The Game Matchups Preview series is dedicated to breaking down how the Buffalo Bills match up 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 sixteenth edition of this analysis for the Bills Week 17 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
Coming out of Week 16, Josh Allen is the first player in NFL history with 40-plus touchdowns in four consecutive seasons. He has cemented himself as one of the greatest signal callers of his generation and is firmly in the discussion for league MVP with just two weeks left to play. That being said, Buffalo’s air attack has been inconsistent over the past three weeks averaging just 174.7 net passing yards compared to 260.9 the prior 12 games. There are plenty of contributing factors to this but heading into a possible postseason run for the Bills these issues must be resolved sooner than later if Buffalo has any intention of reaching its ultimate goal.
This week doesn’t provide an easy path to resolving these woes as the Patriots come in as the league’s 17th-ranked pass defense by DVOA (+8.6%). That number is a tad misleading though because since their bye week they have escalated their level of play holding opponents to just 206.6 passing yards per game, a contributing factor to holding opponents to just 16.8 points per game. They are accomplishing this by leveraging their versatility expertly, especially at safety where both Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers have been chess pieces that can compete at any level of the field. At corner, they are equally versatile with players like Jalen Mills, Shaun Wade, Myle Bryant, and even Bills 2023 draft pick Alex Austin. None of these players may be star names but each of them has proven capable of winning in Bill Belichick’s system. That’s a system that Buffalo will need to beat with a heavy reliance on the likes of Stefon Diggs, Dalton Kincaid, and even James Cook out of the backfield.
Up front Buffalo should have a fairly significant advantage as its top-ranked offensive line and elusive quarterback are set to contend with a defensive line lacking in consistent talent. No player up front for the Patriots has over 4.0 sacks except for Christian Barmore (DT) who is coming off arguably the best performance of his career. Against the Broncos he accounted for 3.0 sacks, two tackles for loss, and one forced fumble as the Patriots player that most played a role in their surprising victory. This week Buffalo will need to beware of his positioning and consider sending Mitch Morse to his side on any given play. Meanwhile, the Bills’ borderline elite offensive tackles will need to contend with Josh Uche, Keion White, Anfernee Jennings, and Deatrich Wise, depending on their positioning. This is a matchup Buffalo can dominate, as long as they don’t make multiple mistakes.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Bills Rush Offense vs. Patriots Rush Defense
Coming out of the Cowboys game in Week 15, the thought was the Bills had turned a corner in the ground game, but hold the phone. Last week Bills running backs combined for a subpar yards per attempt of 3.6 with a long rush of just 10 as they struggled to produce any consistent yardage on the ground. Making matters worse, James Cook had his third and fourth fumbles of the season, losing one of them in a critical moment late in the fourth quarter which ultimately resulted in the Chargers taking the lead. There is no expectation that Buffalo will move away from their run game which has been a significant portion of their offense this season but after last week they will run the ball in a traditional manner whilst holding bated breath.
Against the Patriots, winning on the ground comes less easy than winning through the air as New England comes into this game ranked second in Rush Defense DVOA (-19.9%). This starts up front where they dominate at the initial point of attack with Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux, and Lawrence Guy all being double-team beaters. This trio has the proven ability to soak up blockers in front of them while bringing down runners behind the line of scrimmage to the tune of a combined 14 tackles for loss. This will test Buffalo’s abilities on sprint and or QB draw, each a heavily featured running pattern in the Bills’ gameplan. Could this mean Buffalo attacking the edge more with Cook and Ty Johnson on tosses? Or more RPOs that boot Allen out to both the right and left? Time will answer this question, but New England’s second level will have a large say in produced results.
In that second level, the main players Buffalo must be wary of are Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai, each of whom are meant to be run-stoppers. Bentley is their every-down linebacker who has the strength to shed blocks and hold the point of attack in the middle of the Patriots’ defense. Meanwhile, Tavai is your more downhill attacking instinctual option that will try to meet opponents at the line of scrimmage. Buffalo has the speed in Cook to contend with each of them which will put more defense on the Patriots’ secondary which luckily for them has two safeties that can come up and make a play. Both Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers are not just willing tacklers but defensive backs who can play in the box. Against a team with a quarterback like Allen having those types of defensive backs is paramount whenever he looks to extend drives by finding open grass.
