The Buffalo Bills are entering the make-or-break part of their schedule.
Sunday's game against the New England Patriots at New Era Field starts a stretch of three straight games against playoff teams from a season ago. Go 0-3, and the Bills can forget about the postseason. Go 1-2, and things will be difficult, but not impossible. Go 2-1, the playoff chances would be looking pretty good. Go 3-0, start planning the parade.
Heck, you might want to plan the parade if they find a way to beat New England on Sunday, which would give them a season sweep over the Patriots.
Here is everything you need to know about Sunday’s game, plus five things to watch for:
• TV: CBS. Announcers: Ian Eagle (play by play), Dan Fouts (color analyst).
• Radio: Bills Radio Network. Buffalo-WGR 550 AM; Toronto-Fan 590 AM; Rochester-WCMF 96.5 FM and WROC 950 AM; Syracuse-WTKW 99.5 FM and WTKV 105.5 FM. Announcers: John Murphy (play by play), Mark Kelso (color analyst).
• Series history: Patriots lead, 69-43-1. Last meeting: Oct. 2, 2016 – 16-0 Bills' win at New England. The Bills are looking to sweep the Patriots for the first time since the 1999 season.
• Milestone watch: Lorenzo Alexander needs one sack to reach 10 for the season. If he gets it against England, he'll have participated in a sack in eight straight games, the second-longest such streak in team history behind Bruce Smith's run of nine.
• Uni watch: The Bills are going with their sweet white throwbacks, with the red standing buffalo helmet. For my money, it's their best look.
• Did you know? Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin and Patriots safety Nate Ebner both have Olympic experience, with Goodwin representing the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics (long jump) and Ebner participating in the 2016 Olympics (rugby sevens).
• Next up: Monday Night Football might not have the prestige that it used to, but it's still pretty cool. The Bills will get their turn in Week Nine at Seattle.
Here are five things to watch for against the Patriots:
1. Can Mike Gillislee be a feature back? LeSean McCoy did not practice all week and is doubtful for the game, which means it's likely that Gillislee becomes the team's No. 1 option at running back. That should have been the case last week in Miami, but I digress. Last year, Gillislee got the start in Week 17 against the New York Jets – and was bottled up for just 28 yards on 24 carries. The Bills can't afford a repeat performance Sunday. The best way to slow the Patriots' offense is to keep it off the field, which means running the ball and converting third downs to keep the clock moving.
2. Guess who's back, back again? Brady's back – tell a friend. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has looked like the greatest of all time in his return from a four-game suspension. He's thrown for more than 1,000 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions in three games – all New England wins. He looks like a man on a mission to stick it to the NFL. The Bills' secondary, led by cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, has struggled at times this season, and will need to be at its absolute best Sunday. It doesn't help that safety Aaron Williams will miss the game because of a neck injury. That makes matchup up with New England's dynamic duo at tight end – Amherst's Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett – even more of a challenge.
3. How does the run defense bounce back? The Bills were embarrassed when Miami's Jay Ajayi piled up 214 rushing yards on them last week. No doubt Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount took notice of that sorry performance. If the Bills flood the field with defensive backs, Blount could get plenty of work for New England. The return of Marcell Dareus in the middle of the defense needs to help the Bills shore things up against the run.
4. Is Robert Woods at full strength? The Bills must feel somewhat confident that he is, because they promoted a receiver from the practice squad earlier in the week, but released him a couple days ago. Woods had his best game of the season against New England in Week Four (seven catches, 89 yards) and the passing game could desperately use a repeat performance.
5. What happens before the game? The last time these two teams got together, a scuffle broke out before the game when a pair of Patriots ran through the Bills' defensive backs' drill. Safety Robert Blanton shoved Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett, setting off a pushing match. Members of the Bills' secondary have said this week that the same thing will happen if any of the Patriots try the same thing. In the grand scheme of things, the first incident between the teams really wasn't that big of a deal, but it will be interesting to see if there is a sequel.