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 won in dramatic fashion last week. They defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 in a match-up of the two best teams in the AFC. The Buffalo Bills stayed in the AFC playoff picture with an impressive win over the Miami Dolphins 24-16. Both teams are in the thick of the playoffs. This late-season AFC East match-up will go a long way in determining playoff seeding for both teams.
This week’s match-up will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area. WPRI Channel 12 carries the game in the Providence/Southern New England area. The Patriots draw the top broadcast team for CBS once again for the third time in four weeks. Jim Nantz handles the play-by-play duties, with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work from the sidelines with injury updates.
On the radio, this week’s game will be broadcast nationally by ESPN Radio. Adam Amin and former Indianapolis Colts President and no fan of the New England Patriots Bill Polian will call the game. Sal Paolantonio will work the sidelines. 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 and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding his unique brand of color.
Now that you know how to watch and listen to the game, here are the five key match-ups to watch that will determine if the Patriots continue their winning ways once again against the Buffalo Bills or if Tyrod Taylor can pull off the upset and wipe out the home field advantage for the Patriots.
1. NE TE Rob Gronkowski vs BUF CB TreDavious White and SS Micah Hyde
The week 13 game against the Bills was an ugly one for New England tight end Rob Gronkowski. He hauled in nine passes for 147 yards (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted) but he had a dubious offensive interference penalty and objected to being held by smaller defensive backs throughout the game. After a pass down the right sideline was intercepted by Buffalo’s impressive rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White, Gronkowski snapped.
Looking like a WWE wrestler, after White was down on the sidelines, Gronkowski dropped a forearm shiver on the back of White’s head. He should have been ejected immediately but was flagged for unnecessary roughness. Gronkowski immediately apologized after the game but he was still rightfully suspended for the Miami Monday night loss.
Gronkowski returned last week and he and the offense bounced back against Pittsburgh. The Pro Bowl tight end led the way with nine receptions for 168 yards. On the final drive for New England, Gronkowski was uncoverable as he caught passes for 26, 26, and 17 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown run by Dion Lewis. For good measure, he added the two-point conversion on an uncontested fade route.
Gronkowski–like he does against Pittsburgh–puts on a show against Buffalo. However, it is usually in Buffalo. Perhaps its because Gronkowski is back home with his family in the area where he grew up. His worst games against Buffalo have been at home:
- 2016 (not even close to 100% healthy)–one reception for 11 yards (with then-rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback)
- 2015–two catches for 37 yards on seven targets;
- 2014 and 2013–missed the home match-up due to injury
- 2012–three catches for just 31 yards and a touchdown
Buffalo will likely continue to mix their coverage on Gronkowski as they did in the first game this season in week 13. Linebacker Preston Brown, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and cornerback Tre’Davious White all had turns trying to slow him down in that game. Their best bet will likely be devoting attention to him with Hyde and White. They have the athleticism and ball skills to make plays in coverage.
Brown has the size to cover Gronkowski (six-foot-one and 251 pounds) but lacks the athleticism and coverage skills to stay with him in the open field. Hyde has top-end athleticism and as a former cornerback with Green Bay and is better in the open field. However, Hyde is just six-feet tall and less than 200 pounds and cannot be expected to match-up with Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage.
The Bills will mix man-coverage with zone but in either defensive scheme, they still have to account for Gronkowski. Bumping him so as not to give him a free release off the line of scrimmage and get ahead of steam often requires a linebacker but in the open field he must be passed off to a safety or cornerback. However they do it, it will be a tough match-up for the Bills.
2. NE WR Brandin Cooks vs BUF CB E.J. Gaines, Tre’Davious White, and Leonard Williams
New England wide receiver Brandin Cooks has 58 receptions for 984 yards through 14 games in New England. While he has had some games with limited production (two catches for 37 yards versus New Orleans in week two; five receptions for 26 yards versus Los Angeles in week eight; and one catch for 38 yards against Miami two weeks ago) his lowest yardage game of the season came against Buffalo in week thirteen when he was held to just two receptions for 17 yards.
Buffalo had numerous questions about their secondary coming into 2017 especially after trading star cornerback Ronald Darby to Philadelphia. The found an immediate impact player in cornerback Tre’Davious White who has turned out to be a steal at 27th overall out of LSU. White stepped in as a starter in week one and is neck-and-neck with Marshon Lattimore and T.J. Watt (did he make any plays last week against New England?) for the title of the best defensive player in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Fellow cornerback E.J. Gaines was also overlooked by everyone as he was seen as a JAG (Just Another Guy). The former sixth-round draft pick in the 2014 NFL Draft out of Missouri was a throw-in in the Sammy Watkins trade. Gaines had injury issues in Los Angeles/St. Louis and he missed 22 games due to injuries over the past three seasons.
Gaines has missed four games due to injury so far in 2017 and was carted off the field last week in Miami. His status for Sunday is up-in-the-air at this time and his loss would be a big blow to the defense. He is an underrated tackler who rarely misses and has excellent technique. When the ball is in the air he plays with solid technique, reacts well to the receiver going to catch the pass, and battles on every single play.
Veteran and former Chargers and Ravens cornerback Shareece Wright handles the slot and is adequate. With Gaines out the Bills have turned to Leonard Johnson. Yes, the same Leonard Johnson that New England picked-up off the scrap heap in 2015 when injuries hit the secondary. Johnson was adequate but did little to distinguish himself in his short time in Foxboro.
The Bills are 17th in the NFL in passing yards allowed but more telling have allowed just 11 passing touchdowns–the fewest allowed in the league. On top of that, the defense creates turnovers (16 interceptions) which is necessary because their pass rush has been inconsistent. The secondary must create turnovers on defense to be productive.
The Patriots should be able to dictate the match-up for Cooks with the Bills’ cornerbacks as usually Gaines lines up on the right side and White (unless he slides over to cover Gronkowski) is on the left side on almost every snap. If Gaines is out and White is forced to cover Gronkowski, Cooks should draw either Johnson or Wright in coverage and that is a mismatch that he must win for the Patriots to make some big chunk yardage plays on Sunday.
3. NE LT Nate Solder and RT Cam Fleming and/or LaAdrian Waddle vs BUF EDGE Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson and Lorenzo Alexander
With All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon placed on injured reserve and ending his season, the Patriots were very fortunate to have veteran tackle LaAdrian Waddle step in and not miss a beat. Unfortunately, he was injured in the first match-up against the Miami Dolphins after his ankle was rolled up and just returned to the field for a few series last week in Pittsburgh. He was replaced by Cameron Fleming at right tackle who was solid if unspectacular filling in with a lot of help from tight end Dwayne Allen and the running backs.
Fleming is expected to start at right tackle although there is hope that Waddle will be able to eventually take over full time by the end of the season. New England will need Fleming and/or Waddle to hold-up as the Bills were able to pressure quarterback Tom Brady in the last match-up in Buffalo. Brady was under a lot of pressure having been sacked three times and hit five more times.
The Bills are 29th in the NFL in sacks (per ESPN.com) with just 24 sacks in 14 games. For all the grief New England has received for their lack of pass rush, they still have 32 sacks and are tied for 16th in the league in sacks. Buffalo has three pass rushers on the edge in second-year player Shaq Lawson (a team-leading four 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) and in 2017 both highly paid pass rushers are not performing up to expectations.
Lawson struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness as a rookie with just four sacks in fourteen games. This season was supposed to be his breakout year but he has struggled to make an impact as an edge rusher. Hughes was re-signed by Buffalo to a big contract extension after the 2014 season for five years for $45 million with $22 million guaranteed after compiling 20 sacks combined in 2013 and 2014. Since then, he has just 14 sacks in his last 46 games.
Buffalo will again try to pressure Brady with just three or four rushers and flood the short passing lanes with linebackers while the corners and safeties stay in their cover-two scheme. It held the Patriots to just 258 yards of total passing offense and shut down Brandin Cooks. If the pass rush does not get to Brady that is when holes will open up in the cover-two for Brady to exploit down the field. Buffalo did a great job of preventing those big plays in the passing game to the running backs and wide receivers. If Brady has time to let plays develop downfield, Buffalo’s playoff hopes could be in big trouble on Sunday.
