PATS REPORTER

Perry: Pats-Bills matchup of contrasting styles could favor visitors

PATS REPORTER

If styles make fights, then Monday's matchup between the Patriots and Bills should be one of the best of the year. 

The Bills are the modern-day version of The Greatest Show on Turf with quality receivers across the board and a dynamic young quarterback. The Patriots have the heaviest offensive line in the NFL. The Bills want to turn games into track meets. The Patriots would prefer to make the game one extended Hell in a Cell match.

It's only the first of two meetings between these two teams this season, but it will help determine which one ends up winning the AFC East. It could end up impacting the race for the No. 1 overall seed in the conference.

Which style has the advantage in Round 1? 

Patriots Talk Podcast: Has Buffalo's window of AFC East dominance already closed? | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

It's looking like it'll be a cold and very windy December night in Western New York on Monday. At first blush, this is the type of game for which the Patriots appear to be built: an old-school, in-the-elements, which-team-hurts-more-to-tackle bludgeon-fest.

 

When the Patriots have the ball

Bill Belichick and his club have long been a game-plan offense, but this showdown sets up nicely for them to do what they like. 

Since trotting out a patchwork offensive line for the first four games of the season, the Patriots are indisputably one of the most run-heavy offenses in football. Over the last eight weeks, only two teams in the NFL (Philadelphia, San Francisco) have run the ball more often in one-score situations in the first three quarters of games than New England.

That serves as an indication that when the playbook is wide open -- when a team isn't chucking it all over the yard while facing a deficit or trying to burn the clock late with a lead -- the Patriots want to run more than almost any other team.

With fullback Jakob Johnson, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels calls for more two-back sets than every team in the NFL save for the 49ers (with do-it-all fullback Kyle Juszczyk) and the Ravens (with 300-pound fullback Patrick Ricard). The Patriots occasionally deploy a 350-pound tight end (reserve lineman Mike Onwenu) onto the field. They have three backs who weigh at least 213 pounds and have shown an affinity for contact.

They have proven recently that they can win in other ways, too. When they struggled to run against Tennessee last week, Mac Jones and his teammates had one of their most productive passing games of the season. Their special teams units continue to be among the best in football. 

Perry: What is it that makes Mac Jones so polarizing to evaluate?

But this should be a week in which their running game -- which has the fifth-highest expected points added per rush during their winning streak, according to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic -- leads the way.

While the Bills have the No. 2 scoring defense in football (behind only New England), they've been trounced by top-end rushing offenses. Buffalo has played two top-10 EPA-per-rush units this season and lost to both. (They also lost to the Jaguars, who rank No. 11 in that category.)

The Bills allowed 185 yards to Indy's Jonathan Taylor and 264 total rushing yards to the Colts (No. 1 in EPA per rush) in a 41-15 loss in Week 11. In Week 6, Buffalo allowed 143 yards on the ground to Derrick Henry and the Titans (No. 6) in a 34-31 loss. The Patriots are the No. 8 team in the NFL in EPA per rush this season.

Running wild in Buffalo?

Patriots' rushing yards per game, last seven games
140.6
Bills' rushing yards allowed per game, last seven games
113.0

When the Patriots throw, Jones will have to deal with interchangeable safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde disguising their intentions at the snap. But if the Patriots can effectively run the football early on, that may sap Buffalo's ability to disguise on the back end. If one safety needs to attack the line of scrimmage to chip in against the run, that could leave the Patriots facing some single-high-safety coverages. 

That, in turn, could allow Jones to do what he has done well as a rookie, which is attack one-on-one matchups on the outside. Without talented corner Tre'Davious White (on IR with a torn ACL), the Bills could have a hard time both dedicating numbers to the box and winning those one-on-ones near the boundary.

 

When the Bills have the ball

The natural counter here would be for Bills Mafia to state the following: "Ah, didn't the Patriots just give up 270 yards on the ground to Tennessee? Our guys are a top-10 rushing offense (4.6 yards per carry, ninth in the NFL) so they'll be able to run it, too."

The Bills haven't been as efficient running the football this season, though (No. 17 in EPA per rush), and quarterback Josh Allen (383 yards) is their second-leading rusher. Additionally, more than half of Allen's rushing yards -- 232, according to Pro Football Focus -- are the result of scrambles, meaning a majority of the rushing production for one of Buffalo's best rushers has been unplanned.

