1. Should the Bills be balanced?
There is little debate that Buffalo's calling card on offense is their passing game with Josh Allen and his handful of weapons. But around midseason, Bills head coach Sean McDermott demanded that his team play more physical at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Coming down the stretch Buffalo's men in the trenches have exhibited some of their most consistent physical play all season.
The results have been obvious. On offense, their run game has found traction and been productive with the second-most rushing yards in the league (636) and the seventh highest yards per carry average over the final month of the season (4.82). The Bills' run game has been instrumental in carrying the offense through some stretches of inconsistent execution in the passing game in three of their last four games.
"It's great timing," said Stefon Diggs of Buffalo's run game. "You're trying to play your best football toward the end of the season, and being able to run the ball first, not having to force to throw the ball every opportunity – being able to just hand it off or run with your quarterback, designed runs, stuff like that takes a lot of pressure off your offense and off your receivers as well. I feel like we love it. The run helps the pass, and the pass helps the run. I feel like it opens up some windows for us, and it'll continue to grow if we continue to build off it."
When one considers how New England's run defense has slid from eighth in the league to 22nd in the span of seven weeks and is giving up the seventh-highest yards per carry average to opponents in the final month of the regular season (4.84), one wonders if there are multiple ways for Buffalo's offense to exploit the Patriots' defense.
Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who got some of his most valuable experience as an NFL assistant under Bill Belichick in New England, naturally wouldn't provide any hints as to what Buffalo's approach might be on Saturday night. He did, however, promise that the Bills' approach would be different from what it was in their Week 16 matchup three weeks ago.
"We've played them here recently, toward the end of the season in a short time frame," Daboll said. "So, there's some good familiarity with the players and the matchups. But schemes change. Each game is its own game, particularly against a team like this, that couldn't be more true."
What is beneficial to Daboll, and his offensive staff is his unit's recent production on the field must give him confidence that there is more that he can turn to than just Josh Allen's arm.
2. Defensive dominance
Also peaking at the right time is Buffalo's defensive front. The back seven for defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has been dominant all season long as evidenced by the Bills top defensive ranking in pass defense, yards per pass play, completion percentage allowed, opponent passer rating and passing touchdowns allowed. But Buffalo's pass rush has leveled up their play in the final month of the season and it has stifled their opponents when they've tried to go to the air.
"I think throughout the year we've been an aggressive defense," said Frazier. "We hit a bump in the road along the way where we maybe didn't have the production that we would have liked, but I think that's always been there. It's just coming to the forefront a little bit more as the season has gone on. But our guys have always wanted to be an in your face, let's get this done style defense."
What has taken place up front is defensive tackles Ed Oliver and Harrison Phillips have asserted themselves as game wreckers on the interior. It has forced opposing offensive lines to address the way in which they collapse the pocket. That in turn has given Buffalo's edge players more one-on-one matchups and they're winning them.
The Bills lead the league with 19 sacks over the final four weeks of the season. They've also accumulated almost half of their total quarterback hits (47%) over their last four games with 28. Opposing quarterbacks during that span have a passer rating of 56.8, which is almost 10 points lower than Buffalo's season average (65.3).
In the eyes of head coach Sean McDermott, the mix of youth and vets on the defensive front has finally jelled and the pressure they're generating comes in waves with their rotation.
"I think you're seeing the younger guys grow through the course of the season and understanding with better clarity what's expected and how we want to do things and make the system (work)," said McDermott. "I think that's a part of it. I think the leadership of Jerry Hughes is tremendous, Mario (Addison's) leadership and the influence of (defensive line coach) Eric Washington and (assistant defensive line coach) Jacques Cesaire."
Buffalo's improved pass rush is a big reason why the Bills third down defense over the final month of the season was a league-low 20.8 percent.
3. Physicality will matter
Saturday night will be the third meeting this season between these two division rivals. In the first meeting, the Patriots were the more physical team as they chose to run the ball almost exclusively in extremely windy conditions back in Week 13. They did that to the tune of 222 yards on 46 carries for a 4.8 average.
Buffalo proved to be the more physical team in the second matchup in Foxborough as their offensive line pounded out 114 yards on the ground and gave Josh Allen enough time to throw for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns as he wasn't sacked in the game.
Josh Allen fully expects another physical contest considering how the first two games played out.
"It's going to be a 12-round slugfest, in my opinion, and it's going to take all four quarters to win a game," said Allen. "It's hard to beat a team twice in a season. Obviously, that speaks for both sides because we're 1-1 on the season, but again, they beat us at home and that's where we're playing this game. So, we've got to be ready for whatever they can throw at us."
Bills DE Jerry Hughes believes his side of the ball is ready to bring the intensity.
"It's just going to be an old school slobber knocker," said Hughes. "We're going to do what we always do. We're going to go out there and play fast and physical especially up front. We hear all the chirping. We hear guys talking about this and that. That doesn't mean anything because we're going to chop it up and we're going to let the pads do the talking come Saturday."
4. Best red zone offense wins?
While the Patriots (2nd) and Bills (6th) have been two of the better red zone defenses in the league this season, Buffalo has been on a tear to finish the season inside their opponents' 20-yard line.