ADVANTAGE: Patriots 👏👏
Bills Pass Defense vs. Patriots Pass Offense
Buffalo’s pass defense is very much a Jekyll and Hyde pass defense. In Week 16 they held Dak Prescott to a lowly 23.52 QuBeR but in Week 17 allowed backup quarterback Easton Stick to produce a near-average QuBeR of 44.45. Why? It’s difficult to answer that question but it seems to reside somewhere in the narrative that the Bills tend to play to the level of their competition. The better the quarterback, the better the defense plays, the worse the quarterback, the worse they play. This week they will be playing the worse in a game they must survive to get to the best. Can they do that, and even more importantly, can they dominate a quarterback that has no right beating up on them in what may be their final home game of the season?
The quarterback they will be competing with this week happens to not be Mac Jones, but instead Bailey Zappe. He hasn’t been much better than Jones though producing a QuBeR of just 30.32 on the season, compared to Jones’s 26.95. He’s a more aggressive passer than Jones though as he relies more on his arm and will test defenses if he thinks they are out of position. The issue for him is his pass catchers rarely provide him with the opportunity to successfully test defenses. JuJu Smith-Schuster and DeVante Parker have both been underwhelming this season whilst Mike Gesicki has been a disappointing free-agent addition. That leaves just Hunter Henry (TE) and Demario Douglas (WR) as players who strike fear through the air for opposing pass defenses. Henry continues to have a solid career on pace for his fifth consecutive 500+ yard receiving season as the pressure valve for whatever quarterback New England has throwing to him. Almost opposite to him is the speedy and dangerous Douglas who will look to find open space to get the ball and then use his elite speed to cause issues in the open field (7.26 RAS). Douglas is the key to this game as the one player on the Patriots with the ability to change the game with one catch of the ball.
Up front for New England has been above average at protecting their quarterbacks; however, their quarterbacks have been below average at protecting themselves. Coming into this game Zappe is experiencing a pressure rate of just 16.4% while his sack rate of 8.47% is a massive concern. The crux of all this verbiage is that the likes of David Andrews (C), Sidy Sow (RT), and a healthy Trent Brown (LT) have done a solid job at protecting their quarterback while their quarterback has been too hesitant to get rid of the ball. This will test Buffalo’s pass rush up front which has seen dominant play from Ed Oliver (DT) and Leonard Floyd (DE) with solid contributions from Greg Rousseau (DE) and AJ Epenesa (DE), when healthy. Add to those four the possible return of DaQuan Jones and a matchup which should be an advantage for the Bills could become a point of dominance for a team that can ill afford to repeat the mistakes of Week 7.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏👏
Bills Rush Defense vs. Patriots Rush Offense
Where the Bills have maintained their dominance consistently is against opposing rushing attacks. Since the bye week, no team has gone over 100 yards with a massive amount of that credit owed to the Bills linebackers. We can easily apply that credit to Terrel Bernard who has been spectacular in his first season as a starter, however, Tyrel Dodson deserves some massive credit for being a run-stopping force for the Bills. The more he plays the more he is improving at identifying running lanes before opposing runners hit them and then beating said runners to their spot to make contact at or behind the line of scrimmage. It’s unlikely Matt Milano will make his way back to the field for Buffalo this season so Dodson’s play will need to persist, if not improve in the coming weeks.
Against New England, the fear would usually be that Rhamondre Stevenson would have a Rhamondre Stevenson day, but he has been placed on IR. The result is the Patriots’ feature back shifting to veteran Ezekiel Elliott who is having an okay 2023 campaign. He has an acceptable 549 yards on the season but his 3.5 yards per attempt is indicative of his loss of explosiveness in the latter part of his career. This means Buffalo should be able to pick and choose what it wants to defend without fear that a player like Elliott can spring a big run. What will be interesting is who spells Elliott as no running back outside of he or Stevenson has over 12 rushing attempts this season. It may be the physical Kevin Harris or the agile JaMycal Hasty but it’s worth noting that neither of those runners possess the known ability to take over the rushing attack of the Patriots, one that should struggle against the Bills.
