By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
The last time the Patriots and Bills played this late in the season with the Bills having a better record was 2002. That also happens to be the last time the Patriots had a three-game losing streak.
In fact, the Patriots took a four-game skid into Buffalo in Week 9 of the 2002 NFL season. They ended up taking that game 38-7, and went on to win five of six games. Meanwhile, the Bills would go on to lose five of their next seven, and miss the playoffs after squandering a 5-3 start.
That’s a long way of saying it’s been a while since the stakes were so high – for both teams – in a meeting between the Patriots and Bills.
As the old adage goes, big time players show up most in big time games. Who needs to put their respective team on their back on Sunday? Let’s take a look at some of the key matchups to keep an eye on in Buffalo:
When New England has the ball: David Andrews vs. Ed Oliver
A year after having one of the best rush defenses in the league, the Bills front is struggling to stop opponents on the ground in 2020. The Bills allowed 105 rushing yards per game last season, the 11th best number in the league. This season, they’re all the way down to 26th, allowing 127.
Combine that with a severe weather forecast, and Sunday will present the perfect opportunity for the Patriots to reestablish the dominant ground game they had to start the season. Establishing themselves on the ground will help the offense build some much-needed momentum, and make things easier on Cam Newton going forwards.
To accomplish this, the Patriots have to win at the point of attack. After a strong rookie year, 2019 ninth-overall pick Ed Oliver is in a sophomore slump anchoring the Bills’ defensive line. If David Andrews (and the other interior linemen) can keep him on skates, the Patriots running backs should be able to pick up four to five yards a carry and attack at the second level.
Much like the Patriots offense, the Oliver and the Bills’ defensive front as a whole has underperformed this year, and will be looking at this game as an opportunity to jumpstart a resurgence. Andrews and the Patriots offensive line need to flip that script on Sunday.
When Buffalo has the ball: Devin McCourty vs. Josh Allen
Less than a month ago, Josh Allen was in the MVP conversation. Over the last three games though he’s come back down to earth, culminating with a disappointing performance against the woeful Jets.
On top of that, Allen has struggled in his three career starts against the Patriots. He is 0-3 with a completion percentage under 50 and a negative touchdown-interception ratio.
Josh Allen's career numbers vs. the Patriots compared to 30 others...— Alex Barth (@RealAlexBarth) October 28, 2020
Other: vs. NE:
Yards/game: 206.5 192.6
Yards/Att 6.9 6.1
Comp. % 60.2% 48.4%
TD:INT 43/20 3/5
Record 20-11 0-3
In their past meetings, the Patriots have confused Allen by dialing up complex defensive schemes and pre-snap disguises. Allen’s penchant for throwing the deep ball can compound the confusing and force him into chucking prayers down the field.
The centerpiece and potential primary beneficiary of that strategy should be Devin McCourty. As the veteran communicator on the defense, he’ll help keep everybody in check as the defense moves around before the play (expect to see some amoeba defense this week). Then, as the deep safety, it’s up to him to limit big plays when Allen hucks it, and capitalize on the mistakes.
Based on their past history, the Patriots can expect Allen to throw them one or two gifts during the game. How McCourty and the secondary handle those situations will be key, especially with the way the offense has performed. If they can force multiple turnovers, set the Patriots up with short fields, and/or even put points on the board themselves, it’ll go a long way towards a win.
Bonus: Cam Newton vs. Himself
Cam Newton is likely playing for his job on Sunday. He’s acknowledged multiple times, both postgame last Sunday and during this past week, that he recognizes he needs to play better.
There’s a number of things Newton needs to fix, but an overarching issue is he appears to be fighting himself on the field. He told reporters on Thursday that he’s been “thinking more than playing, reacting.”
That feels like a pretty accurate assessment of where Newton is at right now. He’s holding the ball too long, over-analyzing reads, and giving up good opportunities to look for great ones, which has led to him forcing plays.
If he can stay calm, confident, and feel the flow of the game, there’s no reason he can’t be the Cam Newton of the first two weeks of the season. If not, expect more of the same.
Which Cam Newton will show up for a crucial game Sunday in Buffalo? Only one person can dictate that.
For more on the Patriots-Bills matchup, check out the Patriots Preview Podcast below:
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.