When the Bills run: It continues to be a boom-or-bust season for running back LeSean McCoy. He has five games in 2017 with 50 rushing yards or less, and three games with 110 or more yards. McCoy is ranked 32nd in the NFL by Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted yards above replacement, which gives the value of performance on plays in which a running back catches or carries the ball as compared to a replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent. McCoy hasn’t received much help from his offensive line. The Bills have been “stuffed,” which Football Outsiders defines as being stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, on 27 percent of their runs, which ranks 30th in the NFL. Overall, the Bills’ line ranks 27th in Football Outsiders’ rankings, down from No. 16 a year ago. For the third straight week, the Bills face a rush defense that ranks near the bottom of the league. New England gives up an average of 4.87 yards per carry, which ranks last in the NFL. EDGE: Bills.
When the Bills pass: Buffalo went the ultra-conservative route in Week 12 against the Chiefs, asking quarterback Tyrod Taylor to attempt just five passes in the second half. Not counting McCoy, tight end Charles Clay or Kelvin Benjamin, Buffalo’s leading receiver is Zay Jones, who ranks 116th in the NFL with 269 yards. That’s astounding. Veteran Jordan Matthews continues to be a disappointment, with 24 catches for 268 yards, right behind Jones at No. 117. An unrestricted free agent after this season, he’s costing himself some serious money with each passing week. The Patriots give up a lot of passing yards – ranking 31st in the NFL at 270.4 yards per game – but have gotten progressively better as the season has gone on. Since Week 5, the Patriots are 7-0 and have given up 13.1 points per game, tops in the NFL. EDGE: Patriots.
When the Patriots run: Running back is an interchangeable position in New England. The first four games of the season, Mike Gillislee was the leading rusher. Now, he’s a healthy inactive. Dion Lewis has taken over as the primary ball carrier, and is coming off a 15-carry, 112-yard game against Miami in Week 12. Rex Burkhead also has gotten at least 10 carries in two of the last three weeks, while James White has at least one rushing attempt in every game this season. The Bills’ run defense looked miles better against the Chiefs than it had in recent weeks. Middle linebacker Preston Brown and defensive end Jerry Hughes in particular played well. EDGE: Even.
When the Patriots pass: “Incredible” is how Bills coach Sean McDermott described what Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is doing at age 40. That’s a good word. Among his many skills, Brady is great at getting the ball out quick. Despite taking eight hits last week against Miami, he was sacked only once. Brady is throwing deep more than he has in recent years, thanks to the presence of speedster Brandin Cooks. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is healthy this year and is his usual nightmare on defenses. The Bills lucked out last week that Alex Smith missed tight end Travis Kelce a few times. Brady won't let them off the hook if that happens with Gronk. EDGE: Patriots.
Special teams: After the Patriots were stopped on their opening possession last week, coach Bill Belichick dialed up a fake punt in his own territory. Of course it worked, as Nate Ebner took the direct snap and ran for the first down. New England is rock solid in most aspects of special teams – Danny Amendola (punts) and Lewis (kicks) are great returners, kicker Stephen Gostkowski is 26 of 29 on field goals this season, and ace cover man Matthew Slater, one of the best in the NFL at his job, might return this week from injury. EDGE: Patriots.
Coaching: Belichick has somehow turned having the personality of a doorknob in public into a charming quirk. Of course, that’s because he wins. McDermott’s constant reiteration of “the process” was embraced earlier this season by Bills fans, but his refusal to provide even the hint of a useful answer is getting old. McDermott is far from the first NFL coach to be paralyzed by the paranoia of spilling “useful” information at press conferences. In that sense, he’s just like those who have come before him. Belichick has beaten them all time and time again. Ultimately, McDermott won’t be judged on how he does in press conferences, but how his team performs. Credit him for getting a good effort from his beleaguered team in Week 12, even if the offense was painfully conservative at times. Keeping the quarterback situation a weekly guessing game is a decision that invites criticism from both sides. EDGE: Patriots.
Prediction: Patriots 40, Bills 21