1. AFC East there for the taking
The Week 16 rematch between the Bills and Patriots puts the AFC East title on the line for the second time in three weeks. New England's win over Buffalo on Dec. 6th put them in the driver's seat for the division title. But after the Patriots loss to Indianapolis, the opportunity is there for the Bills to seize control of the division.
Buffalo's players are understandably motivated for the rematch.
"Extremely excited," said Jordan Poyer. "What an opportunity to play the game we love in a meaningful game in December. You grow up watching these games, I grew up watching football where you are sitting on the couch with your homies and the family. You watched the games in December, and these are the games that you said growing up, 'I want play in that type of game right there.' So, we're excited for the opportunity, and we can't wait. It's a great matchup."
A Buffalo victory on Sunday in Foxborough would allow the Bills, who would be 9-6 with a win, to pull even with the Patriots, who would fall to 9-6 with the loss. More importantly, it would give Buffalo the tiebreaker advantage, momentarily, over New England for first place in the division.
Two teams tied within a division first use a head-to-head tiebreaker, which in this scenario would be even with each team having one victory in the two meetings. The next tiebreaker would be division record, and this is where a win by the Bills Sunday would give them the edge. A win for Buffalo in Foxborough would lift them to a 4-1 division record. New England with a loss Sunday would have a 3-2 division record, which would put them second in the East.
Both teams have a division game remaining in Week 18. Buffalo hosts the Jets and the Patriots travel to Miami to play the Dolphins. As long as the Bills win their final two games, including the Jets game they would win the East due to a superior 5-1 division record, provided they win on Sunday.
If New England were to win on Sunday, they would eliminate any chance for Buffalo to win the division this season by virtue of a head-to-head sweep, should they wind up tied on overall record at season's end.
A win by New England Sunday could potentially clinch the AFC East title for them if it's coupled with a loss by Miami against the Saints in New Orleans.
The Patriots can also clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Bills and a few combinations of two or three other AFC clubs losing in Week 16 (LV + LAC loss; IND + CIN loss; IND + BAL + PIT loss; IND + LAC loss; BAL + CLE + PIT loss).
2. Turning the tide in tight games
In every one of Buffalo's wins this season they have won handily. In fact, their eight wins have been by an average of 25 points. The Bills' problem has been their inability to win the close games. Five of their six losses this season have been one score games, including their first meeting with the Patriots (14-10).
So, what can be done to change course in tight games late?
"That's football," said Josh Allen. "I think last year in one-possession games, we were like almost the opposite. So, part of it's the game. The other team gets paid too, but at the end of the day, we've got to continue to try to make plays and execute a game plan and put ourselves in position to win football games instead of not winning them. So just bearing down and focusing on the play and the situation at hand and trying to attack the next week that way."
Allen is right, Buffalo was 5-0 in one-score games in 2020. Changing the narrative in 2021 will be critically important in Sunday's game knowing the oddsmakers have New England favored by less than a field goal.
"Most games really come down to the last possession or the last play of the game, especially this time of year," said Poyer. "Unfortunately, we came up short in a couple games this year. So, just really having that mindset, especially early on the game, being able to take one play at a time. There's stuff that's going to happen out there on the football field that maybe you had a bad play but being able to reset and refocus and understand it's a four-quarter game. Then when you have those plays (make them)."
The Patriots haven't been great in one-score games either this season, but they've been better than Buffalo, going 3-3 thus far in 2021.
3. Receiver watch
Injuries are an all-too-common factor in limiting the availability of players at this point in the regular season. Entering Week 16, both the Patriots and Bills have injuries at the receiver position, but they also have receivers on the Covid/reserve list this week.
New England's Nelson Agholor sustained a concussion in the game against the Colts last week and did not practice on Wednesday. He was joined on the non-participation list by fellow receiver Kendrick Bourne, who landed on the COVID/reserve this earlier this week.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did indicate that Bourne has a chance to test out of the protocol by Sunday as he is vaccinated.
That is not the case for Buffalo WR Cole Beasley, who was very public about not being vaccinated and will be away from the team for 10 days after he went on reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday. Added to that list on Friday was fellow WR Gabriel Davis. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that he too is unvaccinated per his league sources. If that is in fact the case, Davis would not only miss Sunday's all important game against the Patriots, but the team's Week 17 game against Atlanta.
