Here are my five takes on Sunday’s season-finale between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:
1. Don’t run for the bus. It will be tempting. This is, after all, the first game the Bills will have played all season with nothing on the line. Having wrapped up home-field advantage through the playoffs, the Patriots have nothing at stake, either. However, they are going to look to do a little pre-postseason tuning up and will want to grab a bit of momentum to carry them through next weekend’s first-round bye. The Bills allowed themselves to be manhandled on both sides of the line last week at Oakland. It’s likely the Pats will come out seeking to take control early, and if the Bills don’t respond with a solid counter-punch, this could easily turn into the ugliest of blowouts. How important is it for the Buffalo players to show that they are still very much engaged with coach Doug Marrone and want to do their part to enhance his case to return for a third season? We shall see.
2. Pick up where the Jets left off in knocking around Tom Brady. The Jets sacked the Patriots’ quarterback four times in the first half of their 17-16 loss last Sunday. They hit him 11 times in the game. The Bills have arguably the most talented defensive front in the NFL. Even if standout tackle Marcell Dareus misses the game (he’s listed as doubtful with a knee injury), they still should be able to generate significant pressure. They have to establish as quickly as possible that Patriots coach Bill Belichick is taking a serious risk by having Brady, who is expected to play at least a half, on the field for a prolonged stretch. The sooner they can make the case that he should be pulled in favor of rookie Jimmy Garoppolo, the better.
3. Make significant plays in the passing game. It should still bother the Bills greatly that their best wide receiver, rookie Sammy Watkins, caught only two passes and was targeted a mere three times in Buffalo’s 37-22 loss against New England at The Ralph on Oct. 12. Whatever hesitance quarterback Kyle Orton or offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett had in challenging cornerback Darrelle Revis needs to disappear. This game should be all about being aggressive in all phases. Playing it safe has frequently worked against the Bills this season, and the approach would make no sense on Sunday. Tight end Scott Chandler found plenty of room to catch six passes in the middle of New England’s defense in October, and the Pats are likely to gladly give him similar space once again. In the meantime, they will, as they did in October, focus on clamping down on the perimeter of Buffalo’s passing game, which is something the Bills must try to discourage.
4. If you’re going to get beat, at least let it be by the stars. Last Sunday, the Bills allowed the most damaging plays by the Raiders’ offense to come from little-known players such as receiver Kenbrell Tompkins and running back Latavius Murray. In October, the Patriot pass-catchers who burned them for the biggest plays were Brandon LaFell and Brian Tyms. There is no excuse for a defense that is supposed to be among the NFL’s best, to allow supporting cast members to become difference-makers.
5. Time for solid final statements. There are a bunch of players who could be making their final appearances in Bills uniform Sunday. In some cases, contracts are about to expire or are at the stage where options might not be exercised. In others, it will simply be a case of finding a better replacement. The majority of vulnerable players are on offense. This would be an ideal time for those and others – including members of the coaching staff – to give the best performance of the season.