At the top of the Christmas wish list for most Bills fans—a sign, a symbol. Fans are looking for concrete evidence that the balance of power in the AFC East may soon be shifting.
An upset win in Foxboro Sunday would represent that symbol. But the Bills are the usual heavy underdogs as they get set for the annual trio to Gillette Stadium to face New England.
Here are some issues to keep an eye on this weekend as Buffalo moves into week 16:
1. ARE THE PATRIOTS REALLY ‘VULNERABLE?’
That’s been one storyline this week—New England’s back-to-back losses going into this game make them ‘vulnerable’. There’s no shortage of Bills fans (and Dolphins fans, and Jets fans) who are ready to start shoveling dirt on New England’s domination of the AFC East.
But they lost by seven points last week to an offensively talented Pittsburgh team at Heinz Field. The week before, it took a spectacular ‘miracle’ last play in Miami for the Dolphins to nip New England by one.
The facts remain: The Patriots are close to clinching their 10th consecutive division title. They’re unbeaten (6-0) at home this year. They have the greatest quarterback of the generation throwing to a wide variety of offensive weapons. They’re tough to beat.
Bucky Brooks, a longtime football analyst who writes for NFL.com and breaks down games for NFL Network, says New England has lost its’ luster.
“I think anybody who looks at the Patriots, if you just take the logo off the helmet you see a team that is a slow team that really doesn't have the ability to make explosive plays,” Brooks said this week on One Bills Live.
Brooks, a former Bills wide receiver who also scouted in the NFL, says the time is nearing for a new top dog in the AFC East.
“Normally the Patriots will wait for you to crack and they seize on those mistakes that you make, but we’re seeing more chinks in the armor,” he says, “a team that's starting to fall apart in certain places. I think it's time to start thinking about a changing of the guard in the AFC East. I don’t know how long the Patriots can continue to reign on top with the way their roster is presently constructed.”
2. DEREK ANDERSON’S ROLE AS ADVISOR
It’s been a steady track of improvement for rookie quarterback Josh Allen in the four games he’s played since returning from an elbow injury. In the six games he played before leaving the lineup, he averaged 139 yards passing per game. Since his return, he’s averaging 200 yards.
And veteran backup quarterback Derek Anderson has been getting plenty of mentions as one of the top reasons for Allen’s improvement.
Anderson, Allen, and the backup quarterback, Matt Barkley, spend hours every week in the QB meeting room going over Buffalo’s offense and the defensive looks they’ll face. Anderson tells One Bills Live the dialogue continues on the sidelines on Sunday.
“He’ll ask me ‘Hey what’d you see?’ And you know if there’s certain things I’ll say, ‘Hey dude look-- they’re trying to disguise this, they’re showing you this.’”
“For instance, they (the Lions) were showing a quarters look last week and they brought the nickel out of nowhere. It’s just little subtle reminders, ‘Hey dude last time they showed you a quarters look and the nickel fires.’ Just awareness.”
“I try not to get in the way of what he’s doing and give him too much information because he’s an incredible athlete.”
3. IT’S A PROCESS - BUILDING A QB
Bills fans have mostly bought into this season’s goal of getting Josh Allen up to speed on the QB job in the NFL. And it’s a process for sure.
Former NFL coach Bruce Arians has done it with some of the best passers in recent history. Arians, who will be part of the NFL on CBS broadcast team in Foxboro Sunday, has worked with Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger and others.
Arians has written a book about it— ‘The Quarterback Whisperer-How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback.’ The two-time NFL Coach of the Year boiled it down in an appearance this week on One Bills Live.
“You can go out and evaluate arm strength and height, weight, speed, athleticism and all those things,” Arians said. “But the two muscles you use to play that position are your brain and your heart.”
“It’s very hard to judge those and to know if a guy has what I call grit. I’ve been very fortunate to be around some of the best in the game and they all have that one common denominator and that's what I call grit.”
4. TOM BRADY FILLS THE BILL
New England’s Tom Brady has brains and grit, and now 19 years of experience at the QB position. When he lines up under center Sunday, it will be the 266th start of his career, and he’ll move into second place all-time among NFL quarterbacks in starts. Brett Favre is number one with 298 starts. Brady will move ahead of Peyton Manning with his start against the Bills.
And if (probably when) he gets to 21 yards passing Sunday, Brady will have his 10th season of 4,000 or more passing yards. Only Manning (14 seasons) and Drew Brees (12) have more.
5. GILLETTE STADIUM MATTERS FOR PATS
New England has won its’ last 11 games at home going back to last season. And the Patriots finish at home this year with Sunday’s game against the Bills and next week’s matchup with the Jets.
In fact, in the last five seasons, the Patriots have only lost 6 home games. And two of them are to the Bills.
Now, there are small asterisks next to each of those two Bills victories. One of them was the season finale in 2014, when the Patriots rested Brady and other regulars in the second half, and the Bills beat them 17-9.
The other was two years ago, week four in 2016, when Brady was serving his four- game suspension. The Bills shut out Jacoby Brissett and the Patriots 16-0.
6. NEW FACES FOR THE REMATCH
Buffalo’s top two offensive producers lately, QB Josh Allen and WR Robert Foster, did not play against New England two months ago in Orchard Park. Allen was injured, and Foster was serving time on the practice squad.
And New England gets some important additions to their lineup this week also. Rookie RB Sony Michel missed the first matchup. He’ playing now and playing at a high level. Michel, New England’s first round draft pick, leads the team with 765 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Another RB, Rex Burkhead, was on injured reserve in October, but he’s been back in the lineup the last month and has done some good, tough running for the Patriots.
Also, one of New England’s top linebackers, Dont’a Hightower missed the first Buffalo game with an injury. He’ s back in the lineup now.
7. SCOREBOARD WATCHING THIS WEEKEEND
It doesn’t matter much to the Bills, but the Patriots will have an eye on the NFL scoreboard this weekend. Saturday night, New England has some skin in the game when Baltimore plays at the Los Angeles Chargers. L.A. sits in the AFC’s fifth playoff seed right now; the Ravens are sixth. Either one of them could wind up as a Wild Card round opponent for the Patriots.
On Sunday at 1 pm, Miami hosts Jacksonville, and if the Dolphins lose, New England clinches the division and a playoff spot regardless of what happens in Foxboro.
Miami is a long-shot playoff contender. The Dolphins are more likely to finish with a .500 record. One long-time Dolphins observer tweeted this week about Miami’s mediocracy. The Dolphins are 7-7 this year, 19-19 in their last 38-games, 23-23 in their last 46-games, and 66-66 in their last 132 games. That’s more than eight years of .500 football. Amazing.