FOXBOROUGH — After starting the season 2-4, the Patriots have passed every test.
They racked up 50 points against the lowly Jets, outdueled the Chargers in Los Angeles, took care of business against the Panthers, stomped the Browns, shut out the Falcons on “Thursday Night Football,” and held off the injury-riddled, formerly conference-leading Titans.
They’ve rattled off six straight wins, moving up to the No. 2 seed in the AFC. According to FiveThirtyEight, their chances of advancing to the postseason stand at 91 percent, a probability that had dipped to 21 percent heading in Week 7.
But now comes a nationally televised showdown Monday night against the Buffalo Bills — a divisional matchup that will greatly influence what’s in store for the Patriots come January.
According to FiveThirtyEight, the 8-4 Patriots have a 45 percent chance of winning the AFC East. If they beat the Bills, those chances jump to 78 percent. If they lose, they dip to 21 percent.
The likelihood that the Patriots secure the conference’s No. 1 seed
rises and falls in a similar manner. They currently have a 21 percent chance of taking over the top seed, which comes with a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If they win Monday, those chances bump up to 42 percent. If they lose, they drop to 7 percent.
In other words, there’s a lot riding on Monday’s game.
“Of course, it’s a huge challenge,” said coach Bill Belichick. “We knew that. When the schedule comes out, it’s always going to be tough in New York, Miami, Buffalo; division games on the road are always challenging.”
The Bills opened as 3-point favorites, per BetOnline, but there are plenty of reasons for the Patriots to be confident. They head into Buffalo as the hottest team in the NFL.
Over their six-game win streak, the Patriots have averaged the most points per game (35.2) and the fewest points allowed (10.5) in the league. They also have the NFL’s best turnover differential over that span (+13).
Their pass rush has been elite during this stretch, with a league-best pressure rate of 36.2 percent. According to NextGenStats, opposing quarterbacks are averaging just 5.4 yards per attempt with a passer rating of 52.1. Since Week 7, no team has registered more sacks (17) or interceptions than the Patriots (13).
So, what trends has Belichick noticed since Week 7?
“I think each game has got its own kind of dynamics,” he said. “If we don’t turn the ball over and we can take the ball away from our opponents, that’s always a good thing. Field position in the kicking game, that’s always a good thing, too. Each game is a little bit different.”
The Patriots also have something several of their recent opponents have lacked: good health. After losing running back James White and cornerback Jonathan Jones to season-ending injuries, New England heads into the final stretch of the regular season with many key players off the injury report.
Starting right tackle Trent Brown missed eight games with a calf injury, but was activated off injured reserve and returned in Week 10. His presence has further solidified the offensive line, which has drastically improved in pass protection following a rough start.
There have been other absences. Running back Damien Harris missed a game with a concussion, as did punt returner Gunner Olszewski. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower (elbow, ankle) was inactive for the Week 7 win over the Jets, tight end Jonnu Smith (shoulder) didn’t suit up against Cleveland, and the offensive line dealt with two starters on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
But the Patriots are essentially at full strength ahead of three extremely important games. Their upcoming bye week will provide additional time to heal any nagging ailments.
The Bills, meanwhile, will finish the year without cornerback Tre’Davious White, who tore an ACL Thursday. According to NextGenStats, White was the only player this season to be the nearest defender on at least 50 targets and not surrender a passing touchdown. His loss will certainly create a void in Buffalo’s defense, which has allowed the fewest number of passing yards in the league.
Buffalo could be getting back important pieces of the offensive line ahead of Monday’s game, with starting left guard Jon Feliciano (calf) eligible to return off injured reserve and starting right tackle Spencer Brown eligible to be activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list. Starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei could also return off the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Those three players would be key additions for the Bills, who have gone 3-3 over their last six games, including a loss to the Jaguars.
Still, Buffalo ranks within the NFL’s top five in yards per game (389.3) and opponents’ average yards (275.2).
“Buffalo’s a great team,” Belichick said. “We have a lot of respect for Buffalo, what they’ve accomplished and what they are, how they play. We’re going to have to play our best game, we know that.”
Regardless of what the stats say and who is available, both teams are well aware of what is at stake.
“We’ll be ready to go,” Belichick said.
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.