When the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots meet on Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium it will officially be the Bills’ first game under new owners Terry and Kim Pegula whose purchase of the team was unanimously approved by the league’s 31 owners earlier this week.
Will the Bills be able to reverse their recent run of futility when facing the Patriots under new ownership and get the Pegula era off on the right foot? That is just one of the issues to be aware of entering Sunday’s game.
Below are other key areas to watch:
1. One-Sided Series. To say that the Patriots have dominated this series over the course of the last decade is an understatement. The Pats hold a 25-3 record in the teams’ last 28 meetings, winning the last five striaght while averaging 39.0 points per game over that span.
Patriots’ starting quarterback Tom Brady has been a particular thorn in the Bills’ side, throwing for 54 touchdowns in 24 games when facing Buffalo – the most he has against any team in his career.
However, there’s more on the line than there has been in recent history with the chance for the Bills to take sole control of the AFC East divisional team with a win and seemingly a new mindset among Bills’ players in place.
2. Patriots’ Offensive Game Plan. The Patriots’ offense, until last Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, had been struggling – particularly the offensive line in terms of protecting Brady and giving him ample time to throw.
The line, which traded away Logan Mankins prior to the start of the season, was struggling to find its identity and develop some continuity, rotating out various personnel groupings to little avail until finally finding its footing in the Bengals’ game.
They did so mainly be committing to the run early and finally featuring tight end Tim Wright, acquired in the Mankins’ trade, more frequently in their game plan. By making extensive use of two back and two tight end sets (nearly 75 percent of their snaps against the Bengals came in this formation) they provided Brady with extra blockers as well as targets for short, quick passes.
The Patriots will most likely employ a similar strategy against the Bills as they lack a reliable deep threat or speed burner to stretch the field – short and intermediate throws as well as play-action passing are the Patriots’ most efficient tools right now.
3. Buffalo’s Defense as Best Offense. Buffalo is currently giving up just 14.6 points per game with the defensive line among the best in the league. 14.5 of the team’s league leading 17 sacks have come from the front four. The Bills’ defense is also first in third down efficiency, allowing only a 31.8 percent conversion rate on such downs. This is an area that the Patriots offense struggles in, ranking just 24th in the NFL in third down conversions (the Bills’ offense is even worse, checking in at 28th).
The Bills have struggled at times to defend opposing teams’ tight ends which is why the Patriots would be wise to make use of Wright and Rob Gronkowski regularly as they did last week. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will have his hands full as the Patriots’ use of two and three tight end sets in tandem with employing fullback James Develin along with another back is a scenario in which they would want former Patriots’ linebacker Brandon Spikes on the field as Spikes excels at stopping the run.
However, Spikes is a liability in pass coverage and the Patriots utilized play-action passing out of this personnel grouping to often and to great effect last week. Spikes had been used primarily on early downs versus the run until last week when Nigel Bradham was out and Schwartz was forced to keep Spikes on the field for some of the Bills’ sub packages. With Bradham out most of Buffalo’s speed and athleticism at the linebacker position disappears with him making dropping into coverage a weakness to be exploited.
Considering that Bradham was full go at practice on Wednesday this might not be as big of an issue.
The Bills are one of the best in the league at shutting down opponents’ running games and by getting good pressure from their front line with the expected return of tackle Kyle Williams they should be able to force Brady off his initial reads and into hurried and ill-advised throws.
4. Darrelle Revis vs. Sammy Watkins. Revis is typically assigned to the opposing team’s best receiver and Watkins has the potential to most certainly be that for the Bills. Tagged as an early candidate for Offensive Rookie Player of the Year Watkins has had a relatively quiet start, catching just 24 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns through his first five starts.
Some of that is due to a lingering rib injury and some of it can be chalked up to inconsistent quarterback play but either way Watkins will have to be on his A game to overcome Revis who shut down Bengals’ star receiver AJ Green during the first half of last week’s match-up while the game was still close. Revis has not exhibited his form from earlier years that made him the best corner in the league and he may never again regain it but he has his moments and how he matches up with Watkins in man coverage may be one of the biggest keys to this game.
5. The Rest of the Bills’ Offense. The Bills feel more confident in the quarterback position with veteran Kyle Orton, who led the Bills’ to their first come from behind win of the season last week over the Detroit Lions, under center. Orton was not spectacular in his debut in a Bills’ uniform, posting just a 30.3 QBR (a quarterback rating on a scale from 1 to 100) – the lowest mark of any starting quarterback in a win this year.
However, his QBR was a 93.4 during the fourth quarter giving hope that Orton can offer a more consistent high – or at least above average – level of play than EJ Manuel was able to provide. Another week working with the first team offense should only aid that process.
The Bills’ rushing attack has faltered the last two games with CJ Spiller providing virtually nothing on the ground. With Fred Jackson, their most consistent offensive play maker hobbled by an ankle sprain sustained late in the Detroit win, Spiller is going to have to produce this week to take some pressure off of the passing game.
Either that or Doug Marrone needs to consider making more extensive use of Bryce Brown or Anthony Dixon, both of whom showed they are more than capable of producing some explosive plays during the preseason.
Other numbers to keep in mind: both teams are among the most penalized in the league (tied for third with 45 penalties through five games) and that undisciplined style of team could end up costing either team this game.
Both Buffalo and New England are tied for first for the best turnover differential in the league at plus -6 and while it seems obvious and cliche to say with two teams doing so well at avoiding turnovers while forcing them at the opposite end, the winner of the turnover battle should win the game as well.
With emotion at a high for the Pegulas’ first game as formal owners of the Buffalo Bills and a loud stadium to match the Bills have their best change at leading the AFC East with a statement win than they have had at any other time in recent memory.