when the Bills take on the Patriots:
1) A barometer game for Allen
- Since he returned from a right elbow sprain, Josh Allen has looked the part of an improving player while flashing significant potential all the same, and it’s no coincidence that in the four games he’s started the Bills have either won or had a chance to win all of them. Of course, the level of competition hasn’t been grand having gone up against three teams with five wins or less, and one team that likely needs to win out and get some help to make it to the playoffs. However, that all changes when the Bills take on the class of the AFC East for a decade-plus, the New England Patriots. The combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have made it so that any other team in the division hoping to compete either has to wait until Brady retires or for someone to unseat them — and neither have happened for a long time now. As for Allen, this is a big game to judge not only his growth as a player but also as a teammate in working with what he has to work with on offense. I thought head coach Sean McDermott made a great point on Friday, in trying to make it clear to his rookie quarterback that he doesn’t need him to go out and be the hero or to attempt to “outdoes Tom Brady.” For Allen, he’ll need to be careful of doing that because this game has probably been played up in his mind a bit. The Patriots have been an AFC behemoth since he was old enough to remember, and with him recalling how he looked up to Brady his entire life and never thinking he’d have a chance to play against him, he needs to make sure that the moment doesn’t get too big for him. Instead, if Allen continues to show all the progress in reading the defense pre-snap, going through his progressions, standing tall in the pocket, and throwing the ball away rather than being reckless, there’s no reason to believe that he’ll be stifled by this Patriots defense entirely. Now, I do expect the Patriots to blitz Allen much more than any of the last four opponents did, but he’ll still have opportunities to make plays down the field. If Allen even comes close to beating the Patriots on their home turf — a place where Belichick has never lost to an opposing rookie quarterback in his time with the franchise — Bills fans have every right to feel even more optimistic about the future of the quarterback position than they do right now. This game is a big spot for Allen, and we’ll get to see what he’s made of in a bit more of a pressurized environment.
2) Will Foster get the Gilmore treatment?
- Working in Allen’s favor since his return has been the rapid development of undrafted rookie Robert Foster, who has had 100-yard performances — or just short of it — in three of the last four games. However, if there’s one thing that has kept the brilliance of Belichick a step ahead of the rest, he can take away the thing that has brought you the most recent success. And considering that Belichick has Stephon Gilmore in his back pocket, who is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL right now, I would not be surprised to see Gilmore following Foster around wherever he goes. It’s a tip of the cap to Foster, surely, but also a bit of a challenge from Belichick to prove that he’s not just a flash in the pan taking advantage of the opponent’s second cornerback. Zay Jones has been solid in 2018, but hasn’t done nearly enough to warrant the Gilmore type of treatment, and doesn’t offer the same big-play potential as Foster does. For the undrafted rookie, he needs to show a complete precision on his routes and not just to rely that the threat of his speed will keep the defender off enough for him to gain separation in the underneath areas. Gilmore is a fantastic athlete, a fluid hip mover, and one that can turn and run with the best of them in man coverage. He’ll also get physical with Foster right at the line of scrimmage, even to try and discourage right from the get-go. If the Patriots do stick Gilmore on Foster, this will be a fantastic look for the front office to see what they have in the undrafted player against one of the best in the game.
3) The undrafted defenders will draw attention
- Another staple of a Belichick-coached team is relatively simple. When there are replacement players on the field taking meaningful reps — or even rookies that have yet to be exploited — the Patriots head coach usually tries to use those very players against the Bills to gain a leg up. And in this matchup, the two undrafted starters will likely be keyed on by Brady and company. The first is cornerback Levi Wallace, who has played so well since entering the starting lineup that I believe he’s positioned himself to, at least, compete for the starting job in 2019. Sean McDermott loves Wallace and his development as well, as the young cornerback is usually well-positioned in zone coverage, has long arms to impact a throw, and is a sure tackler. However, when faced with the task of going after either Wallace or Tre’Davious White, the decision for Brady should be pretty simple. Make the rookie show he belongs, and if he doesn’t, keep going after him. The other potential Patriots target might have a gameplan altering effect. The Bills gave the start at weakside linebacker to undrafted rookie Corey Thompson, a player that’s filling in for Matt Milano after the starter broke his fibula against the New York Jets. However, the Bills only put Thompson on the field when the opposing offense is in a regular two-wide receiver offense. That leads me to believe that the Patriots will try to keep some of their heavier players on the field, to keep Thompson on the field as much as possible. The rookie had 20 snaps against the Detroit Lions, and misread the play on a few of them. If non-football folk can spot that, you can be sure Belichick knows it, too. The Wallace and Thompson pair have to be mentally sharp heading into this game because I believe we’ll see the Patriots test them as it goes along.
