The Buffalo Bills certainly have the Patriots’ respect this week.
They are the reigning AFC East champs, after all, who went 13-3 last year, swept the Patriots in the regular season, and reached the conference championship game. The Bills brought just about everybody back for 2021, and sit at 7-4 entering Monday night’s showdown with the Patriots. They rank No. 2 in the NFL in points scored and points allowed, and they are blowing out opponents, with six wins by at least 18 points.
“From top to bottom, just a good football team that does everything well,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “They’re statistically at the top of the league in categories in every area, and they deserve to be.”
Except something about the Bills isn’t quite sitting right. Despite their dominance on paper, they have hit a bit of a funk. In five games since their bye week, the Bills have three convincing wins over the Dolphins, Jets, and Saints, yet also an inexplicable 9-6 loss to the Jaguars and a 41-15 thrashing by the Colts at home.
The losses have dropped the Bills a half-game behind the surprising 8-4 Patriots in the AFC East, and they are sitting No. 6 in the AFC playoffs. The losses also exposed a few flaws.
Colts running back Jonathan Taylor and his offensive line bullied the Bills to the tune of 264 rushing yards. And the Bills’ offense has been surprisingly sloppy the last four weeks. After just five turnovers in their first seven games, the Bills have 11 in the last four weeks.
“This team, as talented as they are, is playing about as poorly as you ever think they could,” said Bills great Steve Tasker, who now hosts the One Bills Live daily radio show. “They’re just playing inconsistently. The Bills are still loaded offensively, but they just haven’t been able to put it together as well as they were last year.”
Fourth-year quarterback Josh Allen is putting up big numbers once again, with 3,071 yards and 25 touchdown passes, plus 383 rushing yards and three more touchdowns. Allen’s 99.1 passer rating ranks 10th in the NFL, and his 69 rushing attempts are third among QBs.
“It’s really, really impressive to watch how he’s developed there,” Belichick said. “It’s just remarkable how good he has become.”
Yet the Bills’ inconsistency starts with Allen. He has thrown an interception in four straight games, with seven picks in that stretch, plus a lost fumble. Now Allen faces a Patriots defense that is second in the NFL with 25 takeaways, including four in each of the past two games.
Tasker believes the source of Allen’s inconsistency is his offensive line, which has had its top five players for only two of 11 games (a win over the Chiefs and a loss to the Titans in Weeks 5 and 6).
“The run game and the pass game have missed that cohesion up front,” Tasker said. “Josh knows he’s the best player out there, and he sometimes tries to do too much. Like, they’ll do an RPO [run-pass option], and he’ll just keep the ball, thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this myself, because the running game hasn’t been good enough.’ And some of them lead to turnovers.”
The Bills are hopeful they will have their best five linemen Monday night. Left guard Jon Feliciano returned to practice this week from injured reserve and can be activated before the game, while right tackle Spencer Brown returned from the COVID list.
“I would look to see maybe a little more consistency offensively, but there’s no guarantee of that since they haven’t played together in a while,” Tasker said.
Defensively, the Bills have fewer issues, though the Colts certainly exposed their problems in stopping a power run game. But the Bills’ defense, in its fourth year under Sean McDermott and coordinator Leslie Frazier, has allowed the fewest yards in the NFL, the second-fewest points, and is tied with the Patriots for second with 25 takeaways.
The Bills employ a complex, zone-based coverage scheme with lots of moving parts before and after the snap.
“We don’t play a group that’s more connected than this one,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “Whatever the call is, all 11 guys know exactly what their role is on the call, and they never make a mistake, it seems.
“They just don’t give up many easy plays, and they’re definitely one of the best teams that we ever play every year in terms of limiting big production.”
But now the Bills are reeling on defense, as well. Star cornerback Tre’Davious White, who missed only one game because of injury in five NFL seasons, was put on injured reserve this week after tearing an ACL in last week’s win over the Saints.
The Bills have a couple of youngsters who could fill White’s role, but replacing a two-time Pro Bowler won’t be easy.
“We don’t really know what they’re going to look like without him, because we’ve never been without him,” Tasker said. “He never misses a day. That’s something I think the Patriots will explore — how big of a dropoff there is out there.”
The Patriots certainly aren’t underestimating the Bills, especially with the AFC East title potentially on the line.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “Both teams understand what’s at stake. We have to play one of our best games to have a chance on Monday night.”
But the Bills had better hope they get better offensive line play, and Allen doesn’t hurt them with too much hero ball.
“When they’ve had troubles, they’ve turned the ball over,” Tasker said. “This game, for Buffalo, is going to come down to Josh. It’s funny to say, but he’s got to play a little more like Mac Jones — just take what they give you and move the ball.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.