ORCHARD PARK — At long last, it’s almost game day.
A cold Saturday night in Orchard Park will feature the NFL’s hottest first-round playoff matchup with the No. 3 seed Bills (11-6) squaring off against supervillain Bill Belichick and the No. 6 seed New England Patriots (10-7) for the two teams’ third matchup of the season — this time on the big stage with a trip to the AFC Divisional round hanging in the balance. The winner of this weekend’s Wild Card game will take on the winner between the Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) and Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1).
Saturday’s game will serve as the rubber match between two long-hated rivals, with the Patriots sneaking by with a 14-10 victory in the first of two regular season matchups and the Bills responding with a convincing 33-21 win three weeks later.
The Pats’ Week 13 win over Buffalo came on a windy Monday night in Orchard Park when blustery conditiions led NE rookie quarterback Mac Jones to attempt just three passes. The Patriots’ running game powered the NE attack with 222 total rushing yards on 46 carries en route to the slim, gutsy victory.
In Buffalo’s win over the Pats a few weeks later, Josh Allen was phenomenal, throwing for 314 passing yards and three touchdowns while completing 64% of his throws and rushing for 64 yards on 12 carries. Many have termed Allen’s performance that day as the best of his career.
The Bills’ Week 16 win over the Pats helped further what’s turned into a four-game winning streak entering postseason play — the latest victory a 27-10 throttling of the New York Jets in Week 18. Buffalo limited the Jets to just 53 total yards behind a stellar defensive effort which included nine sacks. In the win, the Buffalo running game continued its string of solid performances, totaling 33 carries for 170 rushing yards, including 88 yards and a touchdown from running back Devin Singletary.
On the other side of the coin, the Patriots have not played their best football in recent weeks, dropping three of their past four games, including a 33-24 defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins last week. The Patriots fell behind 17-0 during the Week 18 loss and never fully recovered, allowing the Dolphins to compile 195 rushing yards, including 117 yards on 25 carries from journeyman running back Duke Johnson, to propel themselves to the season-ending victory.
On Saturday, Buffalo and New England meet for just the second time in the two teams’ playoff history, with the last meeting coming in December of 1963 when both teams played in the AFL. Tonight’s game will be the first postseason matchup between Buffalo and New England since the NFL-AFL merger and is set for an 8:15 p.m. kickoff on CBS.
Many expect it to be bitterly cold at Highmark Stadium, but don’t expect low temperatures to cool off the excitement of Bills Mafia, which is ready to take in its team’s first home playoff game in front of a capacity crowd since 1996.
The anticipation surrounding this matchup has been heating up all week, and fans appear more than ready to explode with support no matter the icy conditions. This is the game Bills fans have been waiting for, many of them for their entire lives. All that’s left is for their team to finish Saturday a winner and march on with the team and city’s Super Bowl hopes intact.
It won’t be easy for Buffalo to walk away with a win, as a longtime foe and one of the greatest coaches of all-time stands in the way of a Bills’ victory.
Buffalo is as healthy as a horse heading into its first-round playoff matchup, without a single player on the active roster holding an injury designation entering Saturday’s game.
The Bills’ coaching staff, front office and strength and medical department should be commended for the job they’ve done managing injuries this season. Aside from a few season-ending injuries, one suffered by cornerback Tre’Davious White, Buffalo remains in good standing heading into the postseason.
All year long, Buffalo has done an incredible job identifying injured players throughout a game, removing those players quickly and then treating them conservatively and appropriately to avoid long-term setbacks and get them as healthy as possible upon their return.
That approach has led to Buffalo having one of the league’s healthiest rosters come playoff time.
On the other hand, on Thursday’s injury report, the Patriots listed 13 players as questionable to play against the Bills, including starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn (hip/ankle), who missed consecutive practices due to injuries sustained during the Patriots’ loss to the Miami Dolphins last week. On Friday, Wynn was downgraded to OUT.
Belichick has long been known to play tricks on opposing teams using the injury report. Therefore, one can take much of this week’s report with a grain of salt. However, Wynn’s confirmed absence is a significant blow for a Patriots’ offensive line that has allowed Jones to be sacked 10 times over the past four games.
At this stage of the season, injuries often play a significant role for all teams and that could potentially be the case for the Patriots this week. But for Buffalo, aside from the loss of White, it has had very little to worry about in terms of the long-term health of their roster. Instead of plugging holes created by injury, the Bills have navigated their way into good standing health-wise and find themselves ready to roll at the season’s most critical juncture. We’ll see if that approach pays off with postseason success.
As the great Steve Tasker said in last year’s viral postseason hype-up video, it might be chilly at Highmark Stadium, with sub-zero temperatures possible throughout Saturday’s game. A high temperature of 10 degrees and a low of 0 degrees are expected in Orchard Park, with the wind chill factor potentially placing the ‘real-feel’ temperature in the negatives come game time.
The weather has played a significant role in the 2021-22 edition of the Bills-Patriots rivalry, not to mention the Bills’ entire home schedule. The first of three matchups between Buffalo and NE was impacted by drastically high winds, making it difficult for both teams to play their brand of football.
This weekend, the wind is expected to play less of a role, with just five-to-10 mile per hour winds expected. Still, the bitter cold temperatures are sure to make an impact.
The areas of play typically affected by brutally cold temperatures are the passing game and kicking game, as cold footballs turn hard and crisp, making it difficult to pass, catch and kick. Just last week, in Buffalo’s win over the Jets, we saw a few dropped passes from Bills receivers, not to mention the awful performance from punter Matt Haack who finished this past Sunday’s cold-weather game with a net average of 33.9 yards per punt.
Bills defensive tackle Harrison Phillips had the quote of the week during his Thursday press conference, stating, “Who gives a s--- if it’s cold. Let’s play football.”
