It's been 10 weeks since the Bills have faced the Patriots and there's been a lot of change since these two division rivals last saw each other, namely on the offensive side of the ball.
Buffalo will go against New England quarterback Bailey Zappe who is 2-2 this season as a starter since taking over the job in Week 13. Zappe has a 6-2 TD to INT ratio during that span with both of his wins coming on the road (Pittsburgh, Denver).
In the Week 7 loss, the Bills went against Mac Jones and will now see a different look with Zappe under center. Bills assistant head coach and defensive line coach Eric Washington went into detail Thursday on the biggest change he's seen in the Patriots offense with Zappe at QB.
"I think he's taking care of the football. I think the offense, I think they have an offensive philosophy that has persisted and this young man is doing a little bit better job of taking care of the football and not giving the defense opportunities to take the ball away and some of those types of things," Washington said.
Zappe engineered his first career NFL game-winning drive last week in Denver and will aim to build off that success against Buffalo. The second-year QB also showed he was capable of stretching the field, going 5 for 5 on passes that traveled at least 20 yards.
On the flip side, Buffalo's offense under interim OC Joe Brady is not the same as it was in the previous meeting. Since Week 12, Buffalo is averaging 165.5 rushing yards per game, the second most in the NFL during that span. New England is allowing the fewest yards per rush (3.2) in the league this season and second fewest yards per game on the ground (84.8).
These contrasting styles should make for an interesting chess match this week. Brady says the Patriots defensive system utilizing each player's strength is what stands out about that unit.
"They do such a unique job. They got such a clear vision for how they want to utilize each player," Brady said. "It's as good of a defense as we're going to face all year. So it's a great opportunity for us. We gotta know they're going to make you earn every single yard."
The Bills offense has found their stride late in the season and Brady credits the open line of communication he has with head coach Sean McDermott as part of the reason he's been comfortable calling plays.
"He has clear expectations of what he wants. He allows us to do our job," Brady said.
An example of that, Brady explains, is McDermott offering insight from a defensive perspective on what personnel packages and plays are tough for opposing defenses to go against.
"He'll chime in with that," Brady said. "And I greatly appreciate that. So just that dialogue, that communication, it's been great."
While New England's season hasn't gone the way they wanted to, McDermott still sees Patriots coach Bill Belichick as one of the best coaches in the league, regardless of their record.
"He's accomplished so much," McDermott said of Belichick. "I think most coaches, if not all coaches, are learning from coach Belichick and then also trying to get to where he's been for years. He's changed the game in a lot of ways, just speaking big picture league wise, he's changed the game in a lot of ways and I think the league has listened to some of his recommendations. He's an extremely smart person."
Sunday at 1 p.m. will be important for the Bills in more ways than one. A win over the Patriots will increase their playoff chances to over 90% — and it's possible they clinch a playoff spot pending results from other AFC teams in the afternoon slate.
Simultaneous to Buffalo's game against New England will be the Dolphins battling the Ravens in Baltimore. The Bills need a Dolphins loss to the Ravens to have a chance to win the AFC East in Week 18. A Miami win Sunday would mean the Bills can only secure a Wild Card berth.
While McDermott vividly remembers scoreboard watching in 2017 when Buffalo ended the playoff drought, he says this year his focus will be solely on trying to beat the Patriots.
"I'm trying to win one game. That's really where we're at. I'm not really focused on watching the scoreboard," McDermott said. "I'm just really into our process right now and trying to figure out a way to beat New England."