Rex Ryan understands the stakes for Sunday’s Patriots-Bills game in Western New York.
“I don’t know how much more important it could be than this one,” Ryan said Monday.
But for once, the Bills aren’t the only team that badly needs a win.
The 6-1 Patriots are two games ahead of the 4-3 Bills in the AFC East, but the Bills won the first matchup, a 16-0 victory at Gillette Stadium in Week 4, the Patriots’ final game without Tom Brady.
This is an important game for both teams as the playoff race starts to take shape. The Patriots would rather not lose both matchups — and the tiebreaker — to the Bills, though realistically, the Bills won’t be catching the Patriots in the standings.
The Patriots also sit just one game ahead of the 5-2 Broncos and 5-2 Raiders for the top seed in the AFC. The Patriots need to collect as many wins as they can before a Week 15 showdown at Denver, so they can afford to lose that game and still maintain the top spot.
The Patriots are quite familiar with the Bills, playing them just four weeks ago. This is also Bill Belichick’s 17th game against Rex Ryan, holding an 11-5 advantage (2-1 with Ryan in Buffalo).
And thankfully the Patriots have the Dolphins to help show them the way to victory. For the second straight week, the Patriots are playing an opponent that just got steamrolled by the Dolphins. Jay Ajayi ran for 204 yards in a win over the Steelers two weeks ago, and for 214 yards in a 28-25 win over the Bills on Sunday as the Dolphins snapped Buffalo’s four-game winning streak.
To get a good feel for Sunday’s game, we reviewed our notes from the first Patriots-Bills game, and watched the All-22 tape of the Bills-Dolphins game from Sunday.
Coordinator: Anthony Lynn.
Key players: QB Tyrod Taylor, RB LeSean McCoy, RB Mike Gillislee, WR Robert Woods, WR Marquise Goodwin, TE Charles Clay.
Personnel notes: The big question mark is McCoy, who suited up last week despite a balky hamstring and promptly reinjured it. McCoy had 25 touches for 108 yards and a touchdown in the first matchup. He would likely be replaced by Gillislee, who has two touchdowns this year and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Speed receiver Goodwin, averaging 21.5 yards per catch with a long of 84, is in the concussion protocol. Justin Hunter, who has four catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns on the year, is the likely replacement if Goodwin can’t play. Woods will likely return after sitting out last week with a foot injury.
What to expect: We know all about the Bills’ offense with Taylor running the show. He’s one of the best athletes and fastest runners in the NFL, but one of the worst pocket quarterbacks. The Bills are a run-first team that rely heavily on play-action passes and screens to the running back, and their offense will take a big hit if McCoy can’t play. McCoy was a big reason why the Patriots missed 17 tackles in the first matchup.
The Bills have thrived since firing former offensive coordinator Greg Roman before Week 3. They have gone 4-1 under Lynn, and have scored at least 30 points three times (plus another game at 25). The Bills are sixth in the NFL in scoring at 26.7 points per game, but 25th in total yards.
They have a powerful offensive line led by center Eric Wood and guard Richie Incognito that has helped the Bills rank second in the league in rushing offense and first in rushing average, generating 5.3 yards per carry. The Bills rushed for 193 yards three weeks ago against the Rams, and a whopping 313 yards vs. the 49ers two weeks ago.
Taylor only averages 185 passing yards per game, with nine touchdowns and a 60.4 completion percentage as the Bills are 31st in passing yards. But he has protected the football well, throwing just two interceptions all season.
Taylor proved again against the Dolphins that he is dangerous when he gets outside the pocket, and he can make accurate throws on the run, like on a nice 15-yard pass to Hunter along the sideline.
He is a dangerous runner on scrambles and designed runs. The Bills called a triple option down on the 10-yard line against the Dolphins, and Taylor kept it for the easy touchdown.
Gillislee, a 208-pound back, is more of a downhill runner than McCoy, and is also used in the Wildcat, hitting the Patriots for a 16-yard run four weeks ago.
The Bills will lose a huge element of their offense if Goodwin, an Olympic-caliber sprinter, is unable to play. The Patriots respected the Bills’ speed with abnormally deep zone coverage in Week 4, giving huge cushions to the wide receivers underneath. Woods had a season high in catches (seven) and yards (89), but Goodwin had just one catch for 12 yards.
The Patriots will need to wrap up better, hold the edge in the run game to keep Taylor and the running backs inside, and force Taylor to beat them with his arm.
Coordinator: Dennis Thurman.
Key players: DT Kyle Williams, DT Marcell Dareus, OLB Jerry Hughes, OLB Lorenzo Alexander, ILB Zach Brown, CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Ronald Darby.
Personnel notes: The Bills hope to have Dareus in the lineup for the first time all year after he dealt with a four-game suspension and a hamstring injury. Safety Aaron Williams suffered head and neck injuries last week and his status is questionable. Robert Blanton, who started a pregame fight with the Patriots last time, would start in Williams’s place. Rookie first-round pick Shaq Lawson, who had offseason shoulder surgery, made his NFL debut last week, recording one tackle in 14 snaps.
What to expect: We can pretty much discount everything that happened offensively in the first game, as the Patriots’ only quarterback was a rookie playing with an injured thumb. Rob Gronkowski was still limited that game, and I don’t think we’ll be seeing Julian Edelman running out of the Wildcat this time.
The last time Brady played in Buffalo, he shredded the Bills for 466 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-32 victory in Week 2 last year. Gronkowski had 113 yards and a touchdown, Dion Lewis had 98 receiving yards, Edelman had 97 yards and two touchdowns, and even Aaron Dobson had 87 yards.
The Bills this year are like the Patriots — bend but don’t break. They’re 18th in yards allowed, but eighth in points against, allowing just 18.7 per game.
Their 21 sacks are second in the NFL, and they have allowed a league-low four passing touchdowns. The Bills play an aggressive 3-4 front, and make it difficult to determine where the pressure is coming from. Sometimes they show a big blitz and drop off. And sometimes, like on Sunday against Miami, they show a big blitz and bring a big blitz.
Eleven-year journeyman Alexander has been one of the best stories of the NFL season, collecting a league-high (and career-high) nine sacks in seven games. Hughes has four sacks opposite Alexander, and hit Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon for a sack in the first matchup.
However, the Bills have struggled against the run, particularly last Sunday against the Dolphins, who rushed 41 times for 256 yards (6.2 average). They are 27th in rushing yards allowed, 18th in average (4.2 yards per carry), and couldn’t defend the Dolphins’ zone blocking scheme and stretch running game.
The Patriots have incorporated a similar zone blocking run game into their offense in recent weeks, with LeGarrette Blount having success with it in the Cleveland and Cincinnati games.
The Patriots are also quite effective with play-action passes off of the stretch run game, as we saw with Martellus Bennett’s big touchdown against Cleveland three weeks ago.
But the Patriots may not have to rely much on the run game this week now that Brady is back and the Bills are missing a key piece in the secondary. Expect Brady to spread the Bills’ defense with four and five receivers and pick it apart with crossing routes and seam routes. James White could be in line for a big day catching passes out of the backfield like Lewis did last year.