FOXBORO, Mass. — Gillette Stadium will play host to a rare event this Saturday: a late-season AFC East matchup with actual stakes.
Playoff positioning will be on the line when the 11-3 New England Patriots and 10-4 Buffalo Bills square off in a rematch of their tightly contested Week 4 meeting.
New England won that game 16-10 thanks to a blocked-punt touchdown and four interceptions. Another victory this week would give the Patriots their 11th consecutive division title and greatly increase their chances of nabbing a first-round bye.
Scoring points against Buffalo’s vaunted defense won’t be easy, however, especially with the way Tom Brady and New England’s offense have performed in recent weeks.
“We have a lot to get ready for,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “(There’s) some carryover from the first game, but that was a long time ago, and there?s quite a few differences between now and then. Some players we haven’t seen — or didn?t see then — that we?ll probably see now. … So that?ll be a big challenge for us here, and hopefully we?ll have a good week and be ready to go.”
Here’s a look at how this Bills team has — and has not — changed since these rivals last met in late September:
The most significant offensive alteration will be the presence of rookie running back Devin Singletary, who sat out the teams’ first meeting with a hamstring injury. Singletary has surpassed veteran workhorse Frank Gore as the Bills’ top back, ranking sixth in the NFL in rushing yards since Week 9 (557 on 116 carries).
The third-round draft pick also is a capable receiver, catching 28 passes on 40 targets for 198 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games this season.
“He?s in there on all downs,” Belichick said. “He?s got some speed to the outside, good quickness to make guys miss. He?s involved in the passing game — he?s got 20-something catches, whatever it is. He?s a three-down player. So when they?ve been going no-huddle, which they?ve done that in some games, then certainly it benefits you to have the same back on the field and not have to sub backs situationally. He?s given them that. I don?t know if that?s the reason or not, but that?s just the way it?s worked out.”
Tight end Tyler Kroft also has returned to the Bills’ lineup. The former Cincinnati Bengal caught a 14-yard touchdown pass in Sunday night’s 17-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers but otherwise has contributed little in the passing game, totaling five catches for 66 yards in nine games.
Rookie Dawson Knox (27 catches, 355 yards, two touchdowns) is Buffalo’s No. 1 tight end and quarterback Josh Allen’s third-most-productive target behind wideouts John Brown (71-1,007-5) and Cole Beasley (60-670-6).
Speaking of Allen, the young signal-caller was brutal in Pats-Bills Round 1 (13-for-28, no touchdowns, three interceptions, 24.0 passer rating before leaving with a concussion) and still ranks near the bottom of the league in most passing metrics. He has shown significant improvement in Year 2, though, boosting his completion percentage by 7 1/2 points and his passer rating by almost 20 points.
Rushing-wise, Allen’s average has dipped from 7.1 yards per carry as a rookie to 4.6 this season, but his nine rushing touchdowns lead all QBs. He’s second in carries behind Lamar Jackson and third in rushing yards behind Jackson and Kyler Murray.
Given how excellent Buffalo’s defense has been, Allen’s only needed to be passable for the Bills to win games, and he’s been that more often than not. His four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives both are tied for first in the NFL with Russell Wilson.
The Bills are a 10-win team despite scoring more than 25 points just four times and more than 28 points just twice — both against the Miami Dolphins.
“He?s made good decisions,” Belichick said of Allen. “They?ve won.”
Patriots offensive coordinator didn’t mince words when discussing the Bills’ D during his Monday morning conference call.
“This is the best defense that we play, and the challenge is incredible,” McDaniels said.
He’s right. This Buffalo defense might be the second-best in the NFL behind New England’s, and it hasn’t lost any notable pieces since the first time these teams squared off.
Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (9 1/2 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 14 QB hits) and defensive end Shaq Lawson (6 1/2 sacks, 12 TFLs, 17 QB hits) both are enjoying career years. The Bills’ three starting linebackers — Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Lorenzo Alexander — each have nine passes defended, with Edmunds emerging as one of the league’s top young talents at the position.
Tre’Davious White, Buffalo’s top pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, already is an elite cornerback. He’s tied with Stephon Gilmore for the NFL lead with six interceptions, tied for third with 17 passes defended and third in passer rating against (43.9) among corners behind Gilmore and J.C. Jackson. You won’t find many safety duos better than Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer.
“We?re familiar with their players and how they played and how they?ve played before, but we?re deep into our study of going back through what they did in our first game and what they?ve done since then,” McDaniels said. “This is as good a group as we see. They don?t give up. They don?t make mistakes, because they?re extremely well-coached. They?re very good at all three levels. They?ve got really good players at all three levels.”
The Bills rank second in the NFL in points allowed, third in total defense, fourth in yards allowed per play, third in passing defense, sixth in third-down defense, eighth in sack rate, second in points allowed per drive and fourth in defense DVOA. They’ve allowed fewer than 20 points 10 times in 14 games. If they have a weakness, it’s against the run, as they rank 19th in both yards allowed per carry and run defense DVOA.
“They do not give up big plays,” McDaniels said. “They make you drive the ball. They?re very good on third down and in the red zone. They create long-yardage situations with penetration and disruptive plays by their front and their pressures are difficult to handle, and they do a good job of calling them at the right time. They?re fast, they?re very disruptive up front, their linebackers are fast, their secondary is extremely good when the ball is in the air. You?ve got to be very careful. You can?t make mistakes around them.”