As playoff scenarios began to play out during the inaugural week 18 in the NFL, it was clear to everyone that the Bills and Patriots would meet for the third time this season in the playoffs. Even as the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers game crept into OT and the Pats vs Bengals scenario was still alive, it just felt like the Raiders had to win so the Bills and Patriots could play once more this season. The matchup is everything the NFL could want in a #3 vs #6 matchup on wild card weekend and they put the rivalry game in primetime on Saturday for all to witness.
The previous two matchups this season between the Bills and Patriots have been, well, interesting. The first was the “wind-game” where the Patriots went into Buffalo and ran all over the Bills. Mac Jones had exactly 3 pass attempts and the Patriots managed a 14-10 victory on the road thanks to 41 rushes. Damien Harris had 11 yards rushing on just 10 carries and a TD, while Rhamondre Stevenson rushed 24 times for 78 yards. Mac completed 2 of his 3 passes to Jonnu Smith and Brandon Bolden and the Pats relied on a strong defensive presence to grab the road victory. The game was far from pretty, but a W is a W and led to some sour grapes from Bills coach Sean McDermott who said after the game, “Let’s not give more credit than we need to give Bill Belichick in this one.”
The rematch two weeks ago was a completely different game (not just because there wasn’t a ton of wind). The Bills came into the game looking to punch the Pats in the mouth with their aggressiveness and it worked beautifully. From aggressive play-calling to big plays when they needed them the most, the Bills took it to the Pats. The Bills converted 3 of 4 4th downs and trusted Josh Allen to make the right decisions and in this instance, he did with his arm and legs. The Bills got a massive game from virtually unknown WR Isaiah McKenzie while the Pats mostly shut down WR Stephon Diggs in the first half. To the Patriots credit, they fought back and didn’t give up, but were completely flustered on a picked-up unnecessary roughness penalty in the last minute of the first half that led to other penalties and likely took points off the board.
Round three should be another thrilling chapter in the AFC East rivalry. Based on past success, I expect the Bills to come out on fire Saturday night with aggression as their mantra. It worked in their second match-up vs the Patriots and really put the Pats players back on their heals. I would be surprised if McDermont doesn’t try to score quickly and take chances on 3rd and 4th down throughout the game. On December 27th, WR Isaiah McKenzie caught the Pats off-guard while the secondary did a nice job on Diggs and TE Dawson Knox and I expect something similar will occur on Saturday, but with the other receiver options, mainly Emmanuel Sanders and/or Gabriel Davis. The Pats secondary depth is of definite concern right now and the Bills are smart enough to unleash Josh Allen to attack on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th levels. I also expect a fair amount of passes (mostly screen-type routes) to RB Devin Singletary to get the playmaker the ball in space and keep the defense off balance. If the Bills can exploit the Pats secondary, it could be a long night for the Pats.
On the other side, the Pats have some work to do this week to prepare in all three aspects of the game. The #1 issue they have had over the past month is mistakes. Between bad penalties, turnovers, and mistakes in coverage, the Pats have been uncharacteristically the sloppier team. In almost all of their losses this season, the Pats have been in contention with a chance to comeback or win, but there is usually at least one mistake you can point to after the game that prevented the W. The ability of the Pats offense to move the ball downfield with balance is key to keeping the Bills defense at bay. If the Pats get down early, it makes them more predictable and easier to play against. A balanced run/pass attack will allow Mac to make more comfortable reads with space and allow the offensive line to hopefully hold up a bit better. On the defensive side of the ball, they need to get pressure on Josh Allen and contain him. If they can get pressure on Allen, he will make mistakes eventually, but the inherent risk is that you flush him from the pocket and he takes off for a 20-yard run. When playing well, the Bills offensive weapons are near impossible to cover, but when Allen feels the pressure and is forced into quick decisions, he has a tendency to make mistakes.
When all is said and done, I think the Patriots squeak out a really intense, close game 27-24. In general, I think it’s a pick’em game that could go either way. The team with the most mistakes losses and has all offseason to wonder what-if. I think the Bills options on offense are so strong and deep for the weak Pats secondary to handle, but Allen will make one too many mistakes or McDermott take one too many chances on 4th down and allow Mac Jones to drive down field and win on a late K Nick Folk field goal. I don’t feel even a little confident in the prediction, but in a toss-up game I’m picking the Pats every time.