Welcome to Season 8, Episode 15 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
It would have been easy to patronize the Bills even after they offered some resistance to the Patriots in their Week 4 meeting, a grind-it-out 16-10 New England victory in Buffalo. Maybe we did. It is true that the Patriots have owned the Bills unlike any other during this two-decade Bill Belichick/Tom Brady-helmed dynasty, a run during which they’ve done an awful lot of owning of all sorts of opponents. The Patriots have won the last six meetings between the teams, and 34 of the last 38. Brady has 31 wins against the Bills, the most by any quarterback in history against one opponent.
If the Bills were patronized after that Week 4 game, if we gave them a “good job, little guy,’’ well, that was a mistake. Buffalo comes into this matchup with a 10-4 record, a defense that is second in points allowed in the league only to the Patriots, and a belief among themselves that they’re capable of changing some narratives — and perhaps even their place in the standings. This is still the 11-3 Patriots’ division to win, and with a victory Saturday they’ll stand as the AFC East champion for the 11th straight season. Should they win out with a victory over Miami next week, they’ll earn a first-round bye. But make no mistake: The Bills have become a worthy foe. For the first time since 2009 there is genuine late-season suspense in the AFC East.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started . . .
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
Josh Allen — Here’s the question with the Bills’ second-year quarterback: Is he already genuinely good, and ready for a moment like this, or are there still going to be potholes along the way? Allen was a mess for the first half of the previous Patriots-Bills matchup, throwing three interceptions, slinging the ball as if his mechanics had gone haywire, feeling pressure when it wasn’t there, and repeatedly heaving the ball deep in what seemed to be the hope that the ghost of Andre Reed would come out of nowhere to haul it in. But a funny thing happened in the second half before Allen got knocked out the game on a collision with Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones: He got into a groove, and suddenly you saw every reason why the Bills spent the seventh overall pick in the draft on him. On the first drive after halftime, he led the Bills on a fast-paced nine-play, 75-yard march, going 6 for 6 and scoring on a quarterback sneak. It was like Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll found a way to accelerate his progress by five years at halftime. Allen has significantly cut back on his mistakes since the Patriots game: Since the loss, he’s thrown 15 touchdown passes to just three interceptions in a 10-game span. In the same stretch, Brady has 14 touchdown passes and six picks. I’m not betting on Allen to win a game like this until he actually goes out and does it. But he’s trending toward someday being able to win the big ones, and he’s moving in that direction much faster than expected.
N’Keal Harry — Under most circumstances, Harry’s contributions in the win over the Bengals last Sunday would classify as modest: Two receptions on four targets for 15 yards and a touchdown, plus two carries for 22 yards. But we know it meant more than that. His carries on the sweep in the first half invoked Cordarrelle Patterson’s contributions to last year’s champions, a nice recollection and a welcome creative use of the rookie first-round pick, who played 38 snaps after getting just two a week previous against the Chiefs. Harry also had a spectacular 36-yard catch called back because of a penalty, and the touchdown came on a prolonged play in which he broke free of initial coverage and caught a Brady dart at the back of the end zone. That would have been his second touchdown in two games — he was robbed of one, as you may have heard, by a terrible call against the Chiefs. It is clear that those pining for a greater opportunity for Harry are getting their wish, and against the Bengals he responded. It’s going to be difficult to thrive against a Bills defense that ranks third in the league against the pass (190.5 yards per game), but with Julian Edelman in rough shape and Mohamed Sanu still disconnected from Brady, Harry is going to get his chance to make plays. I like his chances of making them.
Devin Singletary — The Patriots’ defense remains the league’s best in average points allowed (12.9) and total yardage (268.4), but it has occasionally been susceptible to the run lately. The Bengals’ Joe Mixon picked up 136 yards on 25 carries last Sunday. In the teams’ first meeting, Frank Gore — yes, the third-leading rusher in NFL history — ran for 109 yards on 17 carries, and now there’s some lightning to his thunder. Singletary missed the previous match with a groin injury, but he’s been a stalwart lately, averaging 77 yards on the ground over the last six games for the Bills’ fifth-ranked rushing attack. The rookie does have one flaw of note: He’s fumbled four times, including twice last Sunday against Pittsburgh.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
The Pro Bowl matters. Not as a game or an event or as something football fans should actually pay attention to. The Pro Bowl matters in one way only — it’s an aid in the quest for proper context about players’ careers. When a once-great player is up for Hall of Fame consideration, the number of Pro Bowls he played in is invariably one of many factors taken under consideration by the voters.
It shouldn’t be this way — there’s way too much bias in the process, which includes voting by players, coaches, and fans. Rodney Harrison made just two Pro Bowls because he was a vicious player and opponents loathed him.
