The Game Matchups Preview series is dedicated to breaking down how the Buffalo Bills matchup with their opponent in every game of the 2023 NFL season. This series will look at five key matchups; Bills Pass Offense vs. Opponent Pass Defense, Bills Rush Offense vs. Opponent Rush Defense, Bills Pass Defense vs. Opponent Pass Offense, Bills Rush Defense vs. Opponent Rush Offense, and Bills Special Teams vs. Opponent Special Teams. This entire analysis will conclude with three sections; “Why Buffalo Will Lose”, “Why Buffalo Will Win”, and a score prediction for the game.
Below I present 2023’s seventh edition of this analysis for the Bills Week 7 clash with the New England Patriots. Included is my “patented” 👏 scale which ranks the advantage in each matchup from 👏👏👏👏👏 (Massive Advantage) to 👏 (Minimal Advantage).
Bills Pass Offense vs. Patriots Pass Defense
Despite playing well below expectations the past two weeks, the Bills’ offense and Josh Allen continue to be amongst the most efficient in the NFL. Buffalo’s pass offense ranks third in DVOA (+57.2%) while Allen’s QuBeR of 64.87 is good for fifth in the league. Through a combination of taking underneath routes at a higher clip than seasons past while still being willing to take deep shots when they present themselves, the Bills remain one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. None of that means criticisms are unwarranted though as Buffalo must find a way to avoid funneling its air attack through only Stefon Diggs and instead distribute the ball more consistently to its plethora of other weapons. This week, against a Patriots team fraught with injuries, may be the perfect opportunity for the Bills to get just that party started.
Christian Gonzalez (CB) is out for the year, Jack Jones (CB) and Marcus Jones (CB) are working back from IR, and Jonathan Jones (CB) has yet to practice this week. That’s four starting-caliber cornerbacks that the Patriots may be without this week in a matchup against a pass-heavy Bills team. The result would be the trio of J.C. Jackson (CB), Myles Bryant (CB), and Jalen Mills (DB) being tasked with slowing down the likes of Diggs, Gabe Davis, and Deonte Harty in a week where the Bills look poised to test the depth of the Patriots coverage abilities. The injuries in the secondary don’t stop at corner though with both starting safeties, Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers, dealing with their own injuries. The expectation is each will play but do so well below 100% which should open the Bills’ ability to throw deep as well as target one of their two versatile tight ends in Dawson Knox and Dalton Kincaid. Even at 100% health, the Patriots would likely struggle with this Bills air attack but in their current state could see things get ugly quickly.
Things don’t improve on the injury front in the trenches for New England where their best defensive player, Matt Judon (DE), is set to miss months and Josh Uche’s availability for this week is in question. Judon and Uche have accounted for six of the Patriots’ 12.0 sacks this season and are the only two players on the roster with more than 1.0 sacks. For New England, this means more Anfernee Jennings and Trey Flowers trying to win off the edge against Dion Dawkins (LT) and Spencer Brown (RT). That’s proven difficult for every team not named the Jets this season meaning you can expect an abnormal number of blitzes being sent Allen’s ways. Bill Belichick knows he must generate chaos up front with the hopes that Allen will make a handful of mistakes and allow the Patriots to steal some drives in a must-have-it week.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏👏👏
Bills Rush Offense vs. Patriots Rush Defense
One of the hottest topics amongst the Bills faithful thus far in 2023 is whether Allen is running enough. For context, in 2022 Allen averaged 4.2 designed rushes per game to go along with 3.6 scrambles. In 2023 Allen has just 1.3 designed rushes per game and 2.3 scrambles. Both schematically and sporadically, Allen is running less this season, a trend that comes with both good and bad. The good, the Bills’ franchise quarterback is being hit less than any season prior something, and that should improve the sustainability of his play both this year and beyond. The bad, Allen’s legs make him one of the most unique threats in the NFL and at least for right now, teams can ignore that threat to an extent. Expect the 2023 averages to increase as the season progresses with the understanding that when Allen needs to take off in must-win games it’s likely that that aspect of his game will quickly return.
Against the Patriots though it seems highly unlikely that Allen nor the Bills running backs will find success on the ground. In what is the best part of this Patriots team, New England is holding opponents to the third-fewest yards per rush attempt in the NFL at 3.4. This includes impressive performances against both the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles who rank first and second in rushing yards respectively. That domination starts in the middle of the defensive line for New England who uses a versatile trio to challenge opposing interior offensive lines consistently. Christian Barmore (DT) is the best of that bunch and is a player whose balance of size and athleticism is a problem for most offensive linemen. Joining Barmore in their rotation is Lawrence Guy (DT) whose length is a weapon and Davon Godchaux (NT) who is proven capable of displacing multiple blockers whenever he takes the field. Inside runs will be difficult for Buffalo to execute this week if not impossible for them to do consistently.
