Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top 5 match-ups that will determine which team emerges victorious.
The New England Patriots jumped out to a 14-0 lead and cruised to a 35-17 win last week against their AFC East rival Miami Dolphins. The Buffalo Bills welcome the Patriots to New Era Field after being upsetting the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs 16-10 last week at Arrowhead Stadium. Both teams are in the thick of the playoffs, and this late-season AFC East match-up will go a long way in determining playoff seeding.
CBS will broadcast this week’s matchup. It can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and on WPRI Channel 12 in the Providence/Southern New England area. The Patriots draw the top broadcast team for CBS with the well-prepared and always professional Jim Nantz handling play-by-play duties with the hottest talent in the broadcast booth former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as the color analyst. With that top pairing, Tracy Wolfson will work from the sidelines with injury updates and more.
On the radio, this week’s game will be broadcast to a national audience by Compass Media Group. Jerry Recco and the always insightful Brian “Baldy” Baldinger (a great follow on Twitter at @BaldyNFL and on one of the better talents on the NFL Total Access show on the NFL Network) will call the game. Locally, the Patriots’ flagship station 98.5 FM the Sports Hub will carry the game on the Patriots Radio Network. The Patriots are on the radio on 40 stations throughout the nation. The broadcast will feature Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color. (That is if he is done live-tweeting about “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”).
Now that you know how to watch and listen to the game, here are the five key match-ups to watch. They will determine if the Patriots continue their winning ways against the Buffalo Bills, or if Tyrod Taylor will pull off the upset.
1. NE EDGE Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise vs BUF QB Tyrod Taylor
The Patriots finally remembered a defensive strategy called “blitzing” in the second half of their 35-17 win over the Miami Dolphins last week. Piling up seven sacks (including six in the second half of the game) allowed the Patriots to put serious pressure on Miami quarterback Matt Moore and assist their secondary for the first time this season.
This week, the blitz is likely to be put away (except for some occasional ‘delayed blitzes.’) Quarterback Tyrod Taylor will be looking to use his quickness and ability to escape pressure to get away from the New England pass rush and make plays downfield. In fact, the Patriots will be trying to contain him in the pocket and force him to make throws to his wide receivers outside the numbers–which is where Taylor’s lack of accuracy shows up on game tape.
The Patriots will lean on their edge rushers to play disciplined this week and not push upfield past the play and allow the quarterback an easy lane to escape pressure and extend the play (see: the maddening lack of technique setting the edge which led to edge rusher Cassius Marsh being released). The defensive ends cannot be overly aggressive with Buffalo tackles rookie Dion Dawkins and Jordan Mills (if left tackle Cordy Glenn cannot go again after missing the past two games it is a big loss for the Bills).
The Bills have actually gotten a boost running the ball with rookie Dawkins in for Glenn, but he has been a sieve in pass protection. Mills is average at best. Good pass rushers soundly beat him. Although Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers are not going to any Pro Bowls anytime soon, they can make a big impact in winning one-on-one battles on the edge and keeping Taylor contained in the pocket and setting the edge in running game.
2. NE WR Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett vs BUF CB TreDavious White and E.J. Gaines
New England has rediscovered the vertical passing game. Former New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks has been more than worth the draft pick, which New England gave up to get him. He has been able to give quarterback Tom Brady his first legitimate deep threat since Randy Moss shot his way out of town.
Cooks has 51 receptions for 869 yards (17 yards per reception) and five touchdowns in his first season in New England. With the loss of slot receiver Julian Edelman the Patriots have leaned on Cooks. In the process, they have forced Brady to diversify his targets. Chris Hogan had 33 receptions and five touchdowns in eight games before his injury. He is still out this week. Danny Amendola has 44 receptions for 455 yards.
Patriots wide-receiver Phillip Dorsett has primarily been a decoy to clear space for the running backs and tight ends. James White (47 receptions for 378 yards) and Rob Gronkowski (46 receptions for 702 yards and seven touchdowns) have been the primary beneficiaries. Dorsett has just seven receptions in 11 games but his speed forces teams to devote resources to him down the field.
Buffalo had numerous questions about their secondary coming into 2017 especially after trading Ronald Darby to Philadelphia. TreDavious White, who was drafted at 27th overall out of LSU, has been an immediate impact player at cornerback. White stepped in as a starter in week one and has challenged Marshon Lattimore and T.J. Watt for the title of the best defensive player in the 2017 NFL Draft. White has two interceptions, 14 passes defended, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in his first 11 games with 34 tackles and three touchdowns.