And despite their struggles against the Titans, the Patriots remain the No. 3 rush EPA defense in football this season.

Plus, the Bills are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the Patriots when it comes to wanting to run the football. In one-score situations during the first three quarters of play, only two teams run less often than Buffalo (Miami, Tampa Bay). With receivers Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders -- along with talented pass-catching tight end Dawson Knox -- driving the offense, handing off to running backs has been a relative afterthought for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

The Bills aren't built to run in the same way the Patriots are. But if their passing game holds up in the conditions on Monday night, it probably won't matter. The question is... can it?

Phil Perry

Thus the Bills aren't built to run in the same way the Patriots are. But if their passing game holds up in the conditions on Monday night, it probably won't matter. The question is ... can it?

The Patriots, since their winning streak began in Week 7, have the most efficient passing defense in football (No. 1 EPA allowed per dropback). Over the entirety of the season to this point, they are the NFL's No. 3 defense in that category. Led by ballhawking cornerback J.C. Jackson (the AFC's Defensive Player of the Month for November) and a talented one-two pass-rushing punch of outside linebacker Matt Judon and defensive tackle Christian Barmore, it could be tough sledding for Allen and Company.

Diggs torched the Patriots for 237 receiving yards on 15 catches in two games last season, many of those while working on Jackson. So that could end up being a matchup to watch, but the Patriots have shifted their defensive philosophy since then. 

They're primarily a zone-coverage unit at this point in time, playing about 60 percent of their snaps in zone since Week 5. Jackson and Diggs will surely find themselves matched up at points, but it would make sense for the Patriots to stick with what has worked -- especially this week.

Zone coverages would mean minimizing the opportunity for corners to lose one-on-ones against the big names featured in a top-end receiving corps. Zone would also mean defender eyes will be in the Buffalo backfield to prevent long Allen scrambles.

Prediction: Patriots 23, Bills 20

 

X-Factor: Adrian Phillips

The Patriots very well could be without second-year safety Kyle Dugger after he tested positive for COVID-19 this week. Phillips would be critical in helping the team adjust in Dugger's absence.

 

There's already a lot on Phillips' plate as a jack-of-all-trades for the Patriots defense (81.5 percent of defensive snaps taken), but he could be expected to do even more Monday if Dugger (80.9 percent) is out. Despite being a zone team lately, the Patriots mix in their share of man-to-man calls, and in those spots Phillips could be expected to check Knox, who averages 10.1 yards per target this season.

The Patriots could also turn to a couple of others to help replace Dugger's snaps. The team's tallest corner, 6-foot-4 Joejuan Williams, could end up with some added responsibilities in sub packages. Additionally, linebacker Jamie Collins is eligible to be activated off injured reserve and could help the Patriots replace what Dugger brought to them in the box. 

There is no one-for-one sub for Dugger, though, which is why Phillips -- who already has myriad roles -- could end up shouldering more pressure than anyone if Dugger is absent.

Number to Know: 3

Credit to the world's best digital staff, the folks we have grinding for us at NBCSportsBoston.com, for digging this one up. This week's "Number to Know" is all about the number of wins rookie quarterbacks have compiled since 2000 when playing on the road on Monday Night Football (minimum 10 pass attempts). 

Their record: 3-11.

Since the merger in 1970, rookies on the road have gone 6-25 on Monday night.

The crowd inside the stadium at Orchard Park, New York, isn't necessarily known as one of the most raucous (outside is another story). But this should be the most rabid road environment Mac Jones has encountered to this point in his rookie season. 

Why Mac Jones is relishing the big stage of MNF in Buffalo

"This’ll be new for me, but I know a lot of guys on the team have played in a lot of big games," Jones said this week. "At the end of the day, you’ve just got to block out the noise the best you can.

"It’s going to be loud. You just have to prepare yourself mentally for that. That’s pretty much all you can do. You can look at the past and see what you’ve gone through, but you won’t be able to experience it until it happens."

The Patriots, of course, do their best over the course of the season to prep players for the decibel-levels they'll experience when they hit the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.

"We prepare for it every week," Belichick said Wednesday. "It’s probably louder out there in practices than in the game. Either way, it’s loud."