Weekend Look Ahead

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8 things to watch for in Bills at Patriots | Monday Night Football

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1. Bills can reclaim No. 2 seed in AFC with a victory

Last week a Bills victory meant they would clinch the AFC East division title and Buffalo came through in resounding fashion blowing out the Broncos 48-19. That win also gave them a temporary hold on the No. 2 seed in the conference, until Pittsburgh's win over Indianapolis pushed them a half game in front of Buffalo again.

Buffalo would've had an opportunity to clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a win over New England tonight had the Steelers lost to the Colts along with Tennessee's loss at Green Bay.

Now all a win tonight would give the Bills is the ability to reclaim the No. 2 seed from the Steelers based on a head-to-head tiebreaker knowing Buffalo beat Pittsburgh in Week 14.

But a win this evening doesn't clinch the AFC's No. 2 seed.

The Bills would also have to beat the Dolphins in Week 17 to do that.

Doing so is advantageous because it would ensure that Buffalo gets two home playoff games, instead of just one as a division winner.

With a win at Gillette Stadium tonight and a win over Miami at Orchard Park next Sunday, the Bills would be home for their Wild Card playoff game. If they win their Wild Card game they would again be home for the Divisional round of the playoffs.

"It's always important to get as high a seed as you can," said head coach Sean McDermott. "That's my firm belief. We want to get as high a seed as we can and play as well as you can and win the games moving forward that you can control. I just think we want to play our best football. I really believe that. We've got a competitive locker room, competitive coaching staff and we want to continue to do our best to grow as a football team at the same time and I think the guys would say the same thing. When you go out there, you want to win."

2. Bills enter game with rare opportunity

In years past it was considered respectable to earn a split with the Patriots, who for the balance of the 21st century, have dominated the AFC East. But the Bills have the power to change that conversation on Monday night.

Buffalo, which has already clinched the East this season, is the only AFC East club left with the ability to complete a season sweep of the Patriots in 2020.

They earned a 24-21 victory of New England in Week 8, giving them the opportunity to sweep the Pats with a win on Monday night. The Patriots have gone 19 straight seasons without being swept by a division opponent. It's the longest streak in the league since the NFL merger in 1970.

Buffalo hasn't swept the New England since 1999, but the Dolphins and Jets both swept the Patriots in the 2000 season.

This year Miami split their season series with New England, while the Jets were swept by the Patriots.

3. Newton or Stidham?

Having been eliminated from playoff contention, the Patriots have no real stake attached to the Monday night game, so a frequent question asked of Bill Belichick this week has been if Jarrett Stidham might start at quarterback to enable the team to get a better evaluation of the second-year signal caller.

New England's head coach never gave a clear answer last week. ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported over the weekend that a source has told him that Newton will start barring a late change.

With Newton playing in the first game against Buffalo back in Week 8, he was the team's second-leading rusher and had a rushing touchdown. Newton also had a costly fumble in Buffalo territory on the Patriots' last drive in regulation that ultimately cost them the game.

Stidham has only appeared in four games this season with 33 total pass attempts. His last appearance came in Week 14 in New England's 24-3 loss at the hands of the Rams.

"What we have on tape is watching Cam (Newton) and watching him operate the offense," said Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "Stidham has been in there in mop up roles at times. We'll have to project and see what happens as the week goes on. I think we have to prepare for Cam at this point until we hear otherwise. And that's how we'll approach it.

Whether Newton starts and plays the whole game or just a half, NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell, in his weekly appearance on 'One Bills Live' said New England's offense will look different if and when Stidham is in the lineup as opposed to Newton.

"With Cam Newton it's so obvious by what they're doing offensively, they're telling you that they don't want Cam Newton throwing the football," Cosell said. "With Stidham in the game it would become a more conventional offense because you won't have to defend the quarterback run game. He's essentially a pocket quarterback. He can move a little bit, but he's not a guy who is going to beat you out of the pocket with any consistency or any designed runs. So the way you rush the quarterback changes with Jarrett Stidham. The overall defensive approach for the Bills would change, so my guess is coach McDermott has them preparing for both."

Newton has not provided much of a passing presence in New England's lineup. In 13 games this season, the veteran quarterback has produced just five touchdown passes against 10 interceptions, with three of those touchdown tosses coming in his last six appearances.

4. Point scoring problems

For a long time sticking the ball in the end zone was the least of New England's problems. With Tom Brady as the trigger man and a smooth-running machine of an offense orchestrated by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the Patriots ranked in the top five in point differential per game in each of the last four seasons (1st, T-1st, 5th, 2nd).

This season they rank 18th in point differential per game with a mark of minus one. If the Patriots finish with a negative point differential average this season, it will mark the first year that's happened since the 2000 season when they were a minus 3.9 on average.

New England has not ranked lower than fifth in the league in point differential per game since 2013 when they were eighth. They've ranked in the top five in 10 of the last 11 seasons in this category.

5. Bills 'D' raising its game

Likely to make execution even tougher for New England's offense is the improved play of Buffalo's defense since their last meeting. They surrendered 21 points to the Patriots in their first meeting but have allowed fewer than 20 in three of their last four outings. Meanwhile New England has scored less than 15 in their last two games.

