When not forced to play in a brutal windstorm, the Bills offense absolutely smoked the Patriots defense last season.
You remember it well enough: In their Week 16 win at New England and wild-card victory at Highmark Stadium, the Bills scored 80 combined punts and punted zero times. Bill Belichick might want to remember things differently (and incorrectly), but the reality is the Patriots defense got thoroughly dominated by Josh Allen and company.
Don’t be surprised if New England fares much better this time around.
Obviously, the Patriots offense must carry its weight and New England as a whole must play a disciplined game if it wants to win Thursday night’s marquee matchup at Gillette Stadium. But none of that will matter if the Patriots defense gets embarrassed as it did last winter. And while you shouldn’t exclude the possibility of New England getting torched in primetime, you also should feel confident that the Patriots defense can force the Bills to punt at least once — if not a few times.
Across the board, New England is more talented and dynamic on defense than it was in last season’s final two meetings with the Bills. That’s especially true when you compare the current group to the one that gave up 47 points in the playoff loss.
That night, the Patriots were without cornerbacks Jonathan Jones (shoulder surgery) and Jalen Mills (COVID-19). Joejuan Williams started, got benched, came back in and was benched again, ultimately finishing with 41 defensive snaps. D’Angelo Ross and Justin Bethel saw eight and 13 defensive snaps, respectively. Little-known De’Vante Bausby actually saw three snaps at cornerback. J.C. Jackson put forth his worst game as a Patriot while showing questionable effort.
When targeting Patriots cornerbacks in that game, Allen completed 11 of 14 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. It was a complete disaster.
And it wasn’t much better in the Week 16 game. Jones missed that matchup, too, and Ross was forced to play because Williams was a healthy scratch. Whether it was Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Isaiah McKenzie or Dawson Knox, New England’s secondary was powerless in both contests against Buffalo’s array of talented pass-catchers.
This time, the Patriots will face the Bills with Jones back on the field and thriving at outside cornerback. You could make the case he’s a better all-around player than Jackson, especially from a versatility standpoint. Mills, now more comfortable in his second season with the Patriots, also will play. New England will feature standout rookie Jack Jones, who currently grades as PFF’s sixth-best corner (Jonathan Jones is 11th). Ultra-fast and talented rookie Marcus Jones should provide far better depth than what the Patriots got from Williams, Ross and Bausby. As for Bryant, he remains an underrated player who’s far better than he showed late last season.
The safety group is better, too. Veteran Jabrill Peppers might not be anything great in coverage, but he brings physicality and valuable versatility to the second and third levels of the defense. He, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and even Devin McCourty should be the least of your concerns in this game.
But it’s not just about the secondary.
Last season, New England’s pass rush completely cratered in the second half. Matthew Judon disappeared, and the Patriots got little production from the rest of their front seven outside of Christian Barmore, who battled through a painful knee injury during the wild-card game. When the dust settled, Judon finished the campaign with 12.5 sacks, while Kyle Van Noy and Deatrich Wise finished second and third with five and three sacks, respectively.
Through 11 games, the 2022 Patriots already have gotten more production from the key members of their front seven — despite Barmore missing five games due to injuries. Judon currently has 13 sacks while Wise has 6.5 and Josh Uche has five. Even Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai, Mack Wilson and Anfernee Jennings have made solid contributions as pass-rushers. And, despite a few subpar performances, New England’s run defense has done well against quality rushing attacks.
Per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, the Patriots currently own the ninth-best rushing defense and third-best passing defense. New England’s 37 total sacks are the second most in the NFL.
If the Patriots on Thursday can stop the run and get pressure on Allen, their secondary should be able to cover Buffalo’s receivers better than it did last season. New England certainly has enough talent on the defensive side of the ball to keep the Bills from scoring 30 points.
But is this all just glass-half-full optimism?
The 2022 Patriots defense is better than last season’s. That point really isn’t arguable. The real debate is over whether the improvements are substantial enough to slow down some of the NFL’s better offenses, including the Bills.
New England’s six victories have come against middling quarterbacks: Mitch Trubisky, Jared Goff, Jacoby Brissett, Sam Ehlinger and Zach Wilson (twice). In their two games against true dual-threat quarterbacks, the Patriots and their slow, limited linebackers got torn apart by Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields. When it finally faced an elite receiver other than Tyreek Hill, whom the Patriots usually play well against, New England’s secondary got eviscerated by Justin Jefferson. In that same game, the Minnesota Vikings, who have a terrible offensive line, successfully neutralized Judon and the rest of New England’s pass rush.
So, there are more than a few warning signs that can’t be ignored. If the Patriots defense goes out and gets exposed by Allen and the Bills on Thursday, few will be surprised.
However, if you remove the emotional scarring from last season’s debacles, you can find reasons to believe that things will be different this time for New England’s defense. And not just because it can’t get any worse than what we saw last January.
The Patriots have a good defense that deserves credit, but the real litmus test will take place Thursday night with their season on the line.