1. The battle for the AFC East
Bills fans need no reminder, but here it goes: The Patriots have won the AFC East 11 straight years and 17 times since the turn of the century. The Bills are looking for their first division title since 1995.
Nothing will be set in stone regardless of the outcome on Sunday. That said, this game is undeniably a chance for the 5-2 Bills to create a cushion in the standings between them and a Patriots team that has started 2-4 in its first season without quarterback Tom Brady.
Find the nearest wooden table to knock on before reading this next paragraph. Entering Week 8, the Bills have a 79-percent chance to win the AFC East according to the model developed by the website FiveThirtyEight. Football Outsiders pegs the Bills' chances at 82.8 percent. A victory would only help those odds.
Furthering the potential symbolism of a Bills win, it would mark the first victory over the Patriots since Sean McDermott took over as head coach in 2017. Buffalo last defeated New England on Oct. 2, 2016, when Jacoby Brissett was starting in place of a suspended Brady.
2. Combatting the Patriots' ground game
The Patriots rank seventh in the NFL in rushing yards (930) and fifth in yards per attempt (5.0). Their rushing offense ranks seventh according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric (defense-adjusted value over average) at 2.4 percent.
The Bills rank 26th in defensive DVOA against the run, having allowed 887 yards for an average of 4.6 yards per carry.
"I know they're running the ball extremely well," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of the Patriots. "That's been a little bit of a problem for us at times, so that's something we'll have to dig deep into and get a handle of their run game."
Damien Harris leads the way among Patriots running backs with 177 yards on 33 carries, with Sony Michel (173 yards) and Rex Burkhead (154) right behind him – though none of them hold the title as the Patriots' leading rusher.
That distinction belongs to quarterback Cam Newton, who has added a rushing element the Patriots did not possess with Brady under center. Despite appearing in only five games, Newton ranks fourth among quarterbacks with 244 rushing yards and is tied for second with five touchdowns.
Facing Newton – who will remain the Patriots' starter after being replaced by Jarred Stidham during a three-interception performance last Sunday – will present an opportunity for the Bills defense to improve on an area that hampered them against Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in Week 6.
"That was one of our goals going into the game, was to – as much as we can – keep [Mahomes] in the pocket," Frazier said following that game. "… It's something we got to continue to work on when we face mobile quarterbacks."
One question mark concerning the Patriots is their offensive line, which saw a pair of starters in Joe Thuney and Justin Herron leave last week's game with ankle injuries.
3. The continued evolution of the Bills offense
A 0-for-5 day in the red zone meant they had no touchdowns to show for it, but the Bills offense showed it can sustain long drives during their 18-10 win over the Jets last week. McDermott credited Josh Allen with staying patient and taking what was given by a defense looking to prevent big plays.
The question is whether the Patriots follow in the footsteps of the Titans, Chiefs, and Jets by playing coverages that force the Bills to utilize short passes underneath. The Patriots have allowed 7.7 net yards per passing attempt, according to Pro Football Reference – the third highest mark in the NFL. Their average depth of targets is fourth highest, at 9.4 yards.
The Patriots gave Allen trouble in their meeting at Bills Stadium last season, a 16-10 Patriots victory that saw the Bills quarterback throw three interceptions. Allen has pointed to that game as a turning point for his career.
"I think it was a mindset change, for sure," Allen said earlier this season. "After that game, I had numerous talks with (offensive coordinator Brian) Daboll, McDermott, and (general manager Brandon) Beane. I made a vow to them, and I'll keep that in-house, that I'd be a better quarterback and do things the right way."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick noted the improvements in Allen's overall game.
"I think that Josh does a good job of going to some of the secondary outlet receivers based on the coverage, where that takes him and if it's open he'll throw it for sure, and if it isn't then he's, I would say, not as quick to pull the ball down to run," Belichick said.
"He finds secondary receivers and outlets and check downs and that kind of thing. Now, he's still a dangerous runner – I'm not saying that. He can run and he does run, but I think he's become more patient and just does a better job of dealing with outlet receivers in the coverage or secondary receivers in the pattern than he did."
4. Stefon vs. Stephon
Stefon Diggs has played as advertised and then some during his first season with the Bills, leading the AFC with 603 receiving yards and tied for the conference lead with 48 receptions. Patriots cornerback Stefon Gilmore is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
In other words, this one should be fun to watch.
Gilmore has allowed 16 completions on 30 targets, according to Pro Football Reference. His completion percentage against (53.3) and yards allowed per target (7.3) are higher than they have been in either of the past two seasons.
5. Which Bills players will return this week?
The Bills activated offensive guard Jon Feliciano from injured reserve Tuesday, though his status for the game has not been determined. Feliciano has been on IR since July 31 after having surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, though he has practiced with the Bills in recent weeks.
The Bills leaned on Ike Boettger at left guard last week in the absence of Cody Ford, who missed the game with a knee injury. Brian Winters has held the starting job at right guard since Week 3.
Feliciano started all 16 games last season.
Sean McDermott also announced on Wednesday that wide receiver John Brown would return to practice. Cornerback Josh Norman and guard Cody Ford would not practice on Wednesday.