If there is still any question as to who the top team in the AFC East is, it will be answered this weekend.
The No. 3 seeded Bills will play the No. 6 seed Patriots who earned a Wild Card spot despite dropping three of their last four games. Buffalo, meanwhile, is riding the momentum of a four-game win streak that includes a victory in Foxborough and three wins at home in Orchard Park.
The teams meet there in Western New York this Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET, with the chance to have the final say as to who the better squad is.
With that, here are three keys to a win for the Bills (11-6) against the Patriots (10-7):
Get Ahead Early And Build Lead
Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
A key to a win for the Bills offense will be to get out ahead and build an early lead they can add to over the game while protecting the ball.
The Patriots got the best of their first meeting of the season, a 14-10 win at Orchard Park in Week 13.
Then Allen went 30-for-47 passing for 314 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions and led all rushers adding 64 yards on the ground with 12 carries in a 33-21 victory over New England at Foxborough in Week 16.
Allen has put up the most yards per game in NFL playoff history among QB’s with at least two playoff wins, with 329.5 total offensive yards per game.
He figures to have an active day passing on Saturday considering how thin the Patriots are at CB. Not to mention that, while Stefon Diggs commands number-one receiver coverage from Patriots corner JC Jackson, Buffalo has plenty of offensive weapons to spread the ball around to.
The team will need to continue to be effective in the red zone, and on third and fourth down as well.
In their first meeting, the Bills went only one-for-four in red zone opportunities. In their second matchup, Allen had a career-high completing nine-of-fourteen passes on third and fourth down, and the offense went four-for-seven in the red zone in the win.
In fact, over their last four games, the Bills have finished 15 of their last 21 possessions in the end zone for a TD efficiency of better than 71% (71.4). That and their four touchdowns against the Patriots in Week 16 are an encouraging sign considering New England had the 2nd best red-zone defense in the NFL this season.
Allen’s abilities to be a threat and playmaker in the air or on the ground can make a big impact on getting on the scoreboard.
Plus the offensive line is playing better. In the last three games, Allen was sacked only once by the Falcons, and not at all by the Patriots or Jets. That will help give him time to make plays while warding off threats like New England LB Matthew Judon.
Buffalo opens as a 4.5-point favorite over New England, per Tipico Sportsbook. The Bills averaged 28.4 points per game on the season to the Patriots’ 27.2 point average, though Allen and company have been averaging 30 points during their last four games.
Their defense has been picking up even more steam in recent weeks as well which hopefully will limit New England’s impact on the scoreboard.
Be The Top Defense
Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
A key for the defense will be to limit the run game and force rookie QB Mac Jones to throw.
Should the offense get out ahead with a lead that requires New England to gradually abandon the run and turn to Mac Jones to pass in an attempt to get back in the game, the defense will have its chance at some turnovers in the air.
In his last four games, Jones completed just 59.9% of his passes with five interceptions to six touchdowns. In their Week 16 loss to the Bills Jones had his worse statistical game of the season.
The Pats RB’s ran for 222 against the Bills in their first meeting of the season, but only 149 in the second matchup. Containing RB Damien Harris and their run rotation will be key, as it will prompt more pass plays.
When Jones does go to the air, the Bills coverage will work to take away the middle from New England’s passing game. Forcing him to throw downfield and outside into tighter coverage, where the Bills secondary will look to lock up big-play efficiency targets like WR Kendrick Bourne.
If and when the Pats get into the red zone, covering top TD target TE Hunter Henry, and Harris on the ground, will be important in limiting their point production.
While New England has one of the top defenses in the league, Buffalo is who they are second to. The Bills have the top defense in completion percentage allowed, pass defense, yards per pass play, opponent passer rating, and passing touchdowns allowed.
Then there are the sacks.
Buffalo has had 47% of their total QB hits this season in their last four games, and 21 of their 42 sacks on the year during their past five games. Their 19 sacks in the final four weeks of the season led the NFL. Nine of those sacks took place in last week’s win over the Jets.
Defensive tackles Ed Oliver and Harrison Phillips are commanding the attention of opposing offensive lines by collapsing pockets, creating win-able one-on-one matchups for the Bills edge rotation. The pass rush has helped the Bills’ defense on third-down, which in the final month of the regular season was the best in the league at 20.8 percent.
They held opponents to 17 points on average this season and held them to 15 points on average during their four-game win streak. The Patriots offense, meanwhile, averaged 27.2 points per contest this season but only scored 14 and 21 against Buffalo in their prior matchups. What’s more, the Pats are averaging only 19 points in four out of the last five games.
If Buffalo continues to produce at the rate they’ve been playing, there will be no question by games end as to which team has the best defense in the NFL.
(AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)
Execution has been a frequently referenced word for the Bills this season.
Playoff games are win-or-go-home, and if that isn’t enough motivation there will be plenty available in this contest. The winner on Saturday sends the other team home for the year, and also gets the final say in the season series.
A key to victory for the Bills will be to channel their motivation into ball protection and adaptive, efficient execution.
They have a statistical edge in many respects, especially if they don’t “beat themselves” in the areas of ball protection and penalties.
It will be the third time these two clubs will have met, as they split their regular-season series with each team winning against the other on the road. Now, fresh off winning the AFC East, the Bills host the Patriots at Orchard Park again for a chance to redeem their home loss earlier in the season by securing one in the playoffs while having another final say on who is the better team.
And in the postseason, the Bills are 2-0 at home under Sean McDermott.
It’s also the first time they’ve met in the playoffs in the Super Bowl era. The only time the teams met in the postseason was in the division-round of the 1963 AFL playoffs when the Boston Patriots won 26-3 against the Bills.
Buffalo will have a chance to make NFL history this weekend with a win in what will also be the first wild-card road game of Bill Belichick’s career as a head coach.
This matchup will be the first time in NFL history that the two top-scoring defenses have faced off in the wild-card round. And it will be the fourth time in 20 postseasons that’s happened in any playoff round.
Unlike the Patriots, who traveled to Florida and Indiana in two of their last four games, the Bills have played four straight games in their cold-weather region. Three of those were home games, and they appear to have gotten comfortable enough to play in those temperatures and win games.
The windy weather that helped New England win by limiting the Bills passing attack in their first meeting, was not a deterrent in their second which the Bills won, and won’t be in this contest either despite subzero temperatures. During Buffalo’s win in the second matchup, Allen had one of the best games of his career.
And while he threw several picks against Atlanta, the Bills QB adjusted to taking to the ground beating them by two scores. He threw no interceptions against the Patriots or Jets and will be motivated to do the same on Saturday.
Buffalo will have no shortage of motivating factors.
They are winning and adapting as needed in order to execute and do what they need to in order to win. That motivation and adaptability will be key in the cold this Saturday as well as in what would be their prospective next playoff matchup, wherever and against whomever that might be.