So, this is now the third week in a row where the Buffalo Bills absolutely overmatch their opponent on paper. Despite that, the Bills are one untimed Taron Johnson end zone breakup (and one fortunate penalty non-call) from being 0-2 in that stretch. The loss in Jacksonville was a bit more understandable given the Jaguars had talent and were in their second week in London, where the Florida team thrives. Almost losing to the lowly, injury-riddled New Jersey Giants at home is a whole another level.
It’s not time to panic, and it’s better to win a game your team barely shows up for than the alternative, but it’s harder to assert with confidence that this Bills team will dominate this road game. That said, as an analyst, I am unabashedly a homer, and tend towards the (near-toxically) positive end of the spectrum. Even then, if you go back and check out my last two write-ups, we held on to reservations here at sUBject sports. This is not the case this week.
It’s weird to say, but the tables have turned a nifty 180 and where a match with Bill Belichick’s Patriots was once dreaded and chalked up as a near-certain loss, their two divisional crossfires are now two of the most expected wins of the season. And the 1-5 Patriots, while competitive in some games, have looked terrible so far. Like the Giants, they have been hit to a comical degree by the injury bug. Meanwhile, the once heralded Mac Jones is in peril of being replaced by pre-season darling (and part-time WR) Malik Cunningham.
The Bills are of course, not immune to injury, having lost three high performing defensive players, including two former All-Pros, in LB Matt Milano, CB Tre’Davious White, and standout DT DaQuan Jones, for most, if not all, of the season. This week their defensive middle is gutted as Ed Oliver, who has finally been living up to his top ten draft status this season, sits. Thankfully, he was oddly still practicing on Friday so it might be just a one-week pause… and technically, McDermott could still change his mind and play him. But he’s not gunna.
However, the off-season was all about bringing in depth and between unexpected top level play from players like Terrel Bernard and Christian Benford and last week’s promising debut of third round rookie Dorian Williams in Milano’s spot, the Bills defense has acquitted itself quite well through the injuries. Even as they were exhausted after being on the field most of the game vs. Jacksonville in London, the team was still mustering big plays to keep the Bills and their inexplicably tepid offense in the game.
So, let’s go throught the, once again, imbalanced assessing of the units.
It’s still unfathomable that as recently as this off-season, there were social media fans who would tout Mac Jones as Josh Allen’s equal. And their game one statlines fueled that fire as Mac notched three TDs and an INT, while Allen had one of his worst career games with the mirror of a single TD to go with three INTs. Since then, Mac “The Busted Spork” has managed just two more complete passes into the opponents’ end zones, and not a single score in October.
Meanwhile, Allen is still on pace to finally snag his first MVP trophy, even after two meh offensive weeks. Allen leads the NFL in total TDs and completion pct. And while he has given up three more INTs, all of them have been pseudo-punts, happening on deep heaves to within the 20 when Allen was being hurried on 3rd and longs.
And Allen has owned the Patriots since the 2020 power shift. In seven games, including a perfect playoff game, the Bills passer has 17 passing TDs to 2 INTs and a QB rating above 120. Mac Jones, on the other hand, has a 66 rating with four TDs to go with five INTs. This just isn’t close, and unless Jones has a massive turnaround, it never will be.
Most years, this is where the Patriots would kill the Bills. The Patriots rarely have an overtly dominant run game, but it’s always effective and tends to be even more so versus their Orchard Park rivals. Rhamondre Stephenson has struck fear into Bills’ fans hearts in the past and Ezekiel Elliott is a one-time top back in the league. However, this year, their run game has been consistently non-existent. The Patriots have just one game where one of them eclipsed 60 yards (Elliott’s 80 against the utterly confusing Jets defense).
One could make the argument that in combo, they have power, but the Patriots are in the top ten worst for rushing yards, and have an anemic YPC tally of 3.4. Meanwhile, the Bills are slightly above the middle of the pack and it’s a rare year where Allen has not been propping up their total. James Cook has not looked otherworldly, but other than a negative output in London, he has been a more-than-adequate RB1 and is on pace for the famous 1000-yard benchmark.
Unfortunately, ex-Pat Damien Harris misses out on his first shot at playing his old team. While his head injury looked way worse last week as he took an ambulance off the field (I’m so sick of seeing those during football games), he will be on the IR for at least the next few weeks with a neck injury. Ageless Latavius Murray has been quietly one of the Bills best free agent signings with 128 yards and a pair of TDs. Otherwise, it’s a battle of journeymen Tys with the Bills’ Johnson and the Pats’ Montgomery II.
While the Bills have caught some flack in past weeks for their depth at the WR position beyond future Hall of Famer Stefon Diggs, and their use of their duo of young tight ends, this is still not even close. WR1 is DeVante Parker by default. In fairness, the one team Parker has consistently lived anywhere near up to his long-forgotten hype in against the Bills. However, his 2023 stats are not that much better than Bills’ third WR option, Deonte Harty.
Juju Smith-Shuster has had some great games against the Bills, but is a shell of his former self and will likely not play anywhere. Kendrick Bourne is a great name and the defense needs to pay attention to him, but he’s also not a game-changer.
On the Bills side, as alluded to, Diggs has been bizarrely consistent this year, only dipping below 100 yards once this season, and even then got a respectable 62 yards against the Raiders. Gabriel Davis has been excoriated by many fans and press as a dubious WR2, but those folks can kinda stuff it, as Davis may not be Jaylen Waddle or Tee Higgins, but he’s on pace for roughly 1000 yards and over 10 TDs.