The Bills third-down defense over their last three games has been dramatically better than their first 10 games. Since the bye, Leslie Frazier's group has dropped opponents' third-down conversion rate by more than 15 percent (46.5% to 31.4%).

Buffalo has been especially opportunistic when they rush just their front four in passing situations. They rank second in the league with 11 interceptions and it's due in part to their pressure rate of 26.2 percent in non-blitz situations.

The Bills blitz scheme has also yielded better results of late. Since Week 10 Buffalo has reduced opponent's completion percentage to less than 50 percent (48.5%) and passer rating to just 66.5, a drop of more than 44 points from the passer rating of opposing QBs against Buffalo's blitz the first nine games of the season (111.1).

Even more encouraging is Newton has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL this season against the blitz with a passer rating of 71.9.

6. Will Patriots rely on man coverage again?

In the first meeting between the Bills and Patriots, New England decided to play a good deal of man coverage, something their secondary executes quite effectively. The Pats play man coverage 46.5 percent of their defensive snaps, the third-highest rate in the league. It's one of the reasons the Pats defense ranks sixth in the league in opponent passer rating (86.1).

Back in Week 8, their coverage was effective enough in convincing the Bills to run the ball more than they passed it, one of only two games for Buffalo this season where that occurred. Fortunately for the Bills they averaged five yards per carry and rolled up 190 yards on the ground.

But knowing Josh Allen had his third-lowest completion percentage of the season in their first meeting (61%) will head coach Bill Belichick and his defensive staff choose a similar approach Monday night?

"Well he'll do it differently, but his general approach will be the same," surmised Cosell. "Belichick plays defense to not give up big plays. He'll try to make Josh work through his progressions. The last time they played the Patriots they played a ton of man coverage. That could be one thing that changes this time. They may not play as much man. I still believe that Belichick would prefer for Josh Allen to hand the ball off."

The reason that is even more likely to be the case is because Allen is a much-improved quarterback when facing man coverage, even since Week 8. Thus far this season, Buffalo's QB has a 114.2 passer rating against man coverage, which is the seventh-best figure in the league.

Allen has completed almost 68 percent of his passes against man coverage with 13 touchdowns against a single interception while averaging 8.6 yards per attempt.

"I think when he looks at this Bills team he knows that Josh Allen is the number one weapon here," said Cosell of Belichick. "So if he can get the Bills to hand the ball off to Moss and Singletary 30 times I think he'd be fine with that. Obviously, he'd want to stop them, but it's still better dealing with them than having Josh pushing the ball down the field for 25-yard plus completions."

7. Pats secondary much more than just Gilmore

The task for the New England's secondary isn't all that different from what it was in their first meeting with Buffalo as they won't have top corner Stephon Gilmore in the lineup again this week. Gilmore will miss his second straight game against the Bills after sustaining a partially torn quadriceps muscle last week against Miami that required surgery. Gilmore was placed on injured reserve this past week.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year missed the first meeting with the Bills in Week 8 due to injury as well. But New England's secondary runs far deeper than the former Bills cornerback.

In fact, J.C. Jackson, who plays cornerback opposite Gilmore is putting together a breakout season. The third-year pro has matched his combined interception total from his first two seasons in 14 games in 2020 with 8. He also leads the team in pass breakups with 13 and has a pair of fumble recoveries.

His 10 combined takeaways lead the NFL.

Fellow CB Jonathan Jones, who along with veteran Jason McCourty will likely spell Gilmore at times at corner Monday night, is the team's third-leading tackler and ranks third on the team in pass breakups. Jones usually covers the slot receiver.

And Adrian Phillips has been a solid free agent pickup for the Patriots at safety coming over from the Chargers and has paired nicely with Devin McCourty in the middle. Phillips is the team's leading tackler and has a pair of interceptions.

But Jackson in particular has caught Bills coach Sean McDermott's eye.

"Yeah, he's playing at a high level," said McDermott of Jackson. "They do a great job in their back end, they really do. Back seven or eight, however many they play in their different packages, but well coached. Those guys seem to understand what their role is and play at a high level."

Jackson had the only interception of the game off Allen in the Week 8 meeting between the Bills and Patriots.

8. Folk has been bright spot for Pats

The Patriots are hoping that veteran kicker Nick Folk is healthy enough to kick on Monday night. Folk has been working his way through a back injury that has limited him in practice for weeks and has him listed as questionable. However, he hasn't missed a game since dealing with the injury.

While Buffalo's Tyler Bass has been solid hitting 17 of his last 18, with his only miss being a 61-yard attempt, Folk has been New England's most consistent scorer this season.

He has been good on his last 25 consecutive field goal attempts. The Patriots kicker has not missed since Week 1. That streak is just six off the team record of 31 straight set by Stephen Gostkowski.

He also has a chance to post his third career season with a field goal success rate of 90 percent or better as Folk currently has a FG rate of 92.6%.

If Folk can't go the Patriots have two options on their practice squad. They just signed K Roberto Aguayo over the weekend. The former second-round pick of Tampa Bay hasn't kicked in a regular season game since 2016. They also have rookie Justin Rohrwasser from their practice squad. Rohrwasser was their fifth-round pick this past spring.

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