- WHERE: Gillette Stadium (Foxborough, Mass.)
- WHEN: 8:15 p.m. ET | Prime Video, NFL+
Call it the Tom Brady curse. For many years -- nearly two whole decades -- the Patriots dominated the Bills in a way few franchises have been able to do to a division rival.
From the moment Brady took over as Patriots starter in 2001 to his final season with the team in 2019, the Patriots went 34-4 in games against the Bills. In Foxborough, it was even worse: The Patriots won all 17 games with Brady starting and finishing the game in that span.
But the times have changed. Now the Patriots are the ones in the stalking position and the Bills are the team with the superstar quarterback.
Josh Allen hasn’t quite been on his early-season MVP track, but in his past five games against the Patriots (including playoffs), he’s completed 66.7% of his passes, thrown for 1,241 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception while rushing for 227 yards and one score.
So heading into Thursday night’s crucial matchup of the Bills going on the road to face the Patriots, we must consider Buffalo to be the dominant team in the relationship.
The Bills don’t have much margin for error in their chase for the AFC East crown, with the Miami Dolphins sharing their 8-3 record and the Jets just a game behind at 7-4 (with a head-to-head win over the Bills, to boot). They’ve also endured a wild stretch recently that included back-to-back losses and two wins in Detroit (one a “home” game) in a four-day stretch.
But the Patriots might have even less room for error at 6-5 with a tough schedule ahead of them, including a Week 18 rematch in Buffalo. Mac Jones and the offense got on track early on Thanksgiving before faltering late in a tough road loss last Thursday.
Here are four things to watch for when the Bills visit the Patriots on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Bills defense has one star back in the lineup, one out. In a big blow to the Bills, pass rusher Von Miller will miss Thursday’s game. They signed him for games such as this, so it will be up to Greg Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa and Boogie Basham to help pick up the slack. The Patriots have cycled through offensive linemen like mad this season, even benching former first-rounders, guard Cole Strange and tackle Isaiah Wynn at different points this season. Center David Andrews also missed last week’s game and is questionable for this one. Mac Jones has been sacked 19 times in his past 150 dropbacks, so the pass-rushing opportunities should be there. In Thursday’s win over the Lions, Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White saw his first action of the season -- 16 snaps on defense -- and figures to have a chance at playing extensively in this one. This would be White’s first game against the Patriots since Dec. 28, 2020, after missing all of last season with an ACL injury, as well. New England’s ability to throw the ball will be key, as it will be missing running back Damien Harris and can only ask Rhamondre Stevenson to do so much as a runner with how involved he’s been in the pass game lately.
- Patriots must heat up the pass rush against Josh Allen. New England has a highly ranked defense that has taken over several games this season. But there has been a clear disparity between their results versus the best quarterbacks and the ones below that mark. Talented QBs and high-powered offenses haven’t had their way with the Patriots, but they’ve had far more success against them this season than lesser ones by a wide margin. One inconsistent group has been the pass-rush unit up front. The loss of defensive tackle Christian Barmore has hurt the interior pressure, and though Matt Judon has been mostly excellent this season as an outside rusher, there have been too many games where other Patriots have not stepped up in this department. Nine of their 37 sacks came against a feckless Colts team. And those inconsistencies stretch back to the three Bills games a season ago. Allen was sacked twice on 32 dropbacks in Week 13 a year ago, but he was not sacked and hit only five times in 72 dropbacks in the Week 16 game and the playoff battle combined. The Patriots can’t let Allen dictate the game with his arm and legs, must throw him off rhythm and get him off his spots and need to generate turnover-worthy chances to have a shot.
- Bills come in struggling in the red zone. The Bills were the NFL’s No. 1-ranked red-zone offense in 2021, scoring touchdowns 66.3% of the time in the regular season. But things have trended far more negatively in 2022, as the Bills have turned the ball over a league-worst six times in that part of the field -- nearly three times as many as they had a year ago, in nearly double the plays. Things were better in this department when the Bills converted three of four red-zone chances in the Thanksgiving win over the Lions. But they were only 9 of 20 in the three games prior, two of which ended in losses (including the Vikings loss, which ended with an overtime INT in the end zone). Part of the struggles have come from Allen trusting his arm strength too much, believing he can thread the eye of any tight-window needle. The Patriots will be mindful of this. Allen has had pretty good success against the Patriots converting in that area of the field, not taking sacks and not turning the ball over, in the last few meetings. The Patriots gladly will let the Bills move down the field readily if it means holding them to field goals and making one or two big plays near the end zone.
- Patriots also need to fix their secondary quickly. New England ranks ninth in passing yards allowed per game (198.5), sixth in yards per pass play allowed (6.05) and third in INT percentage (3.32%). But last week, this was a group that mostly played poorly. Jonathan Jones had two pass breakups and an interception, but was torched a few times by the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson. Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger made a few plays, but it was hard to find the bright side from a pretty dismal performance overall. Even Devin McCourty seemed to get picked on multiple times. The Patriots know that won’t cut it against Allen and the Bills. Jones often marks Stefon Diggs, but who will cover Gabe Davis? And what about Isaiah McKenzie, who was the secret weapon in the Bills’ dominant win in Foxborough last year? Germain to the pass-rush section, it’s certainly possible that the Patriots opt to rush three and four often, playing more coverage than anything else. But Allen also demands a spy in certain spots, so New England must be sharp, assignment-wise, to slow down this high-powered group that now has full confidence it can go into Gillette Stadium and drop 30-plus points.