The burden on the back of New England’s Tom Brady has gotten a little greater this season.
The Patriots have ranked among the NFL's top four in scoring eight years in a row. This year, the Pats’ attack still is outstanding, but they’re seventh in scoring and fifth in yards.
But Brady’s best weapons at receiver haven't been as great.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has a lot of miles and at least nine surgeries on his 29-year-old body, has not been up to his Hall-of-Fame form. He’s on track for 51 catches for 752 yards and nine 20-plus catches. That’s sixth-best among NFL tight ends in receiving yards, but it’s well below his 2016 form of 69 catches, 1,084 yards and 18 20-plus catches.
Top outside threat Josh Gordon had good production (40 catches for 720 yards), but those aren’t the elite numbers New England got last year from Brandin Cooks (65 for 1,082). And now Gordon has stepped away from the game again, further depleting Brady's downfield game.
Julian Edelman still is producing as an elite slot receiver. Even though he sat out the first four games due to a PED suspension, his production is virtually identical to the Pats’ 2016 Super Bowl season when he caught 98 passes for 1,106 yards.
And James White has picked up the receiving slack. His 81 catches rank third in the NFL among running backs.
But Brady’s supporting cast is less special than it was in the Super Bowl runs of the past two years. The 41-year-old quarterback will have to be as great as ever in the playoffs to carry New England to a third straight Super Bowl.
Bills coach Sean McDermott was in no mood to contemplate New England’s perceived flaws as he prepared for Sunday’s game.
“To me, he looks even better than he has in years past, believe it or not,” McDermott said of Brady on a conference call with Boston reporters. “I know that the numbers may not support that, but I think his game is strong, he doesn’t turn the ball over. … The way he’s allocating the ball to different receivers, how he’s getting them in and out of plays, how they use the no-huddle offense strategically. I think all of that really showcases his ability, not only with his arm physically but also his mental capability.”
Studying INTs: The Bills’ defensive backs every week have a meeting in which they watch all (or most) of the interceptions from the previous week’s NFL games. It’s a fun way to drive home the point: always be ball-hawking.
“Takeaways are a hard thing,” said Bills defensive backs coach John Butler. “We emphasize them till we’re blue in the face, meeting-wise, in drills, in watching tape. When we watch the interception tape weekly, and it comes down to tips and overthrows. Putting yourself in position, then taking advantage of it. You can’t press too much. If you put yourself out of position to get a takeaway, then you give up big plays. Then bad things happen. They just have to trust the system (to) keep putting themselves in good position then when the opportunity comes once or twice a game, we’ve got to capitalize.”
The Bills have 12 interceptions this season (tied for 12th). Last year they had 18 (tied for sixth). However, the Bills have trailed a lot more this season. Last year, 15 of the 18 Bills interceptions came with Buffalo in the lead (and the opponent forced to play catch-up).
“Last week there was 29,” Butler said after Week 14. “We cut them out and show the ones to the guys every week that are within our system. If we see a guy playing the same technique, it’s 'Hey, this is what we’re trying to get you to do — safety, corner, nickel.' They enjoy it, too, because sometimes they get tired of watching the opponent.”
"It reminds you that football is fun," said cornerback Levi Wallace. "It's still a game. It's remembering to attack the ball in the air. You see different techniques of the great DBs out there. Maybe you can take different pieces from each person and see if you can apply them."
The 30,000-foot view: It's hard keeping a juggernaut together for this long. The Pats need more young, homegrown defensive studs. Only one defensive player taken in the top three rounds over the past five years — defensive tackle Malcolm Brown — is starting.
Weak link: Run defense has become a concern. In the first 10 games, the Pats allowed 111 yards a game. The past four they’ve allowed 129 a game. Last week, they were inviting Pittsburgh to some ground yards (think Super Bowl XXV) in an effort to contain Ben Roethlisberger. They held the Steelers to 17 points. Still, they gave up 6.3 yards a carry.
Tom Brady vs. Leslie Frazier. Brady is the least blitzed QB in the NFL, facing five or more rushers on 15 percent of his dropbacks. The Bills did a good job of playing coverage in the first meeting. The Pats led only 12-6 in the fourth quarter. Frazier blitzed Brady only 2 of 48 drop-backs in Buffalo. If the Bills blitz only twice again, the four-man rush better get busy. Pittsburgh's four-man rush was effective last week vs. Brady.
James White vs. Bills LBs. White lines up in the slot or wide on 18 percent of the Pats’ snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, although the vast majority of his catches come from out of the backfield. The Bills will have to be prepared for screen passes, which New England runs superbly. In the first meeting, the Pats ran two screens to White, one incomplete and one for 15 yards.
Brian Daboll vs. Pats’ run defense. The Pats rank 17th in rushing yards allowed, but 31st in yards allowed per rush at 5.0 a carry. The Pats’ defense is good at taking away gaps in the run game. Conventional wisdom says the best approach is to spread them out with three wide receivers and then run. In the first meeting, the Bills used the wildcat at the Pats, but only got 9 yards on five carries. The Bills fell behind, passing 44 times and running 19. They need to run more.
Stat for the road: New England’s James Develin plays 34 percent of the snaps, among the league leaders at fullback. The Pats ran 17 times for 66 yards in the first meeting with Develin on the field (3.8 a carry). The Bills need to contain power formations at least that well again.