While the big, burly Bills defensive tackle may feel that way, the same likely can’t be said for all of the other 100-plus men who will take the field on Saturday night. Particularly for the skill players and specialists on both teams, and more specifically NE’s Jones, who, until reaching the NFL, had not played in weather similar to what he will see this weekend. The Pats rookie QB played his high school football in Florida and his college ball at the University of Alabama in the Southeastern Conference.
While the wind may not be as big of a factor, expect the cold to impact both teams’ ability to throw the football with great success. We already saw Belichick play it conservatively with Jones while forging through the Buffalo elements in Week 13. Perhaps tonight’s wintery conditions will again lead the Patriots to employ another run-heavy game plan, as we saw from them in that win on Dec. 6, during which they ran the ball 94% of the time.
STOP THE RUN
If the Pats do indeed commit to establishing another run-centric strategy, the Buffalo defense must sell out to stop it.
It’s difficult to imagine a rookie QB on any team succeeding against a Sean McDermott-Leslie Frazier defense, much less one that has little experience playing in the cold. Since being hired by the Bills in 2017, no rookie QB has thrown for more than one touchdown pass against the Bills’ defense. In Buffalo’s Week 16 win over New England, Jones completed just 14 of 32 passes and hurled two interceptions.
From the opening snap, the Bills should commit to doing whatever it takes, whether it be placing extra men in the box or beefing up their defensive personnel to push New England to go against what it wants to do offensively. If the Bills can place the ball into Jones’ hands and force him to throw the ball 25-30 times in this game, Buffalo should be in a prime position to shut down the NE attack and come away with a victory.
Since he was hired, McDermott has placed plenty of value on a complementary offensive attack featuring an effective balance between run and pass. Throughout this season, many naysayers doubted the validity of McDermott’s beliefs and instead wanted to see the Bills air the ball out and throw it about 80-90% of the time.
McDermott’s approach has proven to be the correct one in recent weeks, as the Buffalo running game has enjoyed a resurgence that has helped the entire Bills offense take a step forward.
Since Allen scampered for 109 rushing yards in an overtime loss at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Buffalo rushing attack has been revitalized, averaging 161.8 yards per game. Along with their QBs ability to pull it down and run, the production provided by the team’s now-workhorse back, Devin Singletary, has also been vital in the running game’s increased viability in the Buffalo offense. After that loss to the Bucs, Singletary has received a lion’s share of the carries out of the backfield, averaging 80.75 rushing yards per game on 4.25 yards per rush over the Bills’ last four matchups.
If Buffalo is to beat the Patriots tonight, it will require an all-hands-on-deck-style approach from the Bills’ ground attack and the offense as a whole. That will include implementing Singletary early and often while mixing in a few designed runs for Allen. Buffalo did just that in the two teams’ last matchup, calling eight designed QB runs for 29 yards. Allen also scrambled twice for 36 yards in that Week 13 win.
At times this season, the Bills have been reluctant to fully involve Allen’s rushing ability in the offensive game plan. However, with the playoffs upon us and the weather at its coldest, the time is now to keep the kid gloves off. Buffalo must continue to allow Allen to be Allen, which means continuing to allow him to roam free both within the structure of the Bills’ running game and with his ability to improvise when the pocket breaks down.
Also, Singletary has been impactful since being given a chance to spread his wings. That must continue against a Patriots defense that has had trouble slowing opposing rushing attacks throughout the season, particularly in recent weeks. Over the past six weeks, New England has allowed opponents to gain a whopping 164.5 rushing yards per contest.
This could be another big game for the Buffalo ground attack.
Along with continuing to contribute on the ground, Allen must find a way to be more productive this week than he was during last week’s win over the Jets. In that game, Allen finished 24 of 45 passing for 239 yards and a couple of touchdowns while enduring several long bouts of inconsistency which inhibited the Buffalo passing game’s ability to gain any steam and led to a lackluster stretch throughout the middle portion of that game.
In Buffalo’s previous win over the Patriots, Allen put forth perhaps his career-best passing performance. And that quality effort came without his full complement of receivers at his disposal. Both WR Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis were out for that game due to being placed on the COVID-19/reserve list in the days leading up to that matchup. Also, Buffalo has been without WR Emmanuel Sanders over the past few weeks, but he has since returned to practice and is expected to suit up tonight.
With all of his weapons surrounding him on Saturday, the stage is set for another classic effort from Allen. And boy, do the Bills need one as they head into this primetime playoff matchup against a team that’s been a thorn in their side for the past 20 years.
JUST WIN BABY
We’ve all heard the classic line from late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, “Just win, baby.”
That quote fits the Bills’ situation this weekend as it doesn’t matter how, it doesn’t matter by how much — Buffalo must win at all costs to avoid a shift of the Buffalo-New England narrative that Bills Mafia has feared for quite some time.
Once again, Buffalo is presented with a chance to maintain their recent dominance over a team that’s long dominated them for many years before.
A triumph over the Pats would mean more than a simple playoff victory and a furthering of the Bills’ postseason hopes. Conversely, a Buffalo loss would mean a long offseason for the Bills to stew over the most recent heartbreaking defeat at the hands of what has been their big brother for many years.
Whatever happens, whatever the outcome, the result of Saturday’s playoff matchup is sure to have lasting implications — at least until these two teams buckle it up and face off again next season.
Fasten your seatbelts, Western New York. It’s sure to be a bumpy ride.
PREDICTION: Gimme the Bills to win, 26-23. The Buffalo ground game produces 150 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while the Bills’ defense limits the Pats to under 100 yards rushing. Josh Allen throws for 250-plus yards and two scores, while Jones fails to reach 100 passing yards and is picked off twice.