In many ways, Sunday’s game between the Patriots and the Bills at Buffalo feels as if it could be the passing of the torch in the division. At 2-4, the Patriots are in third place in the AFC East, and a loss this week would be their fourth in a row and drop them 3½ games behind the first-place Bills.
Quarterback Cam Newton went so far as to call the Week 8 matchup “a must-win.” The Patriots have won 11 straight division titles, but that run would be in jeopardy if they don’t win Sunday.
“I will say right now we’d be crazy to think coming into the game that we’re the team to beat,” said safety Devin McCourty. “They’re No. 1. This is going to be a huge challenge for us on the road.”
Here’s what you need to know about the Bills:
They have cooled off
A 4-0 start had some thinking the Bills were for real, but that was followed by consecutive losses to the Titans and Chiefs, followed by a less-than-impressive win over the 0-7 Jets in which they did not score a touchdown.
Plenty of praise was being heaped upon the shoulders of third-year quarterback Josh Allen, who tossed 12 touchdowns and just one interception in the first four weeks and was mentioned as an MVP candidate. But in the three weeks since, he has four touchdowns and three interceptions.
The offense has looked impressive, particularly in the first month
Brian Daboll, who was an assistant with the Patriots for 11 seasons in two different stints with the team, was brought in as offensive coordinator in 2018 and has been working with Allen since his rookie season. Allen has already eclipsed 2,000 yards passing, and has rushed 48 times for 204 yards.
“I thinks he does a better job of going to his second or third reads; not as quick to pull the ball down and run, although he will do that,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick when asked about Allen’s improvements this season. “He has a good feel of when to stay in the pocket and go to a second or third read, and if things open up, when to take off and take advantage of it.”
Wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley are both on track for 1,000 yards receiving. The Bills traded for Diggs last March, sending a 2020 first-round pick (No. 22 overall), a 2020 fifth-round pick, a 2020 sixth-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick to the Vikings for the six-year veteran. Diggs leads the AFC with 603 receiving yards, and is tied for the lead in receptions with 48.
“They’re fundamentally sound. They do a lot of things well on defense, they are active, they have some great players and they’re smart,” Diggs said when asked about the Patriots defense this week. “All the guys play as a unit, everybody’s always on the same page, they are big on communication, and everybody’s in the right spot so it’s definitely a challenge for us.”
Beasley had 11 receptions for 112 yards in last week’s victory over the Jets. It was his second 100-yard game this season.
They might be thin at tight end this week
Buffalo tight end Dawson Knox tested positive for COVID-19 and was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Tight ends Lee Smith, Tommy Sweeney, and Nate Becker (practice squad) were also placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list and missed last Sunday’s game because they had been in close contact with Knox.
Fortunately for the Bills, starter Tyler Kroft wasn’t in close contact with Knox because he was at the hospital with his wife, Lexi, who was delivering their child. The six-year veteran had four receptions for 64 yards against the Jets.
Bills coach Sean McDermott is familiar with Cam Newton
McDermott was the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers from 2012-17, while Newton was the quarterback.
"He’s a good player, we have a lot of respect for him, and he’s a former MVP of the league for a reason,'' McDermott said earlier this week. "We know full well what he’s capable of.''
Newton thinks the experience of facing McDermott’s defense in practice for six years will help both sides in preparing for Sunday.
"I’m pretty sure Coach McDermott … will have some type of wrinkles,'' Newton said. "He’s a great coach. He’s been doing a great job there, him and [Bills general manager Brandon] Beane, just getting the right guys in for what they’re trying to do. I’ve been extremely impressed and look forward to a great, competitive battle on Sunday.''
They are banged up on defense
Cornerback Josh Norman (hamstring) missed the Jets game and has been ruled out Sunday. Safety Micah Hyde (concussion) and defensive linemen Vernon Butler (groin) and Quinton Jefferson (knee) were limited participants on Wednesday and did not practice Thursday.
Norman, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has appeared in just three games this season and is perhaps best known for being on the wrong end of a stiff-arm from Derrick Henry.
Defensive end Jerry Hughes will be in action. The 11-year veteran was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after he recorded a pair sacks, an interception, a forced fumble, a pass defensed, and six tackles in the win over the Jets.
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.