This would be viewed as a max advantage for the Bills if not for circumstances and the Patriots’ abilities to nontraditionally move the ball on the ground. New England is eliminated from playoff contention with nothing to gain from this game other than handing the Bills an embarrassing loss. That’s motivation. The result very well may be more trick plays or more fourth-and-goes for a feisty Patriots team that can inject speed into the backfield. That speed can come by way of wide receivers Tyquan Thornton and/or Douglas in jet sweep situations which could expose a Bills team likely to sit back and let the Patriots come to them. Look for this early and if one of these hits, what should be an easy win for the Bills could shift into a dangerous predicament for a desperate Buffalo team.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏👏
Bills Special Teams vs. Patriots Special Teams
Tyler Bass has quietly hit his last 16 kicks as he looks to redeem a season that started off as All-Pro caliber and shifted into liability concerns. Trust Bass moving forward as he remains one of the league’s top kickers and one that should be trusted each and every week. Counter to him, Sam Martin is a player who for most of the season has not been trustworthy. That being said, he is coming off arguably his best week with four punts totaling 52.3 gross yards and an impressive net yardage of 49.0. Despite that, the Bills don’t want to punt, and shouldn’t punt a lot this week. Lastly is the Bills return game which has been a disaster. Deonte Harty has done little to nothing on punt return, and had a huge fumble last week, while kick return has been a net negative. Quietly, Nyheim Hines has been a massive loss for the Bills and will be a player Buffalo takes a long look at bringing back next season.
For New England, kicking has been a MASSIVE issue. Chad Ryland is a solid 21/22 on extra points but his 65.2% field goal percentage, with only two misses from 50-plus, is a massive concern for New England. Regardless of where Ryland lines up don’t be so confident that the kick is going in, it hasn’t consistently enough for him this season. Punter has been slightly better for New England, though unspectacular, where Bryce Baringer has okay numbers. As of right now, he’s averaging an acceptable yards per punt of 47.1. New England will call on him this week and when they do will need him to flip field position. Lastly is the return game where Myles Bryant handles punts and Jalen Reagor handles kicks. Neither has faired exceptionally well with those roles this season with Bryant at 6.6 yards per punt return and Reagor with 21.5 yards per kick return this season.
ADVANTAGE: Patriots 👏
Why Buffalo Will Lose
When a team is back against the wall there is always a chance that they can come out swinging and land a lucky blow. Why can’t the Patriots do that? They already did earlier this season. On offense, Zappe has enough swagger that he has a chance to do some damage. As long as he keeps the mistakes at a minimum, feeding the ball to players like Henry and Douglas and even Elliott could cause issues for the Bills. Let’s say New England finds a way to put up 20 points, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that its defense could hold Buffalo below that.
Speaking of the Patriots defense, it’s all about turnovers and Bill Belichick will have his team jumping for multiple. That means an aggressive unit that doesn’t care about getting beat deep, it doesn’t matter to them, what matters is embarrassing the Bills. Look for Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers to play a big role in this game as they look to cement themselves as impressive safeties heading into 2024. Up front you also must fact in Christian Barmore who isn’t 100% healthy right now but is playing the best football of his career. Can he test O’Cyrus Torrence or Connor McGovern? Yes, and that’s worrisome.
Why Buffalo Will Win
Josh Allen is not going to let the Bills lose at home to the Patriots in a borderline must-win game. If that means rushing for 150 yards and taking countless massive hits you can bet your bottom dollar Allen will carry this team to victory. For the most part, Allen has had his way with Belichick’s defense and this week should be no different. Expect a dominant performance from him but an even more dominant performance from the quiet as of late Stefon Diggs. It’s time to get Diggs going and against this Patriots team and how they will likely play, Diggs should feast.
On the other side of the ball, it’s all about producing pressure and forcing silly throws. Ed Oliver can create that pressure by himself and with each passing moment it seems more and more likely he will be joined by DaQuan Jones, a duo that when healthy is towards the top of the league. Buffalo can win up front and if they do will rattle Zappe to put the ball into the air against a secondary and linebacking group that has the athleticism to jump some passes. Want a wild take? The home-field advantage provided by Bills Mafia this week will help the Bills produce at least three interceptions on path to a dominating victory.
Prediction: Bills 31 – Patriots 13
The Bills play down to their opponents at times but against a team like the Patriots in a game like this at home? Not going to happen. Buffalo’s defense dominates and Allen continues his dominant play with another three-touchdown day on the way to a Week 18 matchup with the Dolphins to decide the division. Buffalo can sniff its fourth consecutive AFC East title and the second seed in the conference, they aren’t letting the Patriots derail that.