Bills vs. Patriots prediction and keys to the emotionally super-charged game in Buffalo

ORCHARD PARK - In case anyone forgot - and given the events of the past week, no one would blame you - the Buffalo Bills have a pretty significant game to play Sunday afternoon.

Lost in the avalanche of emotions created by the scary scene that played out Monday night in Cincinnati when Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field due to cardiac arrest, the Bills are closing out one of the most fascinating regular seasons in team history with a chance to secure the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.

And how juicy is this? It happens to be against their arch rivals from the AFC East, the New England Patriots, who are playing for their postseason lives, at what will obviously be an emotionally super-charged Highmark Stadium.

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If the Patriots win, they’re in as the seventh seed, but if they lose, they need help elsewhere to get in through the back door. They would need the Dolphins losing to the Jets, the Steelers losing to the Browns, and the Titans losing to or tying the Jaguars. So, yeah, they really need to win.

Jump to: Sal's Bills vs Patriots prediction

But while the Bills are already AFC East champs, their stakes are massive, too. They need to Kansas City to lose Saturday night in Las Vegas to keep their top seed hopes alive, but even if the Chiefs win, a Bills victory would lock up the important No. 2 seed which means at least two home playoff games.

Josh Allen runs the ball against the New England Patriots in the first quarter in December.
Josh Allen runs the ball against the New England Patriots in the first quarter in December.

That’s important because if the Bills eventually make it to the AFC title game and the Chiefs lose in the divisional round, Buffalo would play host with a chance to qualify for Super Bowl 57.

Funny, though, even with all that going on, almost no one has said a word about the game because all attention has been laser-focused on the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where Hamlin is making a magnificent recovery.

That’s obviously great news for him, his family, and the entire Bills’ organization. And, to bring it back to football, it has certainly allowed the relieved team to divert its needed attention back to preparing for a game the Bills would love to win and dedicate to Hamlin.

“It's kind of like cramming for an exam that you probably waited until the last minute for, I think that's what we're trying to do right now,” general manager Brandon Beane said of the Bills’ shortened practice week. “These guys are pros. They'll be ready on Sunday.”

Here’s my preview of the game:

Buffalo Bills on offense: Josh Allen has owned the Patriots

Patriots safety Kyle Dugger has three defensive touchdowns this season.
Patriots safety Kyle Dugger has three defensive touchdowns this season.

Allen has been surgical in the last three meetings with New England counting the wild card game last year. He has completed 69.5% of his passes for 845 yards with 10 TDs and no interceptions. In the game at Foxborough on Dec. 1, he was 22 of 33 for 223 yards and helped the Bills control the ball for more than 38 minutes, even though there was some sloppiness in the middle of the game.

New England, with its outstanding pass rush led by Josh Uche who had two sacks that night (albeit with LT Dion Dawkins sidelined and replaced by David Quessenberry), put pressure on Allen, but he did a great job of escaping to find completions and that was a big reason why the Bills converted 9 of 15 third downs which led to the dominant time of possession. He was able to get Stefon Diggs involved, and that will again be imperative in this game. You could see on the first drive against the Bengals that Allen was looking for Diggs who has been in a bit of a rut lately.

The Patriots rank fourth in the NFL in lowest completion percentage allowed (61.6%) and lowest passer rating (82.3), largely because of their pass rush, but also because DBs such as Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jabrill Peppers, and Jonathan Jones have played well. Dugger, in particular, has been a force with three picks, two which he returned for TDs (he also has a fumble return TD), and 72 tackles.

Led by Dugger, this is a Patriots defense that has lived on big plays all year as it has scored a touchdown in four straight games, a first in team history and the first time an NFL team has done that since the 2002 Buccaneers. Overall, the Patriots have seven defensive TDs on the season, most in the NFL, and the way their offense has struggled all season, they’ve needed them all.

Buffalo Bills on defense: Get heat on Mac Jones

Mac Jones has beaten the Bills just once in four tries, and that was the fluky wind game at Highmark Stadium in 2021 when he threw only three passes.
Mac Jones has beaten the Bills just once in four tries, and that was the fluky wind game at Highmark Stadium in 2021 when he threw only three passes.