Fellow cornerback E.J. Gaines was also overlooked. The former sixth-round draft pick in the 2014 NFL Draft out of Missouri was seen as a throw-in by analysts in the Sammy Watkins trade with the Rams. Gaines had missed 22 games due to injuries in three years. However, he has been solid in his time in Buffalo, despite missing four games due to injury. He tackles well and is able to play with solid technique and battle. His veteran presence has been a steadying influence opposite White. Veteran and former Chargers and Ravens cornerback Shareece Wright adequately handles the slot.
The Bills are 22nd in the NFL in passing yards allowed but more telling have allowed just ten passing touchdowns. The defense creates turnovers (12 interceptions) which is necessary because their pass rush has been anemic and they allow too many third-down conversions as they are 21st in the league in third-down conversion percentage on defense.
Buffalo must create turnovers on defense to be productive. In their six wins, they are plus 15 in turnover differential and in their five losses they are a minus-eight in turnover differential. The Patriots can dictate match-ups with the cornerbacks as Gaines lines up on the right side and White on the left side on almost every snap.
That said, the Bills pulled out some new wrinkles last week against the Chiefs that they had not shown previously this season. Buffalo showed a lot of blitz packages they dropped out of and rushed only three while dropping eight defenders. They blitzed gaps attacking not only the center but gaps pressuring the tackles and guards. They dropped into zone and forced Alex Smith to throw short and tackled well.
The Bills defense forced eight punts by the Chiefs, six three-and-outs, and only one touchdown. In the fourth quarter, they forced a turnover on downs and intercepted Alex Smith to close out the game. They shut down Kareem Hunt (11 rushes for 17 yards) and the running game with Smith accounting for 35 of the 55 rushing yards. Tyreek Hill had seven catches but for just 41 yards and a long of 11 yards. Travis Kelce had just three catches for 39 yards.
The Patriots are a different problem on offense and have already played Carolina (where Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott cut his teeth as defensive coordinator and plays the same defense) and piled up 444 yards of total offense in week four, passing for 304 net yards and 140 rushing yards.
3. NE LT Nate Solder and RT ??? vs BUF EDGE Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson and Lorenzo Alexander
It appears that right tackle Marcus Cannon will not be playing on Sunday. He has been held out of practice all week after missing the previous three games with an ankle injury. LaAdrian Waddle was injured last week against the Miami Dolphins. Cameron Fleming replaced Waddle at right tackle (where he allowed a sack to Cam Wake on his first play, albeit Brady bobbled the snap).
Fleming should start at right tackle (although no one would be surprised to see Bill Belichick throw everyone a curveball and start undrafted free agent Cole Croston.) He has been inconsistent in his time on the field in 2017. Expect to see tight end Dwayne Allen attached to Fleming at the hip for most of the game.
The Bills are 31st in the NFL in sacks Buffalo with just 17 sacks in 11 games. Buffalo has three pass rushers on the edge in second-year player Shaq Lawson (three sacks), veteran Jerry Hughes (three sacks) and last year’s breakout pass rusher former special teamer Lorenzo Alexander (three sacks). Last season Alexander and Hughes combined for 18.5 sacks last season (six for Hughes and 12.5 for Alexander).
Lawson struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness as a rookie with just two sacks in ten games. This season was supposed to be a big year for him and he has continued to struggle to make an impact. Hughes was inked to a big contract extension for five years for $45 million with $22 million guaranteed. He piled up 20 sacks in 2013 and 2014 combined. Since then, he has just 14 sacks in his last 43 games.
Buffalo will likely try to pressure Brady with just three or four rushers. Also, they will flood the short passing lanes with linebackers while the corners and safeties stay in the cover-two scheme. If the pass rush does not get to Brady, there could be some big plays when holes open up in the cover-two for Brady to exploit down the field. Of course, that is dependent on whether or not Nate Solder and likely Cameron Fleming can hold up.
4. NE LB Kyle Van Noy vs BUF RB LeSean McCoy
Buffalo’s offense is primarily LeSean McCoy. He has 758 rushing yards through eleven games. Lately, he has been bottled up more as he has garnered extra attention with the impotent passing attack of the Bills. When he rushes for more than 75 yards, the Bills are 4-1. When held to 63 yards or less, the Bills are 2-4.
After a ridiculous 2016 season where he averaged 5.4 yards-per-carry and piled up 1,267 yards in 15 games, McCoy is averaging a ‘pedestrian’ 3.9 yards per attempt. However, that may be due to the weak offensive line in front of him. Other than guard Richie Incognito (and with Cordy Glenn injured), there is no one on the Buffalo line who would be considered even above-average.