With Beasley and Davis out for Sunday's game, the likely replacements are Isaiah McKenzie in the slot, who filled the role capably in the preseason and Emmanuel Sanders outside.
Emmanuel Sanders, who got a veteran rest day on Friday, practiced fully on Thursday in his return from a knee injury suffered in Week 14 at Tampa Bay that forced him to miss last week's game against Carolina. He too however, has slot experience.
"I think it would be a big boost for us, just given his talent level, his knowledge, and the juice and the knowledge that he brings," said Allen of Sanders. "So, whether he's ready to go or not, not up to me, but we'll see. I want him out on the field with us."
Jake Kumerow would presumably be the team's fourth wideout and rookie Marquez Stevenson the five.
4. Marquee matchup
One of the most prolific receivers and one of the most opportunistic cornerbacks in the league will square off on Sunday when the Bills and Patriots meet in Foxborough. In the Week 13 matchup between Buffalo and New England, Patriots top corner J.C. Jackson followed Bills top wideout Stefon Diggs for much of the game. According to NextGen Stats, Jackson shadowed Diggs on a little over 90 percent of the snaps (28 of 31).
Aided by extremely windy weather, Jackson held Diggs to four receptions for 51 yards with Diggs barely unable to come up with a deep touchdown pass from Josh Allen that hit him in the forearm and fell incomplete.
Over their last three meetings, Diggs has a pair of touchdowns against Jackson, both coming in Week 16 last season, and Jackson has one interception, coming in the Week 8 meeting in 2020.
Jackson has the second lowest passer rating allowed when in press coverage, an approach he has employed in the last three meetings against Diggs on just over 70 percent of the plays in which Diggs was targeted (70.5%). Jackson's passer rating allowed this season while in press coverage is second-best in the NFL at 52.9.
Diggs meanwhile has five receiving touchdowns against press coverage this season, which is second in the league to only Mike Evans.
5. Third down dip?
The Patriots have been a top 10 third down conversion offense for almost the entire season. They currently rank seventh in the NFL with a success rate of 43 percent. But New England's ability to move the sticks on third down has taken a dip over their last four games.
Mac Jones and company on offense have converted just 16 of their last 49 third down opportunities, for a success rate of just over 32 percent, a 10 percent drop from their season average.
The problem appears to be rooted in the Patriots' inability to get in third and short to medium situations. Of their last 49 third down plays over the last four games, 29 have been 3rd-and-5 or more (59%). New England converted just nine of those plays (31%).
Perhaps even more notable the Patriots' poorest showing on third down over their last four games came against Buffalo three weeks ago when they converted just two of their 12 third downs in that game. Yes, both teams were limited by extreme weather conditions, but New England's main problem was they could not get into third and short situations against Buffalo's defense.
6. Play-action battle
Buffalo's number one ranked pass defense has been a thorn in the side of just about every quarterback they've faced this season. That has been particularly true when opposing quarterbacks turn to play-action in an effort to beat the Bills coverage schemes.
New England's Mac Jones, however, is a pretty accomplished passer when it comes to being efficient in play action situations. Thus far this season, Jones has a 78.8 completion percentage on play action passes, which is the highest by a qualified quarterback in any season in the NextGenStats era (since 2016).
"He's a good young quarterback," said Bills head coach Sean McDermott of Jones. "I thought he executed well (against the Colts), particularly when they got behind. I thought that was impressive what he was able to do and bringing their team back. It's clear they have a lot of trust and confidence in him."
As impressive as it might be we should note that Jones has the eighth fewest play action pass attempts in the league this season (92) and the Patriots rank 20th in play action passing yards with 815 according to pro-football-reference advanced stats.
For what it's worth Buffalo's offense leads the NFL in play action passing yards with almost twice the number of the Patriots total with 1,482. And Josh Allen leads the NFL in touchdown passes off play action (14).
The Bills top ranked pass defense also ranks first in completion percentage allowed to opposing quarterbacks on play action pass attempts. Opposing QBs are completing just 48 percent of their play action passes against the Bills this season, the lowest rate allowed by any team in any season in the NGS era.