When the Bills run: Welcome to December in the NFL – the Bills finished last week’s game against the Lions with only undrafted rookie Keith Ford at running back. He did a decent job in his first NFL game, rushing for 46 yards, 23 of which came after first contact, according to Pro Football Focus. Ford doesn’t have the speed to run away from defenders, but does have the strength to go through them. Among offensive linemen who have taken at least 50 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, the Bills’ highest-graded run blocker, according to PFF, is left tackle Dion Dawkins, at 85th overall. That’s a good indication of just how much the Bills have struggled in run blocking. Two members of the Patriots’ front seven rank among the top 20 in PFF’s run-stop percentage (tackles that constitute a “loss” for the offense depending on down and distance). Defensive end Lawrence Guy is tied for sixth at 11.3, and fellow defensive end Trey Flowers is tied for 19th at 9.6. Overall, however, the Patriots are giving up 4.99 yards per carry, which ranks 31st in the NFL. EDGE: Bills.
When the Bills throw: The Bills say they’re not concerned with Josh Allen’s completion percentage, which for the season sits at 52.4 percent. Plenty of factors go into that, including drops, throwaways because of pressure and the depth of Allen’s targets (it’s easier to complete screen passes than it is to attack defenses deep). It’s hard not to think, though, that if the Bills’ passing offense is going to move up the rankings (currently 31st in yards per game and yards per play) that number will have to improve. It’s time to add tight end to the Bills’ list of offensive needs. Charles Clay has two catches for 15 yards in the last four games. That’s not close to enough production for a player with a $9 million salary-cap hit – no matter how good of a blocker Clay might be. PFF’s No. 1 cornerback in 2018 is none other than old friend Stephon Gilmore. He held Antonio Brown to two catches for 8 yards on four targets last week against Pittsburgh. EDGE: Patriots.
When the Patriots run: Rookie Sony Michel is the workhorse, with double the carries of anyone else on the roster. He’s gained 765 yards on 177 carries, and scored five touchdowns. Rex Burkhead has returned from injured reserve and is rounding into form, gaining 25 yards on just four carries last week. Running back James White does most of his damage as a pass catcher. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson will be used out of the backfield – he’s carried 38 times this season. Right guard Shaq Mason is New England’s top-graded run blocker, with an overall grade of 75.0. Shaq Lawson is coming off a season-best performance against the Lions, according to PFF’s grading, with an 89.5 overall grade. Rookie Tremaine Edmunds has made seven “stops” against the run over the last two games. EDGE: Bills.
When the Patriots throw: Tom Brady is fifth in passing yards, with 3,979, but just tied for 10th with 24 touchdowns. There have been whispers about the Patriots’ pending demise, but the Bills still recognize Brady as perhaps the best quarterback ever. He has a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal, including tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Amherst native who has dealt with a number of injuries this season. Brady’s favorite areas of the field to throw to are short left and deep middle. New England’s 178 pass plays to the short left lead the NFL, and the 33 deep-middle passes ranks second. As mentioned above, White is a major threat in the passing game, with a team-leading 81 catches for 699 yards and six touchdowns. The Patriots will miss the big-play ability of Josh Gordon, who has a team-leading 720 receiving yards and an average of 18.0 yards per catch. Gordon left the team Thursday to focus on his mental health. EDGE: Patriots.
Special teams: Former Bills linebacker Ramon Humber has carved out a role on special teams for New England. The Patriots traditionally have one of the best special teams in the NFL, but they’re down in the rankings this year, at No. 18 according to Football Outsiders. Still, that’s well ahead of the Bills, who rank 27th and have had an adventure all year on special teams. New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski remains one of the best in the league, even though his field-goal conversion rate of 83.3 percent is the worst since his 2006 rookie season, when it was 76.9. Bills coach Sean McDermott liked his team’s aggressiveness on special teams last week against the Lions. EDGE: Patriots.
Coaching: Bill Belichick did what he normally does during the week, talking up the Bills like they are a Super Bowl-era, K-Gun machine. Belichick’s future in New England will be fascinating. Rumors about tension with Brady have swirled for more than a year. The Patriots are getting older all over their roster, and while I’m not writing them off yet, there at least looks to be light at the end of the tunnel for the rest of the AFC East. McDermott is 0-3 against the Patriots in his two seasons in Buffalo. EDGE: Patriots.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Bills 17