Curran's Hard Truths Preview: After rough week, Patriots are due, Bills
Bleak week for the Patriots. First, the loss in Pittsburgh, a defeat that damaged New England’s playoff seeding and laid bare some inconvenient truths. The Patriots are bad at stopping the run. On offense, there are a variety of things they do pretty well some of the time but few they do with regularity. And they are playing dumb, as the recent rash of penalties suggests. Then on Thursday, they lost the production of wide receiver Josh Gordon. That Gordon might relapse was always a possibility. Still, the fact he did means processing the loss of a teammate who players were pulling for and filling a hole where his production was. The Patriots have two games to get playoff ready, starting with the Bills.
When the Patriots run
The Patriots got just 76 yards on the ground in their first meeting with Buffalo (3 yards per carry) and the Bills have continued to be a tough team to run against (10th overall). Except when they aren’t. The Bills have twice allowed more than 220 yards on the ground this season, most recently when they gave up 226 to Jacksonville. They have front-seven talent with ageless Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes alongside Trent Murphy and Star Lotuleilei. The Patriots would like to run the ball as often as they throw it. That’s their best chance for success. Persistent penalties last week got them out of that mode and they only ran 19 times but they’d run the ball 30 times or more in the three games previous and in four of the last five. This could be a stalemate but I think the Patriots will be stubborn in trying to get it going on the ground.
When the Bills run
The Patriots can’t stop anyone on the ground right now. The Dolphins and Steelers – two teams that had afterthought rushing attacks – went for 189 and 158 against the Patriots. Only twice all season have the Patriots held an opponent under 4 yards per carry. They are 31st defensively in average gain per run. The Bills are inept at running the ball, though. Their leading rusher is rookie quarterback Josh Allen with 506 yards and he’s only played 10 games. LeSean McCoy is in full and spectacular decline (3.3 yards per carry) and Chris Ivory has a knee injury and is questionable. Still, the way the Patriots have played up front, anything’s possible for an opposing running game.
When the Patriots pass
Josh Gordon far exceeded what I expected he’d do for this offense. But after he saw 21 targets in two games prior to the bye, the Patriots were working to get more diverse. He saw 19 targets in the past four games. There’s no minimizing how far superior Gordon was to the players who will try to fill his void him – Cordarelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett. But it’s also clear the Patriots didn’t want to be too Gordon-reliant. I expect Dorsett will be productive. He wasn’t down because he can’t play at all. He was down because Gordon was better. And Dorsett is more predictable in terms of being where Tom Brady expects him to be. As for Brady, he’s got to battle through any feelings of resignation that this offense just doesn’t have it, even if this offense just doesn’t have it. If New England can get Brady under center and get production from the running game, play-action will help create the separation the Patriots receivers aren’t getting. The Bills are down starting corner Ryan Lewis in this one.
When the Bills pass
It’s not pretty. Since returning from injury, Josh Allen has gone 8-for-19, 18-for-33, 18-for-36 and 13-for-26. This isn’t a complete indictment on the rookie’s ability to throw accurately. He’s got nobody to throw to. Second-year man Zay Jones is the Bills leading receiver. He’s caught eight of the last 25 passes thrown his way over four games. McCoy is the team’s second-leading receiver with 29. Six of those came against the Patriots. Look for that to be a part of the Bills game plan again this time. In addition to Allen’s scrambling. The Patriots are a mixed-bag against running quarterbacks. They can harness some of the smaller, quicker ones but the guys with heft – Mitch Trubisky, Cam Newton, Allen – sometimes get a wide berth.
Bills punter Corey Bojorquez – who the Patriots tried to keep hidden in the preseason – landed in Buffalo and had been a booming success (HA!) for the Bills until a shoulder injury put him on IR. Matt Darr is their punter now and he’ll be leery of a rush that blocked a pair of punts two weeks ago in Miami. The Bills’ return game is non-descript. Kicker Steve Hauschka has made 4 of 7 in the past three games.
OUT: CB Ryan Lewis (concussion). QUESTIONABLE: RB Chris Ivory (shoulder).
QUESTIONABLE: LB Brandon King (knee)
Shawn Smith, who’s in his first year as a head referee, will work his first Patriots game in that role. His crew’s been on a flag binge this month with 55 accepted penalties in their past three games. They’re averaging 2.34 penalties per game and 27.35 yards per game more than the league norm. For the Patriots got flagged for 14 penalties last week (they have 84 assessed penalties, 104 total penalties this year which is still better than most teams).
The Line and the Weather
The Patriots are favored by 13.5. The total is 44. The Patriots are 8-5 against the spread this season. It will be sunny and not so bad – low to mid-40s – so weather isn’t going to be a factor in this one.
Patriots 23, Bills 6