Welcome to Week 16 where the Bills get round two against the Patriots. This time around the AFC East title is up for grabs. The Patriots seven-game winning streak is over and the Bills are back in the win column. A lot is on the line in this one.
Here are six storylines to follow ahead of Sunday's matchup.
1. The rematch
New England ended Buffalo's nine-game AFC East win streak when the teams met just three weeks ago at Highmark Stadium. This second game of the season series will go a long way to deciding the 2021 winner of the AFC East crown. If the Bills win the next three games, they'll also win the division. If the Patriots lose this week and win the final two games, they'll have the same record as the Bills but Buffalo will have the better division record.
In this rematch, the Bills and Patriots won't have to worry about creating a game plan according to the terrible weather. In Week 13's game each team finished with under 250 total yards, converted less than 32% of their third downs and scored less than 15 points. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones attempted just three passes for 19 yards and the Bills were just 1 of 4 in the red zone. Bills head coach Sean McDermott said the loss was due to the team's inability to make the most of their opportunities.
Buffalo has another chance to make the most of its opportunities in a game that won't have limitations because of weather. This week's forecast calls for clear skies and temperatures in the 40s. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll acknowledged playing meaningful football in December is right where you want to be.
"It's the competition you're looking for," Daboll said. "That's (why) December football games are what they are. High competition level, usually some type of stakes at it. It'll be an important week."
2. Why this game could come down to red zone execution
Like I said above, the Bills red zone execution against the Patriots wasn't the best as they scored a touchdown on just one of four trips. Buffalo got right last week against the Panthers by scoring six on four of five opportunities in the red zone. That is exactly what the Bills want to do in Week 16.
"You got to be able to score touchdowns in the red zone," Bills head coach Sean McDermott said. "I was really proud with what the offense did yesterday (against Carolina), and Coach Daboll and the offensive staff. A high level of execution, which is what we're going to need going forward here."
It won't be easy though because the Patriots defense is the best at limiting teams in the red zone. They allow teams to score touchdowns on just 45.9% of their trips to the red zone. The Bills are scoring touchdowns in the red zone 60.7% of the time, which ranks 12th highest in the NFL. This has been an area that the Bills have improved upon since the first half of the season. Over the last six games, Buffalo's red zone efficiency is 66.7% (4th) compared to the first six games where it was 55.2% (26th).
In Week 13, the Patriots were 0 for 1 in the red zone. Not better than the Bills, but they also didn't have as many chances. New England hasn't been the most efficient in the red zone this season, scoring touchdowns just 54% (24th) of the time when they reach the red zone. They have improved from the beginning of the season when their red zone efficiency was only 44.4% (30th) over the first six games.
The Bills defense has also been one of the top teams in terms of keeping opponents from scoring touchdowns in the red zone by only letting it happen 50% (6th) of the time. They've also allowed only 11 passing touchdowns this season, which is the fewest in the NFL.
Both defenses will try their best to keep teams out of the red zone but when they've been able to make it there, Buffalo has been the more successful team at scoring.
3. Which defense can make the biggest impact?
We may be looking at a low scoring game on Sunday because both defenses are allowing under 18 points a game. That doesn't mean it'll be a snooze fest, though. We will be watching two of the best defenses in the NFL at work against two talented offenses. The Patriots are allowing a league-low 16.21 points per game and the Bills are right next to them allowing 17.36.
They're both limiting quarterbacks to low completion percentages and passer ratings as well. New England is surrendering a 58.1% (2nd) completion rate and a 70.3 (2nd) passer rating. Buffalo is allowing a 57.8% completion rate (1st) and a 66.7 passer rating (1st).
Essentially, they force quarterbacks to have bad days and force turnovers at a high rate. The Bills and Patriots both tie with 27 takeaways, which is the third-most in the NFL. Since Week 11, New England has seven more takeaways than Buffalo with 10.
Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said the team needs to get back to forcing multiple turnovers a game but he's liked the resiliency he's seen out of his group in close games recently.
"The fact that our guys have that stick-to-it attitude, that's a big deal in our league because there's gonna be some ups and downs and highs and lows," Frazier said. "You're going to need a resilient group and you need a high-character group of guys to be able to fight through things. And they've shown that over the last few weeks and they continue to fight, fight, fight, and make plays when we need to make plays."
4. The tale of the two quarterbacks
The Bills know what they have in quarterback Josh Allen and give Allen the freedom to do what many quarterbacks can't. Whether it's using his legs, completing an insane pass, Allen has been a competitor over the last few weeks and a huge reason why the Bills have been in close games.
For Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, it's a bit different. He's a rookie and will certainly grow over the next few years but for right now New England likes to use him in specific ways. Jones has shown his ability to be a very efficient passer as he currently has the third-best completion percentage in the NFL, but their offense goes through their run game and Damien Harris. Harris missed last game and the Patriots rushed for only 81 yards. Jones did throw for two touchdowns, but he also added two interceptions into the mix.
Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier thinks an important factor on Sunday is taking away the Patriots ability to run.
"There's tremendous value in being able to minimize the run game so that quarterback can't lean on it," Frazier said. "Most offenses want to be two-dimensional. They want to be balanced and be able to run the ball, play action pass, and take shots down the field. So when you take that run game away and make them a one-dimensional offense, it's just so much easier for us to defend that style of offense versus when it's balanced."
Over the last four weeks, Allen ties for the NFL lead with 11 total touchdowns and Jones has just four. So, which quarterback will carry their team to victory?
5. Who's available?
It's hard to keep up here because it seems like every day more players are being added to the Reserve/Covid-19 list on both teams. Thankfully, the Bills aren't dealing with too many injuries to pile onto that list.
Here are the current Bills players on the Reserve/Covid-19 list as of Wednesday morning:
- LB Tyrel Dodson
- LT Dion Dawkins
- G Jon Feliciano
- DE A.J. Epenesa
- WR Cole Beasley
Here are the Patriots currently on the Reserve/Covid-19 list:
- WR Kendrick Bourne
- LB Harvey Langi
- LB Cameron McGrone
- LB Ronnie Perkins
- G Yasir Durant
- RB J.J. Taylor
That's 11 players in total who are on the Reserve/Covid-19 list and their status for Sunday is up in the air.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (knee) did not play on Sunday and was deemed week-to-week per Sean McDermott. Sanders' status is also unknown but we will get an update from McDermott on Wednesday.
Patriots wide receiver Nelson Agholor (head), wide receiver N'Keal Harry, linebacker Ja'Whauan Bentley (ankle), defensive lineman Carl Davis did not finish Saturday's game against the Colts. Running back Damien Harris did not play on Saturday and has been dealing with a hamstring injury since their last game against the Bills.
This is definitely something to keep an eye on this week as plenty of the Patriots and Bills playmakers might be questionable throughout the week.
6. Early forecast
Don't worry there's no 55 mph gusts of wind or sideways rain in Sunday's forecast. It's looking like there will be a high of 40 degrees on Sunday with some sunshine. There will be some NW winds up to 10 mph and a 24% chance of rain during the day.
That means the game plan won't have to change because of weather in Foxborough. That's a win for both teams.
"From my understanding the conditions will be a lot better, and not nearly as severe as that Monday night game," Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "That will change the strategy on both sides' part and then we'll have to adjust as the game goes. But we expect it to be a different game just because the conditions will be different."