FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots showed significant offensive improvement last Thursday in Minnesota. Can they maintain that against a defense Mac Jones considers the NFL’s best?
The Patriots quarterback paid that high compliment to New England’s Week 13 opponent, the Buffalo Bills, as he spoke with reporters Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
“We know what we’re going against,” Jones said. “They’re the best defense in the league. So we have to be ready for that. It really starts with us, just playing the best football we can. It’s a great team that we’re going against. It’s all about ourselves. But then obviously understanding and respecting the group of players that we’re about to go against.”
The numbers suggest Buffalo’s defense still is a top-tier unit, but perhaps not quite as dominant as it was last season. In 2021, the Bills led the NFL in points and yards allowed per game while also ranking first in both Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA and expected points added per play. So far this season, they’re sixth in points allowed, 12th in yards allowed and 11th in EPA/play. Buffalo entered Week 12 ranked third in DVOA, which has yet to be updated following this weekend’s results.
The Bills also just lost superstar pass rusher Von Miller to a knee injury that will sideline him for at least a portion of its remaining schedule, though it did recently get Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White back from a torn ACL. The Bills surrendered 33 points in a loss in a Week 10 home loss to the Vikings, the same total New England allowed in its Thanksgiving visit to Minneapolis.
But regardless of health or personnel, scoring points against their AFC East rival has been tricky for the Patriots throughout the Sean McDermott era. Since McDermott became the Bills’ head coach in 2017, the Patriots have faced Buffalo 11 times and scored more than 25 points just once (Week 16, 2017). In five meetings since Tom Brady’s departure, New England scored 21, nine, 14, 21 and 17 points and went 1-4 in those games, including a 47-17 beatdown in the wild-card round of last seaon’s playoffs.
“They’re playing as good as anybody in the NFL right now,” said Jones, who has a photo from that postseason loss hanging in his locker. “Last year is last year, but at the same time, we know what happened, and we’ve got to come in here and work through it all and go out there and compete. That’s what it’s all about, and then see where we’re at. It’s a good defense. Like I always say, we’re going against their defense, and they provide that challenge better than anybody we’ve played so far, so hats off to them. They’ve done a great job, so we’ve got to be ready to go.”
Against the Vikings, the Patriots offense was more productive than it had been all season, getting points on six of their first seven possessions after scoring just two total touchdowns over their previous three games. Jones also enjoyed one of the best performances of his career, throwing for a personal-best 382 yards and two touchdowns with a 71.8% completion rate and no turnovers behind a much-improved O-line.
But New England stalled out in the fourth quarter (zero points on its final four drives) and continued to struggle situationally, going 3-for-10 on third down and 0-for-3 in the red zone in a 33-26 defeat. Through 11 games, the Patriots rank 25th in third-down conversion rate and 31st in red-zone touchdown rate.
“You put emphasis on things, and I think that’s definitely something we need to improve at,” Jones said. “Staying on the field and letting our defense get some rest and being able to do that. We have to improve, obviously, that area. I don’t know what teams around the league or the best teams are doing right now, but you obviously want to be better than what we’ve been these past couple of games.”
The Patriots’ defense also will face a stiff challenge against a Josh Allen-led Bills offense that scored 80 points and never punted across the teams’ two most recent matchups. At 6-5 and currently outside the AFC playoff picture, every game over these final six weeks will be vitally important for New England’s postseason hopes.