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Joe B: 5 things to watch for in Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots (12/23/17)

Posted at 8:42 PM, Dec 23, 2017

‘The Buffalo Bills have two games left, and if they are successful in both, there is an extremely high chance that they will be going to the NFL Playoffs for the first time since the 1999 regular season. The trouble is, the first of their two opponents just so happens to be the team that has had their number for over a decade now, and have something incredibly important to play for themselves.

The Bills will be up against the New England Patriots on the road — a team that is trying to secure home-field advantage throughout the duration of the playoffs — and they could even secure it on Sunday with a win over the Bills (along with some help, too).

Do the Bills stand a chance against the team that beat them soundly earlier in the year, and the one that has always stood in the way throughout the playoff drought? Five things to watch for during the Bills-Patriots contest:

1) Can the offense keep up?
- Last time the Bills took on the Patriots, the defense did everything they needed to do and set the table for a potential home win over a Super Bowl caliber team. The trouble is, even though the defense held them to only 23 points, the offense was nowhere to be found in the 23-3 loss. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor did not have a good day passing the ball, and even when it seemed like they were about to jump out to an early 7-0 lead, Taylor and the offense threw an untimely interception, and it gave the Patriots an immediate boost. With how potent the Patriots offense is, the level of success the Bills have on their offensive side of the ball will be the telling category as to whether or not they can actually pull off the huge upset on the road. Working in the Bills’ favor, over the past several games, the original scripted first 10-15 plays have gone so well on their opening drive that it puts them in position for points. However, outside of the rest of the first half last week, that opening drive has often turned into the mirage through the rest of the game. The Bills must sustain themselves on offense. If they can get to 25 points in this game, they’ve got a chance to win based on how the defense played last time around. If they struggle to get to 20 — heck, even 10 points — their lives will be on the line in Miami to see if they can actually get to the postseason.

2) A slightly different plan for Gronkowski
- It didn’t come as a surprise to anybody for a few different reasons, but tight end Rob Gronkowski was an absolute beast against the Bills in the first matchup. Gronkowski, like many other tight ends against the Bills before him, ate the zone coverage and mismatches alive to the tune of nine catches for 147 yards — before going through with one of the dirtiest after the whistle hits you’ll see all season. But, that day has passed and both teams have moved on, and there is a reason to believe the Bills might have a bit of a better plan to at least slow down Gronkowski a bit this time. There is a key difference from the last time these two teams squared off — in the starting lineup, no less. The last time the Bills played the Patriots, Ramon Humber was still the starting weakside linebacker ahead of rookie Matt Milano, and as he’s done for most of the season, really struggled in open space and coverage whenever Gronkowski went to his area. Milano is a much more athletic linebacker with a knack for reading the route as it’s happening and has the speed to disrupt the play or to secure the tackle just after the ball is caught. I think there’s a chance we see a lot of Milano — who is a bigger body type with athleticism to his game — on Gronkowski throughout the contest, while the Bills also mix in safety Micah Hyde (something they did in the first game), and maybe even cornerback Tre’Davious White (which is also something they did in the first game). I like the matchup of White against Gronkowski because the rookie will get physical with the hulking tight end, but the only way the Bills can conceivably and comfortably assign White to Gronkowski on some plays is if starting cornerback E.J. Gaines will be eligible to play through a knee injury, and to take up Brandin Cooks in coverage on those plays. If Gaines cannot play, the Bills would be leaving Cooks on an island against the likes of Shareece Wright — who while though is a solid tackler, really struggles against wide receivers that have a lot of speed, like Cooks. So if Gaines is in, the Bills have that much more flexibility in how to cover Gronkowski. If he doesn’t play, expect for it to be Milano or Hyde taking the majority of the reps versus Gronkowski when in a man situation.

