Now that is more like it.
The Patriots ended their skid with a solid road victory over the hapless Bengals on Sunday, and now have a date against the Bills at Gillette in what could be a division-clinching game. The Pats for the record can clinch the division with a win on Saturday against the Bills or a win in week 17 against the Dolphins, meaning the Bills have to win their last two games. Moreover, the Patriots would have to lose their final two games for the Bills to capture the divisional crown. All of that aside though, the performance on Sunday was reminiscent of how New England usually finishes the seasons. With dominant efforts that build momentum as they sprint towards the playoffs. Obviously this season hasn’t been a typical season with the offense looking less than ordinary the last five or so weeks, but if there is one thing that has been taught year after year, it is never ever count out the Pats.
Here is what is happening in week 16:
This week is as big of a divisional game as Belichick and Brady have faced this late in the season in a long time. The Bills have a strong defense ranked third in total defense, third in pass defense and 10th in rushing defense, while also only surrendering 15.9 points per game (2nd in the NFL behind the Pats). Additionally, the Bills have only allowed three teams all season to score 20 points or more on them: the Eagles, Dolphins (twice!) and Ravens. Coincidentally, the only games Buffalo has scored at least 30 points are both against Miami.
What does all that mean? Well it means that for a team struggling offensively, and another team with a pretty much average offense, points will be hard to come by this Saturday. Remember last game was 16-10 in favor of the Patriots, who needed a punt block return touchdown to come out on top. In that game the Bills threw four interceptions, had just three drives total more than 50 yards (only two of those were scoring drives), and were just two of 13 on third downs. On the other side the Pats had just 11 first downs, one score in three red-zone trips, and just 74 total yards in the second half, excluding kneel downs.
In a game featuring two elite defenses, the first team to reach the end zone will be have a huge advantage.
With the Bills having a chance at the division with a really good year under Sean McDermott, it had me curious when the last time the Bills won in Foxborough. The answer isn’t a simple one though. The last Buffalo win in New England was in 2016 when the Bills shutout the Pats 16-0, but that was with Tom Brady suspended, Jimmy Garoppolo hurt and Jacoby Brissett hurt with a thumb injury that eventually put him on IR starting.
Going back even further, 2014 the Bills won the last game of the regular season in Gillette 17-9, but the Patriots rested Brady for the second half with the game meaningless for their playoff seeding. Neither game was a full sixty minute effort for the true New England starters. To find a game where the Bills won against the Patriots starters, you have to go all the way back to the 2000 season when the Bills won 16-13, before Tom Brady became the starter.
Going into week 16, turnovers continue to be a big story for the Patriot defense. The top-ranked defense is also the top unit at forcing turnovers as they are +24 in turnovers forced collecting 25 interceptions and 11 fumbles, while giving back just eight interceptions and four fumbles. Their +24 is easily tops in the league with the Packers next closest with a +14. To put that number in perspective the two top seeds in each respective conference, Seattle and Baltimore, have a combined +23 for the season. Moreover, only 14 teams have a positive turnover margin. That means that a team is more likely to give the ball away than take it away. As far as this week, the Bills have a margin of just +5, tied for 10th in the NFL with the 49ers.
With special teams likely being a big factor this week, it is important to look at the respective kickers. Nick Folk has been a solid addition for the Pats making all four extra points and both field goals he has been asked to kick. On the other side, the Bills have Stephen Hauschka who has gone 19-25, a 76 percent success rate. Hauschka has struggled mightily from over 50 yards making just one of the five attempts this year. He has been solid on extra points though, knocking through 28 of a potential 30 tries.
Prediction: Patriots 13 Bills 9
As Chris Berman has said many times in the past, “nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills”. However, this will be a true test. It is unlikely to say the least the Patriots lose two straight home games against divisional opponents to close out the year with a first-round bye on the line. But this is a pride game for the Bills. I would expect both defenses come out strong and field position to be at a premium in this game. Jake Bailey will undoubtedly be a very important player in this game as will Nick Folk. The x-factor is the Patriots rushing attack and rushing defense. If both can be at the top of their game, Buffalo will struggle.