The Patriots QB plays at a functional, even successful level, when he can deliver to his first read, or at least have sufficient time in the pocket to get to his second read. But if a defense can get him out of that rhythm, he really struggles when things go off script.

In the earlier game, the Bills’ first without injured edge rusher Von Miller, they blitzed Jones on only three dropbacks yet still pressured him 39.5% of the time according to Pro Football Focus, and Jones was rendered helpless.

Before a meaningless end of game drive, Jones had only 129 yards passing and the Patriots had four three-and-out possessions. They finished with just 242 yards and 14 first downs. And 48 of those first 129 yards came on a screen pass to speedy defensive back Marcus Jones which resulted in their only TD of the game. It was the first time the rookie had played an offensive snap all year, so it caught the Bills off guard.

First and foremost, the Bills stifled RB Rhamondre Stevenson and never allowed him to get into the kind of flow that could take some of the burden off Jones. As the Bills built a 17-7 halftime lead, Stevenson had only 34 yards and finished with just 60. The Patriots need their running game working because it allows Jones to use more play action, but that night, that was never a factor.

For the Bills, stopping the run is the first step and if that happens, it’s awfully tough to see the Patriots having much success on offense.

Sal’s prediction: Buffalo Bills 23, New England Patriots 14

If Hamlin’s condition hadn’t improved the way it did in the past couple of days, I could have made a strong case that this was going to be a very difficult task for the Bills, trying to get motivated and prepared to play against an arch rival that needs to win to make the playoffs. The Bills were already on a short week with the Monday game in Cincinnati, then lost a day of practice because no one was ready to work with Hamlin in critical condition.

But now the pendulum has swung the other way, especially after the players had a Zoom call with Hamlin Friday morning which clearly energized them and had their spirits soaring. Hamlin’s situation will now likely be a rallying point for the Bills, and playing amidst what will be an uproarious atmosphere at home, the Bills should be able to stymie New England’s anemic offense and take care of business.

Bills vs. Patriots: News and notes

▶ You will notice various tributes around the league, particularly in Buffalo, to Hamlin. The Bills will wear a No. 3 patch on their jerseys and will wear hats with his number. Also, all clubs will be allowed to outline the 3 in each 30-yard line number on the field in either Bills red or blue. It is also expected that a pre-game announcement will be made in every stadium to thank the first responders and medical team for its care.

▶ The Bills placed Hamlin on the injured reserve list and activated CB Christian Benford off the list. He is expected to play Sunday.

▶ Buffalo ranks second in the NFL in total offense at 402.3 yards per game, while New England ranks 26th, averaging 312.9 yards per game. The Bills are averaging 28 points per game (fourth-most in the NFL) while the Patriots average 21.3 points (17th in the NFL).

▶ With a victory, the Patriots would secure their 36th winning season since the 1970 merger, second only to the Steelers’ 38.

▶ If he gains 14 rushing yards, Stevenson will become the first Patriot to reach 1,000 since LeGarrette Blount in 2016.

2022 Buffalo Bills schedule

Thursday, Sept. 8 at Rams, W 31-10

Monday, Sept. 19 vs. Titans, W 41-7

Sunday, Sept. 25 at Dolphins, L 19-21

Sunday, Oct. 2 at Ravens, W 23-20

Sunday, Oct. 9 vs. Steelers, W 38-3

Sunday, Oct. 16 at Chiefs, W 24-20

Sunday, Oct. 23 Bye week

Sunday, Oct. 30 vs. Packers, 8:20 p.m.

Sunday, Nov. 6 at Jets, L 17-20

Sunday, Nov. 13 vs. Vikings, L 30-33

Sunday, Nov. 20 vs. Browns, W 31-23

Thur. 11/24 at Lions, W 28-25

Thur. 12/1 at Patriots, W 24-10

Sun. 12/11 vs Jets, W 20-12

Sat. 12/17, vs. Dolphins, W 32-29

Sat. 12/24 at Bears, W 35-13

Mon. 1/2 at Bengals, ppd.

Sun. 1/8 vs. Patriots, 1 p.m.

Sal Maiorana can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.To subscribe to Sal's new twice-a-week newsletter, Bills Blast, please follow this link:

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Bills vs Patriots prediction, keys to emotionally super-charged game