Theoretically, the tight ends should be a dynamic part of both offenses. However, for the Patriots, Hunter Henry will play hurt, if at all, and FA signing Mike Gesicki has been mostly a non-factor (although Bills fans will know to keep an eye on the wily veteran). Bills duo Dawson Knox and Dalton Kincaid will both be back and have been full participants in practice. Will this be the week the pair make the 12-formation famous in Buffalo. We’ll see, but overall, it’s still, decisively, …
While neither team went into the season with this position group as a strength, the offensive line has been a high spot of the Bills’ sometimes spotty start. Many rankings have them as the best of 32 so far this year. Dion Dawkins has made the Pro Bowl in the past, but it’s been of the “well, ya know” variety. However, this year Dawkins has been unquestionably one of the best left tackles in football. No one has even questioned the Schnowman’s leadership. I’d wish him an exension, but that went horribly last time I did that and I’m superstitious AF. His counterpoint on the right, Spencer Brown, started the season as a disaster, but has been popping up in the upper-right hand quadrants of a lot of those now-ubiquitous x-y axis charts. The upper-right is usually where you want to be.
There has been no similar trench rebirth in Foxboro. In fact, the o-line room looks like a Mathew Brady photograph this week. Their entire starting interior is listed as questionable, while solid veteran Riley Reiff was placed on the IR. Their only healthy starter, RT Vedarian Lowe, has been a mess allowing four sacks while rated as one of PFF’s worst. Even if Trent Brown, David Andrews, Mike Owenwu, and Cole Strange all suit up Sunday afternoon, they’ll likely be hobbled and up against the Bills number one pressuring and sacking defensive line, who even without its two best players will be a handful.
Advantage: Very Much Buffalo
This one is where we truly see the scope of NFL injuries. The Bills will be minus their two starting defensive tackles DaQuan Jones and Ed Oliver, both of whom were off to All-Pro-worthy starts. Meanwhile, the Patriots are down both their best pass rushers as Matt Judon is on IR and young Josh Uche has been ruled out. Oh, arguably it’s best three as second round rookie Keion White is also missing the game.
The Patriots have one more star disruptor on the line in Christian Barmore, but even he is not 100 to make the game. The Bills at least have a plethora of pass rushers available. Gregory Rousseau is playing through a foot injury, but looked fine last week. Living legend and active sack leader Von Miller is starting to look more like himself as he eases back into the line-up. However, it’s been Leonard Floyd and AJ Epenesa who have been leading the charge. The former is on the leaderboard with 6.5 sacks, while the latter has been a straight-up demon in the passing game with three sacks, five TFLs, and an unheard-of-for-a-defensive-end six passes defensed.
We finally get a close one in the middle of the defense. Ja’Whaun Bentley is one of the best young linebackers in all of football. Meanwhile, 2019 Lions second rounder Jehlani Tavai has quietly been one of the most improved players in the NFL, going from an absolute liability versus the pass to one of the better coverage LBs in the league.
The Bills lost a lot with Matt Milano, but the sting hurt a bit less as middle linebacker Terrel Bernard has been proving Brendan Beane smart week-after-week. He won the Defensive Player of the Week for his effort against the Commanders. Mostly, Bernard has been consistent. It’s early, but Dorian Williams has looked more than capable in Milano’s role. Suddenly, Beane’s oft-critiqued third round linebacker “reaches” are looking much smarter.
Advantage: New England
This is another close call. The Patriots defense, while not at the same smothering level as it has been for most of the decade, is still talented. Both units have above average safety starting pairs. Kyle Duggar and Jabril Peppers have never been superstars, but play fast and furious and exciting football. If we’re being honest, they’re ahead of where Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were at this point in their career when the stars aligned to bring them to Buffalo. So far, in 2023, Poyer’s shown some tread, while Hyde looks refreshed after missing most of 2022 with a neck injury.
They both boast battered secondaries. For the Patriots, it got so bad, they brought back one-time superstar JC Jackson. He’s given the Bills fits, but not really since about four years ago. Unfortunately for the Pats, Jonathan Jones, who has been one of the unsung stars of the position, is, you guessed it, injured. But he may playl. Obviously, the Bills are out star-crossed former All-Pro Tre White, but Dane Jackson and Christian Benford are on the mending side and have been stout so far. Nickel back Taron Johnson has been the Bills defensive MVP out of the healthy players.
We don’t talk about Kaiir.
So, it’s been a drumbeat for me for the last two weeks to make note here how the Bills are better at most positions than their opponent, while also pointing out that anything can happen in the NFL and that I had a bad feeling about the games.
Last week was the NFL’s Any Given Sunday week as both remaining undefeated teams lost to mediocre squads. The Bills barely escaped by the skin of Taron Johnson’s nails with a 14-9 home win over the flailing Giants. That said, I did not want to touch a prediction last week.
This game against the Patriots, oddly does not install the same weird fear in me. As with the Dolphins, the Josh Allen version of the Bills just always comes to play against every division rival that does not have an aging fireman attempting to spell the name of their team (seriously, what even is that). Call it a hunch, but this will be the bloodletting game the Bills have needed the last couple weeks.
Prediction: Bills 37, Patriots 9