If the Patriots are going to beat the Bills on Thursday night, they’ll have to win on the margins. New England can’t afford below-average performance in situations some might overlook.
Jake Bailey struggled on punts before landing on injured reserve two weeks ago but was excellent on kickoffs. The fourth-year pro forced touchbacks on 28 of his 44 kicks, good for 63.6%, while sending kickoffs an average of 64.5 yards.
Nick Folk has been far worse since taking over for Bailey.
In his two games as the Patriots’ primary kickoff man, Folk forced touchbacks on just one of 10 attempts, including a 1-for-7 effort last Thursday night against the Vikings in Minnesota. One of Folk’s kickoffs was returned 97 yards for a touchdown by Kene Nwangwu. For the season, Folk has forced a touchback on just one of 13 attempts (7.7%) while sending the ball an average of 58.2 yards.
So, what can the Patriots do to remedy the problem? They clearly don’t believe fill-in punter Michael Palardy is the answer, and kickoffs might be particularly difficult Thursday night with blustery winds forecasted for the first half.
Don’t be surprised if New England elevates practice-squad kicker Tristan Vizcaino for Thursday night’s huge game at Gillette Stadium. Vizcaino, on and off the Patriots roster since the start of training camp, was re-signed to the practice squad after New England’s Week 11 home win over the New York Jets.
In a tweet Thursday morning, ESPN’s Mike Reiss openly wondered whether the Patriots would consider elevating Vizcaino, and he might be on to something.
Vizcaino has appeared in one NFL game this season, going 4-for-4 on field goals for the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10. He also forced touchbacks on four of six kickoffs while racking up an average kickoff yardage of 64.3. For his career, Vizcaino has forced touchbacks on 47.4 of his 38 kickoff attempts with an average yardage of 64.4.
Obviously, kickoffs and situational football won’t matter if the Patriots defense can’t slow down Josh Allen and the high-powered Bills offense. New England’s Mac Jones-led offense also must hold up its end of the bargain.
But field position also will be important. If Bill Belichick doesn’t believe Folk can get the job done on kickoffs, he might have no choice but to summon help from his practice squad.
We’ll learn whether the Patriots agree as Thursday’s 8:15 p.m. kickoff approaches.