That is impacting his Hall of Fame case even though he was at the least the equal of 2018 inductee Brian Dawkins, who made nine Pro Bowls, as well as current candidates that seem to gain more consideration than Harrison such as John Lynch (nine Pro Bowls) and Steve Atwater (eight).
Julian Edelman is going to have a fascinating Hall of Fame case once his improbable and distinct career is done. Pure numbers alone aren’t going to get him consideration. He’s 174th all time in receiving yards (6,409), which is fewer than the likes of Quinn Early, Jerricho Cotchery, and Deion Branch, among many others. He’s a little higher in receptions (83rd, two behind the late Terry Glenn), but he’s tied for 250th in receiving touchdowns (36), in the company of Cris Collinsworth, Santonio Holmes, and Kenny Stills.
The vast majority of Edelman’s case for Canton is his long list of postseason heroics for three Super Bowl-winning teams. You know the argument: If Lynn Swann is in, why not Edelman someday? And it’s a valid one. But he’s going to need some ancillary achievements to help his cause.
Edelman has never made a Pro Bowl. He was robbed in this year’s voting, which was announced Tuesday. Edelman is second in the AFC with 92 receptions and fourth with 1,019 receiving yards for an 11-3 team that is fighting it on offense and most certainly would not be 11-3 without him. Edelman lost out to Tyreek Hill (49 catches, 727 yards) and Jarvis Landry (74 catches, 1,018 yards), players having lesser years for lesser teams.
Edelman deserved this, as he nobly fights through obvious injuries in his age-33 season, and it’s a shame he was overlooked again. The bigger shame will come years down the road, when the guardians at the gate of Canton notice he never made a Pro Bowl and use such a silly measure to argue against his worthiness.
Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore vs. Bills QB Josh Allen
We’ll hear a lot of talk in the buildup to this one about a struggling Brady against an aggressive Bills pass defense that allows 190.5 yards per game, third-best in the league. I get it. Brady threw for just 128 yards against the Bengals, and while we didn’t realize the issues the offense would face back in Week 4, he was actually jarringly ineffective in that game too, going 18 of 39 for 150 yards, with no touchdowns and a terrible end-zone interception gifted to Micah Hyde.
But I don’t think Brady versus Tre’Davious White or Hyde or any other Bills defender is the most important matchup of this week. Brady is clearly ailing — when Belichick acknowledges, as he did this week, that the injury has cost Brady practice time, you know his elbow issue isn’t an excuse but rather a serious problem. Josh McDaniels and Belichick are not going to ask Brady to carry them, or do anything close to that. He’s not capable of it right now. Instead, they’ll try to keep Sony Michel (89 yards against the Bengals) and the running game trending the right way, and they’ll try to recapture some of that ground-and-pound magic that carried them to a sixth Super Bowl title last February.
Instead, the most important matchup of this game is Allen against the Patriots’ defensive backs, particularly Gilmore. It’s an exaggeration to say the Patriots have to score on defense to win this game, but it certainly would be helpful — at times this season their defense has been their best offense. Gilmore plucked two interceptions against the Bengals, including a pick-6 that iced that victory, while J.C. Jackson also had two picks. They made Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton look like . . . well, Allen in the first half of the Week 4 game.
Gilmore is a stride or two ahead of the Steelers’ T.J. Watt in the Defensive Player of the Year race. If, once or even twice, he can bait Allen into the kind of mistake he hasn’t been making lately, victory should belong to the Patriots, and the DPOY honor should be his and his alone.
PREDICTION, OR DO WE KNOW IF THURMAN THOMAS EVER FOUND HIS HELMET?
For nearly 20 years now, the Patriots have been the big brother in this relationship, while the Bills have been the little brother that likes to dive through tables, light random things on fire, and refer to itself as a “mafia,’’ apparently unaware that pretty much everyone in the mafia — at least through Martin Scorsese’s lens — ends up in jail or dead before the credits.
The Bills have won twice in Foxborough since 2001, and neither was especially meaningful. In 2016, the Bills prevailed, 16-0, in Week 4 with injured third-stringer Jacoby Brissett starting at quarterback for the Patriots. In 2014, they won, 17-9, in Week 17 after the Patriots had locked up the No. 1 seed.
Sean McDermott has put together a legitimately good football team that knows it is a good football team. The Patriots have significant offensive problems, ones that were foreshadowed in the Week 4 matchup when the Bills limited the Patriots to 224 yards, didn’t give up a touchdown after the second New England possession, and permitted just 11 first downs all day.
I don’t believe this is the week the Bills get that meaningful victory and the “mafia” comes out on top in the end. I can’t pick against Belichick and Brady in December, when something real is at stake. But it’s not going to be easy for the Patriots to prevail this time. The Bills are good.
I expect more of the same. No, not from the lopsided Bills-Patriots history of the last 20 years; I expect a virtual copy of what we saw earlier this year. The little brother is growing up. But the big brother still knows how to take him down. Patriots 16, Bills 10