Over their last four games, the Bills have finished 15 of their last 21 possessions in the end zone for a touchdown efficiency of better than 71 percent (71.4). That includes a 4-for-7 performance against the Patriots in Week 16.
New England has been even better down the stretch this season. In their last four games, they've converted 14 of their last 17 red zone opportunities for touchdowns for a success rate of 82.4 percent.
Bills safety Jordan Poyer credits their run game for their red zone success.
"They're very, very diverse and they've got some good running backs," Poyer said. "They've got good contact balance, run the ball extremely hard. They've got a very solid offensive line that blocks well for them. They're able to turn the dial. When one run is not working, they mix it up and go to the next one. So, we're going to have to play well and execute to win."
The Patriots have run the ball 56 percent of the time on those last 17 red zone possessions, and they've averaged a solid 4.57 yards per carry. Buffalo hasn't been quite as productive on a per carry basis (3.06), but they've created more red zone chances (21).
Flipping it around to each team's red zone defense, New England ranked second allowing their opponents just a 48 percent touchdown rate (47.9%). Buffalo ranked sixth permitting opponents to find the end zone just over 51 percent of the time (51.1%)
Buffalo and New England tied for third fewest red zone touchdowns allowed with 23.
In the two previous meetings this season, Buffalo's offense was more effective in creating red zone opportunities and converted five touchdowns on 11 red zone possessions for a success rate of 45.4 percent. Meanwhile New England managed just four red zone possessions over the two games against the Bills but reached the end zone on three of them for a 75 percent success rate.
5. A cornerback shortage?
The Patriots have been doing their best to work through a shortage at cornerback on their roster the last couple of weeks and the situation got no better on Tuesday. New England placed starting CB Jalen Mills on the Covid-reserve list putting his status for Saturday's game in question. He joins rookie CB Shaun Wade, who went on the Covid-reserve list Monday.
"Mills going on the list is significant one way or the other," said Westwood One national radio analyst Ross Tucker in an appearance on 'One Bills Live' this week. "And the Bills didn't have Beasley or Gabriel Davis for that last game in Week 16 and (Isaiah) McKenzie was awesome. Josh (Allen) was incredible in that game. That could be a problem."
Even if Mills can test out and get off the Covid-reserve list he will not have practiced for the balance of the week. What kind of factor that plays will be interesting as it pertains to New England's defensive game plan?
New England did get slot corner Myles Bryant back off the Covid-reserve list Monday. He missed last week's game in Miami. Being without Bryant the Patriots dressed practice squad CB D'Angelo Ross, who started at nickel and played 68 percent of the snaps. Reserve CB Joejuan Williams played just 24 percent of the defensive snaps.
To help address the potential shortage of corners for Saturday, New England signed CB Cre'Von LeBlanc to their practice squad a day after signing CB D.J. McDaniel, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia, to the practice squad Monday.
The availability of S Kyle Dugger, who is their main coverage player on tight ends, will also be something to keep an eye on after he missed last week's game with a hand injury.
6. Expect the unexpected
If there's one thing that even the least experienced players on Buffalo's roster have learned about facing the Patriots, it's to expect the unexpected. While it is difficult to prepare for something that may or may not show up in the game, there are base rules within Buffalo's offensive and defensive schemes that the players can rely upon even when they may not be completely sure what they're looking at pre-snap.
"Coach Belichick is an exceptional football coach and defensive mind," said Mitch Morse. "The one thing you can expect is the unexpected. So, for us it'll be understanding that they're going to make adjustments (from the last meeting) and game time adjustments as well. For us, it's just understanding our rules. So, it'll be a great battle. For us, it'll just be matching the intensity and playing the best we can as a unit."
Josh Allen and Isaiah McKenzie were the two biggest offensive playmakers in Buffalo's Week 16 victory over the Patriots in Foxborough. Without Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis, who were on the Covid-reserve list, Buffalo still moved the ball with remarkable efficiency against the Patriots then third-ranked defense as they did not punt the entire game. But Allen is expecting a challenging chess match Saturday night.
"They do so many great things, especially on the defensive side of the ball," he said. "Being able to switch coverages, being able to play man coverages out of zone looks and zone coverages out of man looks. They've just got a lot of smart, savvy veteran players over there that play to their strengths and they're extremely well-coached. And when you have that type of defense, they're relying on the offense to make mistakes and expecting the offense to make mistakes because they're so sound fundamentally."
Allen said ball security will be the top priority going into Saturday's game, knowing all the other elements of strategy and player matchups are pretty familiar to both clubs.
"Playing a team three times in the season, we know each other extremely well," Allen said. "They know us, we know them, so it's whoever can adjust quicker. Whoever can show a different look than we saw maybe the first go-around or the second go-around and throw a different wrinkle in again. That's why coach Belichick is one of the, if not the, greatest coach of all time, just his ability to switch things up for a quarterback and make you see two different things."
In his last four meetings with the Patriots, Allen has posted a 3-1 record, completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 933 yards with eight touchdown passes against one interception for a passer rating of 101.7. He also has 32 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown over that span.