4. NE LB Elandon Roberts, David Harris and Kyle Van Noy vs BUF RB LeSean McCoy
At this point of the week, the New England Patriots have no idea whether they can count on inside linebacker Kyle Van Noy returning to the field on Sunday. With captain Dont’a Hightower on injured reserve, Van Noy has stepped-up and been a solid presence in the middle of the defense. With Van Noy out with a calf injury, the Patriots have watched Buffalo, Miami, and Pittsburgh run all over them.
Buffalo’s offense is primarily running back LeSean McCoy. He has 1,057 rushing yards through 14 games and has been effective even as he has garnered extra attention with the impotent passing attack of the Bills scaring no one no matter who was at quarterback. When he rushes for more than 75 yards, the Bills are 5-2 and when held to 63 yards or less the Bills are 3-4.
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 just 4.1 yards per attempt. Of course, the Bills have a fairly weak offensive line in front of him as guard Richie Incognito (with left tackle Cordy Glenn on injured reserve), there is no one on the Buffalo line who would be good enough to start for most other NFL teams.
Last week the Dolphins bottled him up holding him to just 50 yards on 20 carries. That said, he scored twice–on a four-yard rush to open the scoring and on a 16-yard pass to push Buffalo’s lead to 14-6 and finished with 96 total yards. In the first match-up with New England McCoy rushed for 93 yards on just 15 carries but was unable to get into the end zone.
The Patriots focused on taking McCoy out of the passing game and bottled him up for just two receptions on five targets for just nine yards. New England was with Van Noy in the beginning of that game before he left injured but were still very disciplined and effective in controlling the screen game. Stopping McCoy in the passing game will again be a key for the Patriots in controlling the Bills’ offense.
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, as he leads the team with 52 receptions. If Van Noy (and his teammates) can slow McCoy, they slow the Bills’ offense.
The Patriots will counter with a run defense that should hopefully have Van Noy back in the middle and not have to lean on Marquis Flowers. David Harris and Elandon Roberts will also have key roles to slow McCoy. While the Patriots remain last in the NFL in yards allowed per rushing attempt (they just dropped under 5.0 yards per attempt for the first time this season), and they have allowed seven of their last eight opponents to rush for 109 yards or more, they have still managed to win seven of those eight games.
Teams do not beat New England by running the football–they win by scoring touchdowns in the red zone. In those last 20 yards, it is extremely difficult to run the football into the end zone: New England has allowed just six rushing touchdowns and just four of them were in the red zone. The New England defense needs only to contain McCoy, not stop him, to give themselves a chance to win on Sunday.
5. NE EDGE Trey Flowers, Eric Lee and Deatrich Wise vs BUF QB Tyrod Taylor
The Patriots got top pass rusher Trey Flowers back on Sunday in Pittsburgh. He leads the team with 6.5 sacks in 12 games and split a sack with rookie Deatrich Wise against the Steelers. He played almost the entire game and bolstered the run defense on the left side and forced the Steelers to run to the right side against rookie Deatrich Wise and Eric Lee.
In the first match-up against Buffalo, the Bills missed Flowers as he was out due to injury. Despite that, the pass rush got to quarterback Tyrod Taylor on the first offensive play of the game. He was hit while scrambling and eventually sacked. He stayed in the game until the start of the fourth quarter when he was eventually carted off.
Taylor returned last week and again 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 once again contain him in the pocket and force him to make throws to his wide receivers outside the numbers. This is where Taylor’s lack of accuracy shows up.
The Patriots will lean on their pair of young edge rushers (Wise and Lee) to play disciplined this weekend and not push upfield past the play and allow the quarterback an easy lane to escape pressure and extend the play like Cassius Marsh did far too often and ended up being released. The defensive ends cannot be overly aggressive with Buffalo tackles rookie Dion Dawkins and Jordan Mills.
The Bills have actually gotten a boost running the ball with rookie Dawkins in for Glenn at left tackle. However, he has had his struggles in pass protection. Mills is an average tackle at best. He gets beat soundly by good pass rushers. Even with some shortcomings, Trey Flowers can make a big impact in the game. He is capable of winning some one-on-one battles on the edge. He can also keep Taylor contained in the pocket.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01