Patriots-Bills Preview from Tom E. Curran: A lot on Brady
The Patriots have had 324 second-down plays this season. Of those, 208 are second-and-7 or more (64 percent). They’ve been in second-and-10 (or worse) 125 times (38 percent of the time). Their 64 passes on second-and-10 are the highest in the league.
They are forever in second-and-long. Why? Because they aren’t great on first down.
The Patriots have run more third down plays than anyone in the league (208). Only Philly (200), Detroit (197), Tampa and Jacksonville (192) are close.
Of the 208 third downs, 141 are third-and-5 or more (68 percent).
Ranking by total pass attempts, New England is second in third-and-5 and third-and-6 (20 and 17 throws each), first in third-and-7 (22), 26th in third-and-8 (8), seventh in third-and-9 (10) and first in third-and-10 (23). They’ve also had 26 more pass plays on third-and-11-plus. That’s 126 throws on third-and-5-plus.
So, they are bad enough on first down to keep getting stuck in second-and-long. And they’re bad enough on second down that they wind up in third-and-long almost 70 percent of the time.
And how has the calcified, walking corpse wearing No. 12 done this season when faced with third-and-5 with nobody other than Julian Edelman and James White to consistently lean on? The Patriots converted 43 of the throws into first downs (34 percent).
By comparison, Lamar Jackson’s been in third-and-5-plus just 77 times and has converted 27 times (35 percent). Deshaun Watson? He’s 27 for 83 (32 percent). Aaron Rodgers is 32 for 103 (31 percent). Dak is 33 for 85 (38 percent) and Jimmy G. is 38 for 93 (40 percent).
The Patriots offense is constantly in high-leverage situations. They aren’t equipped for it with their skeleton crew of receivers. Yet, when you look at those numbers, you see just how effective Brady still is despite how often it all falls on him. It will likely all fall on him again Saturday against a very good Bills defense, the best they’ve seen in weeks. What Brady can conjure up will determine whether the Patriots win or lose.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
Last week was encouraging, despite the fact it came against the Bengals. Sony Michel had 89 on 19 carries, Rex Burkhead broke one late, the Patriots found some balance.
The Bills effectively bottled up the Steelers and Ravens in back-to-back games and held the Patriots to 74 yards on 23 carries the first time the teams met. Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is the key to their front. Shaq Lawson, Ed Oliver, Jerry Hughes and Jordan Phillips have all been productive as well.
It’s a tough group to run on and a far cry from what the Patriots saw last week. The Patriots need to be productive on the ground to stay out of second and third-and-long because the Bills can rush (42 sacks) and cover.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
With Edelman banged up, it’s going to be hard for Brady to lean on him. That means a big game for White and, if he can get back to the form he showed against Baltimore, Mohamed Sanu.
Buffalo’s ever-changing defense is going to be a challenge for N’Keal Harry to decipher. The ball has to come out fast and Brady has to have faith his targets will be where they’re supposed to be. Edelman had just two catches for 9 yards last week.
Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Meyers didn’t see a pass. It’s hard to see where the favorable matchup will be found against a secondary with an excellent corner in Tre’Davious White and two very good safeties in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer.
WHEN THE BILLS RUN
It was Frank Gore that did the damage on the ground in the first meeting between these teams (17 for a season-high 109) but it’s been Devin Singletary’s gig since the start of November as he’s carried 116 times for 557 in the Bills past seven games (4.8 YPC).
He’s short (5-7) but he’s sturdy and his quickness through the line of scrimmage and onto the linebacker level means the Patriots need to do a much better job tackling than they did last week when Joe Mixon helped keep the Bengals in the game.
Allen is running it about six times per game. He’s far from being the electric runner that Lamar Jackson is but he isn’t – despite his moronic head-dipping decision that got him knocked out the last time the Bills and Patriots played – running like a quarterback either. He’s running like a back.
After consecutive weeks holding down the running games of the Texans and Chiefs, the Bengals shone a light on some shoddy tackling. The Patriots need to keep Allen in third-and-4-or-more to ensure boobery. They need to make sure the early-down rushing gets shut down.
