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5 things to watch for in Bills vs. Falcons | Week 17

Micah Hyde. Buffalo Bills vs Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Field in Atlanta, Ga. on October 1, 2017.Photo by Craig Melvin.
Micah Hyde. Buffalo Bills vs Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Field in Atlanta, Ga. on October 1, 2017.Photo by Craig Melvin.

1. 10 or more, 10 or more, 10 or more

The Bills still have some work to do to clinch the AFC East with two games to play. A win on Sunday coupled with a Baltimore loss or a win paired with a Las Vegas and L.A. Chargers loss would get Buffalo into the playoffs.

A win alone by the Bills would tie a rare single-season franchise mark as well. A victory on Sunday would give Buffalo its third consecutive season with 10 or more victories. It would be only the second time in franchise annals that has occurred with the other instance being the stretch between 1990 and 1993 when Buffalo's AFC title winning teams did it for four straight seasons.

Reaching 10 victories this season would also make Sean McDermott just the second head coach in Bills history to have three straight seasons with 10 wins or more joining Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy.

What appears to be working in favor of Buffalo is every one of their victories this season has been by double digits. Meanwhile all but two of Atlanta's eight losses have been by double digits as well. The Bills margin of victory in their nine wins this season has been an average of 23.5 points. The Falcons margin of defeat in their eight losses has been 19.3 points.

2. Pass pressure issues

While the Bills haven't necessarily been sack artists themselves on defense, Atlanta's pass rush has trouble even getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Already saddled with a league-low 16 sacks on the season, the Falcons also rank 31st in the league in quarterback hits. That's a problem when it comes to facing a quarterback like Josh Allen.

Last week, the Patriots had trouble getting pressure on Allen and paid for it dearly. According to NextGen Stats when Buffalo's quarterback was not under pressure, he was 25-34 passing (73.5%) for 262 yards and three touchdowns.

"Josh is a guy that can make every throw on the field. I mean, damn near can throw the ball out of the stadium like those guys you see in those YouTube trick videos," said Falcons head coach Arthur Smith. "He's big, he's tough. He can extend plays. He's hard to tackle. So yeah, he'll be a challenge. He's one of the few guys that actually will go in there and they run some kind of quarterback gap schemes with him. He'll go in between the tackles. That's different than other running quarterbacks. So, we've got our work cut out for us, but we're excited about the challenge."

3. Big play problems

Atlanta's two big-play options are the versatile Cordarelle Patterson and rookie TE Kyle Pitts. The two have combined for 22 of the Falcons' 40 plays of 20 yards or more this season. Pitts has accounted for 15 of those big plays this season, with Patterson responsible for seven. Both are giant targets with uncommon athleticism to match.

Bills WR Stefon Diggs, who is a former teammate of Patterson's in Minnesota, considers him one of the most gifted players he's been around.

"He's probably the most talented person I've ever seen with the ball in his hand besides Adrian Peterson," said Diggs. "He's up there – in my opinion because I played with him – with guys like Dalvin Cook – and even those running backs. He's like 6-2, 225 but he looks a little stronger than that. Our old coach, George Stewart, our receivers coach, used to say he's too strong, too fast and too big. He's one of those guys that's extremely talented, can play all around the field and really just a generational talent."

What's interesting about Patterson is they utilize him more as a checkdown option in the slot. The Falcons use Patterson in much the way the Bills use Cole Beasley. Quick strike, short underneath throws. The difference between Beasley and Patterson, however, is the bigger and stronger Patterson is a much bigger headache after the catch.

Here's just how productive Patterson is in gaining yards after the catch.

On 49 receptions, Patterson has 348 yards after the catch this season, to rank 32nd in the NFL. His former teammate, Stefon Diggs, has 40 more receptions (89), but has 60 fewer yards after the catch than Patterson (288). Add in the fact that he's the Falcons' leading rusher and you begin to understand the versatile weapon he is for Atlanta.

As for Pitts, the Falcons top pick is quickly developing into a dynamic playmaker. Bills safety Jordan Poyer knows with the way Atlanta moves him around everyone on Buffalo's defense will need to be on alert.

"Just a unique athlete, man," said Poyer of Pitts. "A huge target out there for Matt Ryan. They throw it across the middle, and with the ball in his hands, he's tough to (get) down. He lines up at 'X', he lines up in slot, he lines up at tight end, so they use him a lot of different ways. So, he does present a lot of challenges. We're going to have to definitely be communicating on Sunday."

Pitts is running deeper routes as evidenced by his 14.8 yards per reception average, which ranks second in the league among tight ends to only Philadelphia's Dallas Goedert. Pitts needs only 11 receiving yards against the Bills on Sunday for the most receiving yards by a rookie in Falcons team history. He already is one of two rookie tight ends in league history to have 900 yards receiving or more joining Hall of Famer Mike Ditka (1,076).

4. Tackling machine

The Atlanta defense has had more than its fair share of deficiencies this season. They rank in the lower third of most defensive categories, but they have a dynamic player in LB Foye Oluokun.

Second in the league in total tackles with 166, Oluokun just took home NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors last week in Atlanta's 20-16 victory over Detroit. Oluokun not only had 14 total tackles but had the game-sealing interception at the Falcons' one-yard line to preserve the four-point lead.

Oluokun's interception gave Atlanta at least one takeaway in their 11th straight game, the longest active streak in the league and the longest stretch for the Falcons since 2011.

The Falcons' linebacker has 10 games this season with at least 10 tackles, the most by an Atlanta defender since 2000. Oluokun is also tied for the team lead in interceptions and is second on the squad in sacks.

5. A first down edge

The Bills have been solid on first down on both sides of the ball this season. They're one of two teams in the league that rank in the top five both in average gain on first down (6.25 yards) and average gain allowed on first down defensively (4.75 yards). Buffalo ranks second in both. Only Las Vegas ranks in the top five on first down average gain on both sides of the ball.

Buffalo figures to have similar success against an Atlanta squad that struggles to get off to good series starts on first downs whether on offense or defense.

Atlanta gains just 4.98 yards per first down play on offense this season, which ranks 27th in the league this season. On the defensive side of the ball their ranking is only slightly better. The Falcons give up 5.67 yards per play on first down defensively, good for a ranking of 20th in the league.

Perhaps that's why Falcons defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, when asked how best to stop Josh Allen kept it short and simple.

"Don't let him get off the bus."

Buffalo's offense averaged 7.34 per play on first down last week in New England.

As for Buffalo's defense, they've been stingy on first down with their opponents, which has obviously helped them rank second in the league in stopping opponents on third down and getting off the field, allowing a success rate of just 33.2 percent.

"It's a really good defense," said Falcons QB Matt Ryan of the Bills. "Talented in the front seven. Good interior players in the front four. Strong and physical. I think their linebackers play instinctive. They play aggressive. Two really good safeties. They're very strong up the middle. They've had some injuries at the corner spot but with them playing so aggressive and playing so well up front, I think that's the strength of that unit. So, it's going to be a good challenge for us."

Scroll to see photos of the Bills as they prepare for their Week 17 game against the Atlanta Falcons.

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