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Mark Gaughan: Bills-Pats, Round 3 is going to be so sweet – or so bitter

Mark Gaughan: Bills-Pats, Round 3 is going to be so sweet – or so bitter

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Losing to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots Saturday would be like the groundhog declaring six more months of winter for Western New York.

The wind off Lake Erie would be colder. The short winter days would seem darker. And it’s not because the Bills clearly should beat the Patriots in the AFC wild-card playoff game. The Bills are 4-point favorites. Pretty slim.

But after two decades of being dominated by the greatest coach of all time – and, let’s be honest, we could stretch it to three if we include the Super Bowl XXV loss to the New York Giants – it would be so tough to swallow. Bills fans are used to losing to the Patriots. Having the season ended by Belichick, at home, when the Bills have the better quarterback? Ouch.

Yet, this column is not setting out to spoil your day. If the Bills beat the Patriots, it pretty much makes the entire season. Two victories over Belichick in the same year – and sending the Pats packing in the playoffs? That would be a great way to remember the 2021 campaign.

Obviously, the Bills’ Super Bowl aspirations still are legitimate. The AFC tournament is a crapshoot. They could run the AFC playoffs four times over and come up with four different winners this season.

If the Bills go to Kansas City and lose in the divisional round next week, you could stomach that. The Bills slayed the Chiefs in October. Sure, they can win there again. But everyone knows the Chiefs are great. The Bills would be underdogs on the road against Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.

So there’s no middle road Saturday for Bills Mafia. Ecstasy or agony.

Here’s one thing we can take to the bank: This game is not likely to play out exactly like the last meeting.

Josh Allen and the Bills’ offense skewered the New England defense three weeks ago. Nine possessions, 33 points, no punts. You can bet Belichick is going to do something different with his defense to try to prevent that kind of game.

“I think the big thing any time you play a team a second or third time, or whatever it is, it’s a new game,” Belichick said on a video call with reporters Wednesday. “We’re starting from scratch. Don’t think or assume the game is going to go like another one did. Be ready to play it out, play it as you see it, and make the necessary adjustments and decisions that come up in this game.”

“Yeah, they’re incredible that way in how they can change things up and what Coach Belichick does to stay a step ahead,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “So, we obviously have our work cut out for us.”

The suspicion is we’re going to see a little more dime defense – six defensive backs, rather than five – than we did from the Pats in Foxborough, Mass. Three safeties, three cornerbacks. This isn’t anything new. They used safety Kyle Dugger a bunch as a linebacker three weeks ago. But maybe a little less of big linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who’s better vs. the run than the pass. Who knows what's going through the Hoodie's brain right now? Both Hightower (knee) and Dugger (hand) have been limited by injuries.

Inviting the Bills to run the ball and getting stops in the red zone is a proven Pats strategy, whatever the tactics. That would succeed in shortening the game, which is to the Pats’ advantage. The Pats need to defend the middle of the field better in the passing game, too.

The good news for the Bills is the wind is expected to be light. But with temperatures near zero, the Pats probably will try to force as many throws outside the numbers as they can. Make Allen and his receivers get tough completions.

How are the Patriots going to keep Allen from hurting them with his running? That’s a good question. The Bills QB ran 12 times for 64 yards three weeks ago.

“It’s the Patriots at home, in division, that’s something that you dream about, and it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around too often,” Allen said. “Like somebody alluded to earlier, like 19-something was the last time we played the Patriots in the playoffs.”

That would be 1963, Josh. But the Bills weren’t as good that season as they are today, and there weren’t decades of history hovering over the game.

“Energy is going to be high, and the juice will be high, and we gotta be ready for that moment,” Allen said.

This is not going to be easy. It took an A-plus game from Allen to win in Foxborough. Belichick is a master at keeping it close against good quarterbacks.

Go back to Week 4. Tampa Bay at New England. The defending Super Bowl champs held the Patriots to 1 yard rushing. One! Belichick played the entire offensive game left-handed, so to speak. The Pats lost the turnover battle 2-0. Tom Brady held the ball 34 minutes. ... And the Bucs still needed a 48-yard field goal with 2 minutes left to eke out a 19-17 victory. It was one of the great coaching performances of the season – in defeat.

This is going to be nerve-wracking. This is why we love the NFL. It’s going to be so sweet ... or so bitter.

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Bills/NFL writer

Gaughan's insight is featured in the "PlayAction" video series, providing analysis to get Bills fans ready for the next game. He is past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and served as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector for 12 years.

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