4) One more week, at least, for the starting five
- For the first time in a few weeks, the offensive line of the Buffalo Bills looked passable — and to the point where Josh Allen had some time to operate in the backfield. However, it’s fair to point out that in the second half, the Lions primarily only rushed three defenders at Allen, while keeping seven defenders in coverage, and using their remaining defender as a spy if Allen tried to take off and run. They wanted Allen to prove that he could beat them from the pocket, to which he did down the stretch. However, because of that passable performance from the offensive line, it’s quite likely that the Bills will keep the same starters from the last two weeks — which includes both right guard John Miller and right tackle Jordan Mills. Not to mention, McDermott made it clear on Friday that his primary objective is to keep his rookie quarterback upright and healthy, and subjecting him to two more young players being in front of him doesn’t sound like something that McDermott is interested in pursuing the duration of a full game. However, I do believe that we’ll see undrafted rookie guard Ike Boettger receive two or three offensive series against New England, much like he did versus Detroit. I thought Boettger looked pretty good in pass blocking, but with such a small sample size, it’s hard to form a definitive conclusion one way or another. He piques the team’s interest, but I don’t think it’s enough to get him a start on Sunday.
5) Will Croom get a more significant look?
- Following the win over the Lions, I made mention of how starter Charles Clay has seen his snaps reduced significantly over the last two weeks — and what is likely to be a non-coincidence, it started following his drop in the end zone in Miami. In games that Clay had been fully healthy and went through the whole afternoon or evening, the starter was receiving nearly 75-percent of the team’s offensive snaps — which is a humongous share of time on the field and indicative of a core player. The last two weeks, though, Clay’s snap percentage went down to 55 against the Jets, and 60 against the Lions, and when it’s a 15-to-20-percent drop in time on the field, that’s noteworthy in football terms. Last week, the Bills gave the young Jason Croom more responsibility and his highest snap share of the season in games where both Clay and Croom have been healthy all the way through. Clay is the Bills’ odds-on-favorite to be a cap casualty, considering both the lack of production and the fact that he possesses an albatross of a contract. I would not be surprised, given how Croom came up with a huge 50-50 catch in a clutch moment to help seal the game on the final offensive drive, to see Clay’s snaps go down even more than what we’ve seen each of the last two weeks in an effort to get Croom more time on the field. They need to find out if Croom can play a meaningful role for them because if he can’t, they have to figure out someone who can in the offseason.
OUT: CB Ryan Lewis (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Chris Ivory (shoulder)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Brandon King (knee)
Bills Projected Inactives: QB Derek Anderson, RB Chris Ivory, WR Victor Bolden Jr., G Vladimir Ducasse, DE Eddie Yarbrough, CB Ryan Lewis, S Dean Marlowe
Prediction: Patriots over Bills
- While this is a barometer game for both Josh Allen and the rest of the Bills to gauge their progress in 2018, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a win in New England to consider the afternoon a victory. The sneaky part about this Bills-Patriots matchup is that head coach Sean McDermott, and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, have done a great job in scheming against Tom Brady and the Patriots in their three previous showdowns. And on Monday Night Football, the Bills were in the game far longer than they should have been, given the lack of offensive output. If Allen and the Bills stay within themselves, put up some points against a beatable Patriots defense, and keep it close against the AFC East leaders, the Bills, and their fans, will likely be feeling great about the state of things heading into the offseason — especially with potentially $100 million in cap space and ten draft picks on the horizon. Sunday will be a fascinating game to track, but ultimately, you can’t go against Brady and Belichick at home against a rookie quarterback, and with this Patriots team being angry that they’ve lost their last two games. The NFL isn’t usually about statement losses or moral victories, but this is as good of an opportunity for one for an organization as you’ll find.