With only one game left in the regular season, the New England Patriots find themselves in familiar territory. If the Patriots can close their season with a division win against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday afternoon at home, they will secure a first round bye and watch the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. There may be no other team in the league that would benefit more from a week off as the Patriots are still dealing with a host of injuries to critical players on both sides of the football. It’s been a long time since these two teams faced off in week one, so let’s take a look at the key questions that will determine the outcome of the Patriots week 17 matchup against the Buffalo Bills.
Will the Patriots solve the mystery of the Buffalo defense?
The Bills have one of the best defenses in the league and the statistics back that up. They give up the 8th fewest yards per game of any team in the NFL and have the 5th ranked passing defense in the league. They also have one of the most talented defensive lines in the NFL, with three players with double digit sack totals. Between Mario Williams (13 sacks), Kyle Williams (10.5 sacks), and Jerry Hughes (10 sacks), the Patriots offensive line will have its hands full protecting quarterback Tom Brady. In the first meeting between these clubs, rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso had a serious impact and has continued his strong play since then. He currently ranks fourth in the league in tackles and is for the Bills what the Patriots are missing in Jerod Mayo. Their defense is packed with playmakers the Patriots will have to account for if they are to be successful against a team coming off a shutout.
Can the Bills stop the Patriots ground game?
At this point, it’s no secret that the Patriots would prefer to pound the ball with their running backs than rely on Tom Brady’s passing attack. With Rob Gronkowski sidelined for the rest of the year and Shane Vereen questionable with a groin injury, the Patriots will continue to rely on LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley to grind out yardage on the ground. The Bills have the defensive line to make that difficult for the Patriots, but they will be tested against a consistent New England rushing attack on Sunday. The key to the game for Buffalo’s defense is stopping the run. If they can do that they’ll force Tom Brady to move the ball through the air, which has been more difficult for the Patriots since the loss of Gronkowski.
Will an outside threat emerge for the Patriots?
If the Patriots offense is going to be successful in the postseason, they will need a more consistent threat to emerge outside. For most of the last quarter of the season, the Patriots have been without the two receivers most likely to have success stretching the field. While Aaron Dobson returned to the field against the Ravens, Kenbrell Thompkins has not returned since injuring his hip against the Texans. The Patriots need both Dobson and Thompkins healthy and in sync with Tom Brady if they want to make a serious run at a fourth championship in the Brady-Belichick era. Whether Thompkins plays against the Bills is really anyone’s guess, but if he does the Patriots may try and spread the field with their two young receivers and see if they can develop a more consistent vertical passing attack before the playoffs begin. The Patriots were horrible on third down against the Ravens, with Ryan Allen punting the ball seven times. The Patriots need to get Thompkins and Dobson more involved in the passing game to open up the middle of the field for their talented slot receivers. If they are able to do that, their offense could start to resemble what we’ve seen in the past from this team.
Can the Patriots defense continue to get off the field when they need to?
While the Patriots offense struggled on third down last Sunday, their defense excelled on both third and fourth down against the Ravens. The Patriots defense held the Ravens to 5-14 on third down and 0-3 on fourth down. They played their best football when they needed it most and that’s the sign of a championship team. The Patriots will have to emulate that effort against Buffalo tomorrow and will have to start by stopping the run, something they’ve struggled to do over the past few games. While they were able to limit Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to only seventy yards on the day, the Buffalo rushing attack is much more formidable than Baltimore’s. The Bills have the second best rushing offense in the NFL and have two very dangerous backs in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. The Patriots do not match up well against the Buffalo offense given how reliant it is on the run. The Bills ran the ball twice as much as they passed last week against the Dolphins (51 rushes vs. 25 passing attempts) and you should expect them to follow the same exact recipe tomorrow. The Patriots ability to stop the run is their achilles heal and Buffalo poses as good a test in that regard as any team in the league. If the Patriots can limit the Bills’ ground game, they will have a lot of success tomorrow, but, more importantly, it would be a great sign as the team prepares for the playoffs.
The Patriots have a lot on the line tomorrow with a first round bye and home field advantage at stake. Look for them to bring their best effort against a Buffalo team that hasn’t won in Foxboro since 2000. The Bills are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, though, so don’t expect this one to be a walk in the park for New England. Look for double digit catches for Julian Edelman and a consistent ground game from the Patriots. While the Bills will have some success running the football against the Patriots, mistakes in the Buffalo passing game will ultimately be what decides this one.
Patriots 24 – Bills 13