Whether the Bills elect to run James Cook (RB), Latavius Murray (RB), or even Allen if and when they get to the second level, life won’t get much easier. Ja’Whaun Bentley is the Patriots’ only every-down linebacker and he is a good one. He has an acumen for getting downfield quickly and possesses the strength and frame to fend off blockers that reach the second level. In Base and Nickel sets he is consistently joined by Jahlani Tavai who has a similar profile but like Bentley has a lack of speed which is concerning in the modern-day NFL. This has forced the Patriots to leverage a large number of subpackages which include players such as Shaun Wade (DB), Marte Mapu (LB), and Adrian Phillips (S) to ensure they can defend sideline to sideline. That along with both Peppers and Dugger’s abilities to play in the box mitigates any deficiencies New England has at linebacker, making the defense as a whole a force against the run.
ADVANTAGE: Patriots 👏👏👏
Bills Pass Defense vs. Patriots Pass Offense
Thus far in 2023, the Bills have lost Tre White (CB), Matt Milano (LB), and DaQuan Jones (DT) to season-ending injuries while Dane Jackson (CB) was sidelined last week with a foot injury. The Bills’ defense still has given up a league-low four pass touchdowns as they continue to be one of the most dominant pass defenses in the NFL. That continued last week, albeit against a Tyrod Taylor-led offense, while the Bills continue to figure out how best to replace their injured stars. Players like Dorian Williams (LB) and Jordan Phillips (DT) among others have filled in nicely but with the caliber of quarterback play set to ramp up in the coming works a more permanent and consistently talented solution to the Bills’ questions on the defensive side of the ball will be needed. The good news for Buffalo, this week is not a week where they will be facing what has been a high-caliber passing attack.
Mac Jones has been a disaster this season. He currently ranks No. 31 in QuBeR at 23.83 with a 5:9 TD:TO ratio. He’s holding onto the ball too long, he isn’t progressing through his reads well, and he’s missing wide-open throws when he attempts them. Despite all of these issues, it’s easy to see that his skill players aren’t doing much to help him. JuJu Smith-Schuster was brought in to be his WR1 and is averaging 17.2 yards per game. Their deep threat in DeVante Parker has an average depth of target of just 7.6, a career low and down drastically from 2022 when it was 14.0. The Patriots’ two tight ends, Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki, have been fine albeit unspectacular considering the personnel and play design they have in place. The only real consistent threat thus far has been agile WR, Kendrick Bourne, who has accounted for 23.9% of their receiving yards. Bourne will be the key for the Bills this week as they try and stop him from picking up chunk yards while clogging the middle of the field. There’s nothing to suggest this is the week the Patriots will find success through the air to a point that it would be unsurprising to see Jones replaced by Malik Cunningham at some point in this game.
That replacement could occur sooner rather than later if the Patriots’ offensive line can’t hold their own and protect the statuesque Jones. While Trent Brown has been impressive at left tackle and David Andrews continues to be solid at center the rest of the Patriots’ offensive line has been rough. Vederian Lowe has struggled mightily at right tackle while injuries and poor play have seen the Patriots shuffle through Atonio Mafi, Cole Strange, Mike Onwenu, and even Riley Reiff at guard. With the way that Ed Oliver and Jordan Phillips are playing on the inside and Leonard Floyd, Greg Rousseau, and AJ Epenesa are playing on the outside, upfront issues are abound to occur for New England come Sunday. Add to that Von Miller slowly rounding back into form and what may be a tall task for New England could become borderline impossible.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏👏👏
Bills Rush Defense vs. Patriots Rush Offense
Coming into the season the biggest question mark on the defensive side of the ball was middle linebacker. It was such a question in fact that Bills fans were clamoring to get the since retired Christian Kirksey onto the field. Instead, Terrel Bernard answered the call and has quietly been one of the best off-ball linebackers in the NFL nearing the midpoint of the season. A season-ending injury to Matt Milano complicated things further forcing the Bills to start another third-round linebacker last week, that one being Dorian Williams. By no means perfect, Williams still had some impressive plays while his athleticism and length seem to pair well with Bernard’s instincts and understanding of his opponents. Milano is not a player that can be replaced in the NFL but with what we have seen thus far from Williams there is now hope that the Bills can survive without their All-Pro linebacker.
This week those linebackers will be put to the test against what should be an above-average rushing attack. They have a two-headed monster out of the backfield featuring Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott, each of whom are struggling through the first half of the season. Stevenson is averaging a career-low 3.0 yards per attempt with a long run of just 15 while Elliott isn’t fairing much better at 3.9 yards per attempt with a long of only 14. New England must establish the run this week and test the Bills’ young linebacking corps’ ability to come up and make plays at or near the line of scrimmage. If there is one thing Buffalo’s defense has been susceptible to thus far it’s giving up the occasional chunk play meaning Stevenson and/or Elliott should be able to improve on those long runs this week. The name of the game for New England is to keep the ball away from the Bills and burn the clock in the process. They have the horses to do that but for many reasons right now those horses seem stuck in the starting gate.