WHEN THE BILLS PASS
You have heard about Josh Allen’s rising competency. And it’s true. He’s looking better all the time. He is not a “good” quarterback but a dangerous one, capable of inflicting damage on his team and the opponent. In five of the past seven games, he’s taken four or more sacks.
He hasn’t averaged better than 8 YPA – the general standard that a quarterback hits when he’s really effective – all season. He’s been under 6 YPA in seven of his last eight games. He’s got skilled little receivers in slot guy Cole Beasley (60 for 670) and outside receiver John Brown (71 for 1,007). Rookie tight end Dawson Knox has caught a pass in seven straight games and both Gore and Singletary are capable receivers.
But the Bills aren’t going to beat New England by running the Patriots defense off the court. Allen’s job is to avoid giving the ball to the Patriots in his own end of the field. A plus-50 turnover? That sucks but the Patriots aren’t generally driving very far on anyone this season – 29.32 yards per drive – so it behooves the Bills to take their gambles for points.
And if it gets into a “pin ‘em deep” game, again, the Patriots aren’t a real threat to drive the length of the field at this point. Jonathan Jones’ injury could be a complicator for the secondary. He’s good on the little quick guys as a slot corner.
The Patriots have returned 25 punts for 209 total yards (8.4 per return). They returned 16 in the first five games, nine since and have seven punt return yards in their past four games. In short, they are out on punt returns.
But the upside of a poor return game? A great punt-block team! They’ve blocked four this year including one against the Bills that was returned for a score and was the winning margin in the Patriots 16-10 win. They’ve also been brilliant in punt coverage, last week being the latest example when the Bengals' Alex Erickson tried to return a punt he should have fair caught, got stripped and set up a Patriots field goal.
The Patriots kickoff return unit improved drastically after a flat start to the year and Nick Folk has been all anyone could expect him to be after being plucked off the street.
Steven Hauschka is the Bills kicker. Corey Bojorquez is the punter. Bojorquez has dropped 30 inside opponents’ 20 on 67 punts. Hauschka is 15-for-17 from 30-49 yards and 1-for-5 past 50.
OUT: CB Jonathan Jones (groin); QUESTIONABLE: LB Ja'Whaun Bentley (knee), LB Jamie Collins (shoulder), WR Julian Edelman (knee/shoulder), CB Jason McCourty (groin)
OUT: OT Ty Nsekhe (ankle); QUESTIONABLE: DT Corey Liuget (knee)
John Hussey’s crew has the game. They haven’t done a Patriots game this season. They did Patriots-Chiefs in Week 6 last year. There were no accepted penalties against the Patriots. In 2017, the crew did Patriots-Raiders in Mexico City. The Patriots had two penalties assessed.
The crew is currently throwing at a rate of 13.31 total penalties and 114.95 total penalty yardage per game. The home team has drawn 78 penalties. Visitors, 98.
The Patriots are favored by 6.5. The total is down to 37 after opening at 38.5. Ten out of the Patriots 14 games this season have gone under. New England’s failed to cover in four of their last five games. I’m 7-6 against the spread, 9-4-1 vs. the total.
Bills 16, Patriots 9
Week 1: Patriots 16, Steelers 13
Final: Patriots, 33-3
Week 2: Patriots 30, Dolphins 0
Final: Patriots, 43-0
Week 3: Patriots 20, Jets 6
Final: Patriots, 30-14
Week 4: Patriots 19, Bills 13
Final: Patriots, 16-10
Week 5: Patriots 30, Redskins 13
Final: Patriots, 33-7
Week 6: Patriots 16, Giants 3
Final: Patriots, 35-14
Week 7: Patriots 16, Jets 13
Final: Patriots, 33-0
Week 8: Patriots 27, Browns 10
Final: Patriots, 27-13
Week 9: Patriots 23, Ravens 13
Final: Ravens, 37-20
Week 11: Patriots 26, Eagles 13
Final: Patriots, 17-10
Week 12: Cowboys 23, Patriots 16
Final: Patriots, 13-9
Week 13: Patriots 24, Texans 23
Final: Texans, 28-22
Week 14: Chiefs 27, Patriots 20
Final: Chiefs 23, Patriots 16
Week 15: Patriots 19, Bengals 6
Final: Patriots 34, Bengals 13