Last week against a Chiefs defense which gave up 100 yards rushing or more in every game other than against the Raiders (who had over 400 yards passing and saw running back Marshawn Lynch ejected earlier in the game), McCoy was held to just 49 yards on 22 carries (a 2.2 yards per attempt average). He had one big gain (14 yards) and other than a 24-yard reception, his other three catches were good for just six yards. This was a Kansas City run defense which is 29th in the NFL and had been trampled all season.
The Patriots will counter with a drastically improving run defense. Buffalo is likely cursing the schedule-makers. They did not get a matchup with the Patriots early in the season, while the defense was still finding their way. While the Patriots are last in the NFL in yards allowed per rushing attempt, they have held four of eleven opponents to 90 or fewer yards on the ground this season.
Kyle Van Noy will have the primary responsibility for checking LeSean McCoy in both the running and passing game. McCoy is the leading receiver in Buffalo as well as the leading rusher. He leads the team with 46 receptions. If Van Noy (and his teammates) can slow McCoy, they slow the Bills’ offense.
5. NE TE Rob Gronkowski vs BUF LB Preston Brown and SS Micah Hyde
Last week the Bills bounced back on defense. They had been shredded by the Chargers, Saints, and Jets to the tune of 135 points over three games. Last week, they held the once-powerful Chiefs’ offense to just ten points. A huge part of that was holding tight end Travis Kelce to three receptions for 39 yards on four targets.
This week, the test is more difficult. The Bills face a step-up from the second-or-third-best tight end in the NFL (I may have Zach Ertz rated above Kelce) to the gold standard: Rob Gronkowski. The Bills were fortunate to miss him in their first match-up last season. He was still working his way back from back surgery. Consequently, he was primarily used as a blocker or decoy in his limited snaps with Jacoby Brissett under center. In their week eight match-up he celebrated his return home to Buffalo with five catches for 109 yards and a touchdown in another strong game with his family and friends around.
The numbers Gronkowski puts up each season in Buffalo are impressive. His rookie season saw him catch four passes for 54 yards and two touchdowns. In his record-setting 2011 season, he torched Buffalo for another pair of touchdowns on seven receptions for 109 yards. During 2012, he had five receptions for 104 yards and another touchdown. Gronkowski missed the game in 2013 due to injury. In 2014, he had seven catches for 94 yards. Finally, in 2015, he added another seven catches for 113 yards and a touchdown. Is there any reason to think that his homecoming will be less productive this season?
The Bills are encouraged by their strong play against Kelce last week. Per Rotowire, Buffalo is tied for ninth with Cincinnati for most yards allowed to tight ends in 2017 with 621 yards. Buffalo will have to try and slow down Gronkowski with middle linebacker Preston Brown and strong safety Micah Hyde, when forced to match him in single coverage.
Brown has the size to run with Gronkowski (six-foot-one and 251 pounds) but lacks the athleticism and coverage skills to stick with the All-Pro tight end. Hyde has top-end athleticism and as a former cornerback is a weapon for the Buffalo defense for his ball-hawking coverage abilities (five interceptions so far in 2017). However, Hyde is just six-feet tall and less than 200 pounds. He cannot match-up with Gronkowski in coverage.
The Bills will be running the “Jim Johnson defense” the defensive coordinator popularized with Andy Reid in Buffalo. McDermott ran it with Carolina. That 4-3 defense led to a 15-1 season in 2015 and led to a Super Bowl trip. With his attacking, one-gap system, the cornerbacks are usually in a zone and playing Cover 3 with a robber in the middle of the field (much like Atlanta did in the Super Bowl against the Patriots).
The problem with running a zone defense against Tom Brady is a rather big one. No matter how you disguise it, you still have to deal with Rob Gronkowski. Giving him a free release off the line of scrimmage is just a sign of surrender for the defense. He is considered a goofball off the field. However, between the numbers, Gronkowski’s biggest strength is his football mind. He has the ability to read a zone defense the same way as his quarterback and find the soft spots.
Buffalo has also had an advantage of having played with good timing. They got the Jets in week one before they turned their season around. They faced an injured and ineffective Cam Newton in week two. Trevor Siemian followed soon thereafter. Atlanta we next up in week four, while still struggling to adapt to Steve Sarkisian’s offense. They faced Cincinnati before they got their offense turned around. The next faced Tampa Bay, with a dinged-up Jameis Winston. Lastly, the Raiders with Derek Carr came in while still getting back to 100% after his back injury.
The best passing offense faced by the Bills has been the Saints. New Orleans destroyed the Bills with eight scoring drives, a fumble and two kneel downs. Buffalo never forced them to punt once in the game. With Cooks, White, Amendola, and Gronkowski, the Patriots have the tools to duplicate the Saints’ performance against the Bills.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01