If the Patriots can’t get the traditional ground game going, they are going to have to look at other ways to move the ball. The Bills have been susceptible on the outside which could see New England utilize a few jet sweeps to move the sticks this weekend. Rookie Demario Douglas would be the man for this job using his 4.44 speed to test the Bills’ ability to maintain contain. Outside of that, there aren’t many other options for New England UNLESS it makes a mid-game switch from Jones to Cunningham. Cunningham was an elite runner in college accounting for 1,594 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground in his final two seasons at Louisville. The Bills look poised to dominate this matchup on all levels with Cunningham off the field but with him on it what looks to be a clear advantage for the Bills could easily flip New England’s way.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Bills Special Teams vs. Patriots Special Teams
He was perfect, and now he is not. Bass entered last week’s action 29/29 on kicks but would subsequently miss a 51- and 53-yard field goal almost costing Buffalo a victory in the process. Bass should still be considered borderline automatic, but those two misses were a major knock on his potential All-Pro resume. Also kicking for Buffalo was Sam Martin who again was called into action at a higher-than-average rate. He would punt the ball three times giving up just four total return yards as he was able to flip the field whenever he entered action. Lastly, the Bills return game continues to be underwhelming. Deonte Harty has yet to break anything that could remotely be considered a big return while Khalil Shakr is rarely returning Kkcks and when doing so not picking up major yardage.
For New England, kicking has been a bit iffy. Rookie Chad Ryland is a perfect 8/8 on kicks under 40 yards but is just 4/8 on anything over 40. Far from automatic right now it’s a gamble for the Patriots to attempt anything when the line of scrimmage is beyond the 23. punting has been much better for New England with rookie Bryce Baringer off to an impressive start to his career. He leads the NFL in punts attempted at 33 and Punt Yards at 1,456 while sporting an impressive 16:1 Inside the 20 to-touchback ratio. He will need to flip the field a few times Sunday for the Patriots and is proven capable of doing that, thus far. Last for New England is a return game in flux. To date, four separate players have returned a punt and two a kick. Most recently Ty Montgomery handled kick return duties and Myles Bryant punt return but at least for now, the Patriots don’t have a real threat in the return game.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Why Buffalo Will Lose
When a team is backed up against a wall, wild and wacky things can happen, and the Patriots are backed up against a wall. This is about as close to a must win game that isn’t a must-win game and Belichick is undoubtedly feeling the pressure. On the defensive side of the ball that means the Patriots doing more exotic things and ones out of their character. A few weird yet well-timed blitzes as well as Dugger and Peppers jumping a route are two are not just desired but needed by New England. It’s not impossible that they could slow down Buffalo, especially after how we saw the Bills play the Giants, but it is going to take a few lucky bounces for them to come out on top.
On the offensive side of the ball, it all comes down to the running game. The Patriots passing attack is in shambles, so they will need to lean on Stevenson and Elliott. Each may be off to rough starts, but both have more than enough juice in the tank to make the necessary plays to keep this game close. The Patriots are going to have to find a way to approach 200 yards on the ground which though unlikely is possible this week. Doing that means they burned some clock, scored some points, and are in a position to win a close game in Foxborough.
Why Buffalo Will Win
It’s been back-to-back bad weeks for the Bills, and they must be ready to step back into the realm of elite football. Allen is still Allen and despite an injury that could hamper him there is no reason to expect him to slow down on what has been an MVP start to the season. The Patriots are going to try and take away Diggs but with the Bills consistently talking about getting others involved expect a concerted effort to feed other players this week regardless. Kincaid also makes his triumphant return against a team that struggles to defend tight ends, expect a big week from him.
On the other side of the ball, the Bills may be shorthanded, but they can still dominate. This week that means dominating in the trenches and letting Jones make the handful of mistakes he makes each week this week. Look for Micah Hyde and/or Jordan Poyer to attempt to goad Jones into a bad throw while Berard and Williams handle slowing down which has been a pitiful rushing attack for New England. The Patriots are far from as bad as their record indicates but they also aren’t close to the Bills level either.
Prediction: Bills 28 – Patriots 17
I expect the Bills to right the ship a bit this week after a sloppy two weeks of play. That doesn’t mean they put up 40 or 50 points but means they have a convincing win against a lesser opponent. Injuries to Allen and Oliver are concerning but there are enough weapons on both sides of the ball that there is no reason to lose faith in this Bills team against this Patriots team. Belichick is still a brilliant defensive mind though and despite Allen’s recent ownership of this matchup, I’d expect the Bills to have to survive a mistake or two as they look to improve to 5-2 and get ready for a Thursday night game with the Buccaneers.