Here are my five takes on the Buffalo Bills’ game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:
1. The Patriots have issues and seem more vulnerable than they’ve been in a long time.
Yes, those same words have been written and spoken many times, only to prove baseless after the Pats reached the Super Bowl. But the circumstances prompting increased media talk of their demise seem different than those that sparked similar chatter.
It isn’t simply that the Patriots have lost two games in a row, something that hasn’t happened since 2002. It’s that Tom Brady does not look to be at the level that has arguably made him the greatest player in NFL history. At some point, his 41-year-old body will fail him — despite how incredibly well he takes care of it — and that’s looking more and more like the case when it comes to his ability to use his legs to drive the ball through tight spaces.
On top of that, his best target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, showed up on the Patriots’ injury report this week as being limited in practice with ankle and back issues. Gronk looks stiff in his movement, and isn’t gaining the separation that he typically has by using both his tremendous strength and athleticism.
The Patriots also just lost their most talented wide receiver, Josh Gordon, who joined them after a lengthy suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy and now has been suspended indefinitely by the league for violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement. Gordon was the team’s leader in receiving yards and yards per catch.
It’s fair to think Brady could have occasional issues finding open targets, thus giving the Bills’ pass rush a chance to either hurry him or get him on the ground ... and perhaps even force him into rare mistakes.
2. Josh Allen starting at quarterback gives the Bills’ offense far greater opportunity to generate more points than it did when Derek Anderson was behind center for the 25-6 loss to the Patriots Oct. 29 at New Era Field.
The Bills’ offense is still far from great, but it was pretty much at rock-bottom back then. Allen figures to present a much larger challenge for New England’s defense, which will likely have issues dealing with his game-breaking skills as a runner and thrower.
Strong-armed quarterbacks, such as Allen, can capitalize on the Patriots’ deep coverage. If the Pats, as is their tendency, decide to use a “spy” to deal with Allen’s running, they will either weaken their pass rush or ability to take away underneath routes.
The rookie quarterback has steadily developed strong chemistry with his receivers, especially Robert Foster, and that is continually showing up in games. Allen also should be helped by the return of running back LeSean McCoy from a hamstring injury. New England's aging defense is slow and has problems stopping the run.
3. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is likely to see better results in his second crack at the team with which he spent the most time as coach before joining the Bills.
While it might not have been all that apparent on Oct. 29, Daboll does have a thorough understanding of Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme, as well as his signal-calling tendencies and overall philosophy. Anderson’s physical limitations, as well as those of former Bills No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin, didn’t allow Daboll to take the fullest advantage of that intelligence.
But things should be different this time.
Daboll also has plenty of knowledge about Brady’s game, and its many nuances, that he has shared with Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. That played at least a small part in the Bills being able to prevent Brady from throwing a touchdown pass in the teams’ previous meeting.
4. The stat sheet might not show it, but Lorenzo Alexander is having his best season since arriving in Buffalo in 2016.
Fellow outside linebacker Matt Milano was the Bills’ best defensive player, if not their top performer at any position, before suffering a season-ending broken leg on Dec. 9 against the New York Jets. But Alexander has been his steady, veteran self and even taken his game to a higher level since Milano’s injury by filling his weak-side role and making splash plays similar to those Milano was making.
Alexander is one of the smartest defensive players in the NFL, giving him the capacity to be highly versatile. His 6.5 sacks weren’t enough to get him the Pro Bowl berth like his 12.5 sacks did in 2016, but he has been a primary reason the Bills have ranked at or near the top of the league in total defense this season.
5. How much would a win against the Patriots actually mean to a team out of the playoffs?
Beyond the general satisfaction from knocking off the perennial beast of the AFC East and preventing the Pats from locking up a 10th consecutive division crown, there also would be considerable fuel for McDermott’s efforts to sell his trust-the-process plan to the players who will be a part of it beyond the Dec. 30 season-finale against Miami.
This would easily rank as one of the biggest credibility-boosting wins the Bills have had in years. It would invariably spark a discussion about the anticipated changing of the guard they sought by selecting Allen as the seventh overall pick of the draft.
When McDermott gathers his club for the first meeting of the season, he could reference a victory Sunday as the prime example of what his entire program is all about.