The Patriots are back on the road this weekend, in the middle of playing five-of-six away from the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium. Of course when you’re undefeated on the road and haven’t lost there since late in the 2015 season maybe it isn’t such a bad thing.
The Patriots odds for Sundays game are once again unnervingly high.
This is arguably the toughest divisional game remaining this season. Though the Bills stumbled mightily two weeks ago with a sudden decision to yank Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo got back on track with a solid win over the Patriot-defeating Chiefs in Kansas City. That’s never an easy task. A win over the Patriots would put the Bills back in the playoff contender category and we’ve seen plenty of tight ones in Buffalo to expect a good game.
The Patriots’ biggest opponent in recent weeks has been their own injuries. That’s just where we’re at with this dynasty now. Staying healthy is all that really stands between them and how high their Super Bowl expectations are, and last week they were hit hard again, losing Nate Ebner and Martellus Bennett for the season. Luckily injuries to key cogs Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy do not appear to be serious.
Can the Pats keep their 13-game road win streak and seven-game overall win streak intact while putting an iron grip on the AFC East title? Here’s the gameplan to make it happen.
The Bills started the season off with 17 takeaways in their first seven games and that largely fueled their 5-2 start. Since then they have just two takeaways in their last four games with a record of 1-3. Being safe with the ball is always a great place to start, but against a team like the Bills it’s especially important. In the last four games the Bills also have 10 turnovers of their own, though the six from the Nathan Peterman game is obviously an outlier.
Still, the point remains, the Bills need a lot of things to go right for them to win and it all starts with not giving away the ball to them.
Assuming the Pats won’t have a gross sloppy game at this stage in the season, the key for them this year is balance. With their best run game in recent memory, led by Dion Lewis, the Pats have been able to take some pressure off Tom Brady and force opponents to dedicate themselves to stopping the run before they concern themselves with fooling Brady with presnap disguise or attacking the offensive line, which has had their shaky moments this season despite being overall solid.
The Bills are 11th in pass defense DVOA while their run defense is 27th so maybe it’s time to unleash Mike Gillislee on his old team. GIllislee has fallen off the gameday roster with the emergence of Lewis and Rex Burkhead. There’s little doubt those are the two best backs for the job, but in this situation maybe we can get some angry running out of Gillislee while also preserving Lewis especially.
Otherwise the Pats should continue to focus on finishing in the red zone, the last step for their offense to be truly unstoppable as we saw last week when they were five-of-five in the red zone. The big key there? Rob Gronkowksi looking like the good old Gronk again. Between him and Brandin Cooks the offense can challenge defenses on every square inch of turf.
Will the Bills be able to get the key stops and force turnovers? They’ll have to for 60 minutes if they want to hold the Pats to under 30.
Tyrod Taylor is 1-4 in his career against the Pats, but in the last three games against New England he has just one touchdown and no interceptions. All things considered, that’s not all that bad and is perhaps a sign Taylor has the clean game needed to beat the Pats. We all saw the trouble that mobile quarterbacks gave them this season and Taylor should be their first recent test to see how well they’ve developed. The athleticism on the second level is where the Pats can be exposed so it will be interesting to see how they counter Taylor’s mobility. Probably a balance of Van Noy, Chung and McCourty.
He’s just the kind of quarterback that could get the Pats’ defense off balance for the first time since October. That’s what has me most curious about this game overall. The defense has done well against pocket passers, but Taylor is familiar with the Pats brand of defense and if he plays safe with the ball and picks his spot to convert some third downs this one could be interesting, at least early.
Containing Taylor in the pocket while stopping the LeSean McCoy are the two biggest keys. If the Pats make Taylor a pocket passer, they’ll have the advantage. I’d love to see more of new guys Trevor Reilly and Eric Lee, both of whom showed some pop last weekend. The Pats will need one of them to play a consistent role down the stretch and this is a good chance to see who might emerge.
If Taylor has to pass to move the ball it puts the advantage on the Patriots’ talented secondary, which has been getting better each week. The pass rush will have to be controlled which does put a spotlight on finishing sacks off when they get the chance. That’s what I’m most interested to see…how the defense can execute a disciplined gameplan against an athletic quarterback.
Five Points of Emphasis
- Keep Taylor in Pocket — Every time Tyrod runs for a first down on third and long I’m going to lose my mind. They must keep him in the pocket and force him to throw to win.
- Return of Gillislee (or hold your breath and pound Lewis/Burkhead) — At this point Gillislee is the most expendable of the running backs and if there’s one game he should run hard it’s against the Bills. So why not throw him out there? He’ll run with something to prove to everyone and it can take some of the beating off of Dion Lewis, who I see as the true X factor for the team’s Super Bowl hopes.
- Clean and Disciplined — The Patriots need to be quietly efficient in this one because if they’re sporadic and/or sloppy the Bills could steal this one.
- Special Teams Re-jigger — The area that worries me most is special teams. Losing Ebner hurts a lot. And if Slater’s out again that’s your two best guys. Brandon Bolden, Brandon King, Jordan Richards, and Jonathan Jones must step up.
- Win — A weekly reminder that all that counts is getting the W. I’d love for this to just be a smooth (NO INJURY), steady win. I’d be surprised to see the team regress but I wouldn’t completely rule it out. This week or next there’s a pretty good chance for a grounding loss. I’m gonna bet it’s next week.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Bills 13