3) Defend Brady the same way as last time
- After the first game between these two teams, you have to give a lot of credit to head coach Sean McDermott, who devised an excellent game plan against the New England Patriots pass offense that helped limit them in the first half, and then to allow only 23 points throughout the duration of the game. That is a win in itself, and with how poorly the Patriots have played on the defensive side of the ball in certain areas this season (more on that shortly), 24 points seemed like an incredibly attainable tally for the Bills to sneak out that victory. So this time around, I would expect the Bills to do much of the same that they did the first time around. They need a couple of things in particular — especially when Brady is dropping back to pass: they need continued pressure from the interior of the defensive line in this game, and they also need their linebackers and defensive linemen that drop back into coverage to feel the zone properly enough, to see everything ahead of them — and to not cheat the depth of their coverage — which is something that the Patriots exploited last time over the middle of the field. If the Bills can get that interior pressure and knock Brady on to his back foot to throw a few passes, that will significantly reduce his accuracy and in turn, their potential to put up gaudy statistics and points against the Bills in a crucial game. 

4) McCoy is everything this week
- It was briefly mentioned in the last blurb, but the Bills cannot afford to go away from what makes them their most dynamic form of an offense. LeSean McCoy must be featured all day, no matter if they are winning, tied, or losing — he must be the most critical piece of the offensive attack. It’s been a bit uncanny in the past month or two that when the Bills have gotten down to an opponent, it’s as though they forget about McCoy and the passing offense has to get the team back in it — and it just hasn’t been effective enough in some of the closer games. Now, I understand that if it’s the fourth quarter and they’re down a pair of touchdowns with only seven minutes to play, trying to run it down the Patriots’ throats isn’t the idea that’s most conducive to getting a comeback victory. However, if they start to trail in the second and third quarter, and they continue to follow the inconceivable theory of going away from McCoy that early into the contest, it would be a deserved loss. This Patriots roster, in particular, is susceptible to the run — especially against a player of McCoy’s caliber. If the Bills want to win, McCoy has to be their best player on the field all day.

5) Watch out for Gillislee
- The Patriots have effectively phased former Bills running back Mike Gillislee out of the offense over the past month and change — even making him a healthy scratch for several games in a row. However, this time around, it’s looking a lot more likely that Gillislee will be active for the game without the presence of the injured Rex Burkhead. While Dion Lewis will likely see most of the work out of the backfield, I also believe the Patriots have been likely paying attention to what has gouged the Bills for much of the season. That, quite simply, is running the ball right up through the middle — straight at the defensive tackles and the linebacker trio. Now, the Bills have supplanted Humber with Milano and that has certainly helped the run defense — but the defensive tackles are still getting pushed back two or three yards far too often — and it’s led to a lot of the success opponents have had against them. I wonder if the downhill style of Gillislee — especially in a cold weather game that could turn into a grind-it-out type of contest for the Patriots — could make him at least a part of the game plan in the early stages of the game. If he has some success, especially in a revenge game spot, the Patriots could stick with him a lot like they did a few years ago in a late-season game at Foxboro with LeGarrette Blount. Belichick constantly re-invents his offense to best suit the matchup he’s going up against and the Bills hemorrhage yards to running backs up the middle of the field. Watch out for Gillislee in this spot — especially in the first game without Burkhead in the lineup.

Injury Report

OUT: WR Andre Holmes
QUESTIONABLE: WR Kelvin Benjamin, CB E.J. Gaines, G John Miller, TE Nick O’Leary, DT Kyle Williams

New England
OUT: DT Alan Branch, RB Rex Burkhead
QUESTIONABLE: RB Brandon Bolden, WR Chris Hogan, S Brandon King, DE Eric Lee, WR Matt Slater, LB Kyle Van Noy, T LaAdrian Waddle, RB James White

Prediction: Patriots over Bills
- When the New England Patriots are playing at home, late in the year, with the potential to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs — that’s not something I can pick against. You just really can’t bet against Tom Brady in that spot — no matter how desperate the Bills may be for a victory. In the grand scheme of things, if the total for victories to get into the playoffs in 2017 is nine wins, then this game is the less important one as the Bills are concerned. In tiebreaker scenarios at nine wins — only a win over the Patriots, and not a win over the Miami Dolphins, would be the thing standing in the way of the Bills making it into the playoffs. However, the Bills have a lot at stake in this game, because a pair of wins to end the season would give them 10, and as long as Jacksonville takes care of business one of the next two weeks (or if Tennessee loses to Los Angeles, or if Baltimore loses to Cincinnati), the Bills would be in. The Bills have it all in front of them, but I think a Super Bowl caliber Patriots team that’s playing for something at home late in the year is just too much to overcome in this game.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia