Take this to the bank when the Buffalo Bills visit New England Sunday: The Patriots will be playing in the Bills' red zone.
New England's offense moves up and down the field on everybody. The Pats rank No. 2 in the NFL in yards gained, and they're No. 2 in red-zone possessions. They move inside the opponent's 20-yard line more than four times a game on average.
The Bills' chances of an upset will depend on their ability to get the Pats to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.
"We understand in the red zone we want to make them kick field goals and to take the football away," said Bills safety Jordan Poyer. "It's going to come down to technique and fundamental football and communication and being able to get lined up right and execute the defensive call."
The Bills' defense has been pretty good in the red zone this season. Buffalo ranks 12th, allowing touchdowns on 51 percent of opponent possessions. The Bills have yielded an NFL-low seven TD passes in the red zone, despite the fact they're a bend-but-don't-break unit. They've allowed the seventh-most trips inside the 20.
Overt confusion has been rare for coordinator Leslie Frazier's unit deep in its own end. Last season, it was a weekly occurrence to see Bills defensive backs pointing at each other and raising their arms in exasperation over who should have been guarding who.
"It's a lot better than last year," said linebacker Preston Brown. "There's no pointing fingers, all that nonsense that was going on. I think a lot of that has to do with the safeties we've got. They're two very intelligent safeties. Micah and Jordan do a great job on the back end. All our guys on the back end do a great job communicating. And we are very simple in the red zone. We have a plan and that plan doesn't change."
"I think Leslie and his defensive staff do a good job with that, making sure everyone knows where each other is supposed to be," coach Sean McDermott said. "We play pretty good team defense down there."
The low point of the season for the Bills' defense was the back-to-back blowout losses to the New York Jets and New Orleans. The Bills gave up eight red-zone rushing TDs combined in those two games. Buffalo's 17 red-zone rushing TDs allowed are tops in the NFL.
The red-zone play has been much better since, with the Bills holding foes to just 43 percent TDs the past five games.
The Bills made the Pats settle for field goals twice in the first half three weeks ago, limiting New England's halftime lead to 9-3. The Bills did a good job of "muddying" the middle of the field with coverage, preventing Tom Brady from getting some easy, quick throws. And they sacked Brady on two first-half scoring threats. First Kyle Williams beat guard Joe Thuney for an 8-yard sack, then Adolphus Washington beat Thuney for a 6-yard sack.
Late in last week's game against Miami, Poyer made a superb goal-line play out of a match-up zone-type coverage to break up a pass for Jarvis Landry. Miami settled for a field goal.
Brady has 22 TD passes and no interceptions in the red zone this season, which is second best to Philadelphia's Carson Wentz (24-0).
Brady's favorite red-zone target is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has the eighth most red-zone targets in the NFL. Four of Gronk's seven TD catches have come from inside the 20. Danny Amendola is Brady's second favorite red-zone target.
"They do a lot of isolation, and they put 87 out at No. 1," Brown said, referring to Gronkowski lining up wide and alone on one side of the field. "All he's going to do is fake a slant and run a fade or fake a fade and run a slant. It sounds so simple but he gets open every single play. Then they give 80 (Amendola) option routes. He does a great job selling it, bouncing outside, driving back inside."
The Pats scored two red-zone rushing TDs on the Bills. One was aided by Brady's quick-snapping, which caught the Bills off guard. That's another thing the Bills must be ready to defend.
Said Brown: "Any time there's a bobbled catch, or is it fourth down, is it first down? They're going to be on the line every single time and they're going to run that play fast. They do it every single time."