If you had asked me about this game at the start of the season, I’d have said Buffalo easily wins with a near-lock on the division. You’d get the same answer about a month ago when there was a legitimate debate about who should be New England’s starting quarterback. But here we are. Buffalo's eyes are on the Super Bowl, while the Patriots have a shot at sneaking into the playoffs.
Week 13 kicks off with an AFC East battle with more intrigue than any expected coming into the year.
The AFC East race tightens up as Bills travel to Foxborough
Buffalo is still one of the best teams in the AFC. Josh Allen is third in EPA per play. The Bills defense ranks third in defense DVOA. They have the fourth-highest odds of winning the Super Bowl, but everything feels more difficult than it should three months into the season.
That game-winning drive and embrace after the field goal remind me of how Allen looked after the Dolphins’ game. But the Bills didn’t have to run 86 plays in 90-degree weather. And yet the match still required heroics from the best QB-WR duo in the league. However, I’m not as concerned as I was two weeks ago.
When the Josh Allen UCL news came out, I expected a noticeable shift in the offense. Any adjustment to Allen's ailment would've been reasonable, whether it be shorter passes or a drop in pass rate. However, Buffalo is still sixth in pass rate over expected, and Allen’s 8.7 air yards per attempt are seventh-most. So overall, the Bills still have a high-volume, aggressive aerial attack.
But the flaws become obvious when watching the game.
Allen leads the league in red-zone turnovers and is second in sacks since Week 10. His efficiency across the middle of the field has regressed, giving rise to more throws outside the numbers. A few more designed runs might do the trick once they’re in scoring position. However, I wonder how combative Buffalo will need to be against the Patriots offense.
If this version of Mac Jones shows up, we’re in for a wild night:
Jones entered Week 12 with two completed passes of 20 or more air yards since retaking the starting job. He completed four similar throws on Thanksgiving. He’s had an aDOT less than 5.0 in three straight games, but it was 8.6 against the Vikings. The only consistent change is his play-action rate, up to 23.4 percent compared to his 10.8% rate at the start of the season. They’re less predictable on offense, but, unfortunately, so is their defense.
I first thought of Allen’s history against Bill Belichick when I saw this matchup. Allen had more interceptions than touchdowns against the Patriots for his first two seasons. Between the future hall-of-fame head coach and the personnel, they had Allen’s number.
But Allen’s a clear MVP candidate now. And while New England’s defense may be ranked sixth in EPA per play, those numbers demand a closer look.
I’ll give them this. They know how to take advantage of weak opponents. They got Jared Goff with an injured Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jacoby Brissett in his sixth start the week after. Then, they went on a spree of career-altering contests with Zach Wilson and Sam Ehlinger now (mercifully) benched and Frank Reich watching the Colts play from home. If "Prime-Time" Kirk Cousins can put on a show against this unit, Buffalo will keep the pressure on Jones to move the offense.
Damien Harris is out. Practice reports indicate Jakobi Meyers will play. I’ve got thoughts on how the offense will operate below, but it all comes down to Jones. If he can take advantage of Buffalo’s defensive tendencies, the Patriots have a chance to pull off the upset.
Points of Interest in TNF
Go, Go, Gadget McKenzie
Buffalo needed another ancillary option outside of their primary receiving duo. Dawson Knox has sometimes stepped in, but we haven’t seen much of Isaiah McKenzie since his return from injury. So, naturally, he showed up in primetime. However, it’s easy to see why many (myself included) were surprised at his big day.
McKenzie’s target share and route utilization skyrocketed on Thanksgiving. He was second in targets, but his peripherals make him difficult to project. Stefon Diggs and James Cook earned more looks on throws of ten yards or less. McKenzie had the same number of third-down touches as Diggs and Gabe Davis. He’s still a gadget receiver because we (or the defense) don’t know when he’ll pop up for a long gain. So, without separating in any area (except in the touchdown column), his role remains uncertain headed into TNF.
But clearly, he’s a positive for the offense. He ran the most routes out of the slot, and any concern for Allen’s elbow would benefit McKenzie. Regardless, I’m interested to see if he maintains his opportunity share from last week or if the targets shift to the other pass-catchers.
It’s All On Rhamondre
I often wonder how large our fantasy bubble is. Rhamondre Stevenson was the popular Patriot rusher to draft, with fantasy managers hoping he’d take over the backfield, or at least handle the majority of the touches. He was eighth in yards per route run last season on 18 targets. We banked on Stevenson developing as a rusher to earn more work, and he’s shown to be as capable a runner as Harris.
In six games, Stevenson has played 70.0% or more of the offensive snaps. Harris and Stevenson are similar efficiency-wise based on their yards after contact and EPA numbers. However, the sophomore has all the fringe benefits.
On the season, Stevenson is 13th in explosive runs despite being the heavier of the duo. His 18 long gains on the ground are just five short of the team’s completion total on deep passes. He is their playmaker. But Stevenson isn’t just swinging for the fences on each handoff. He can mix in some singles, too.
Stevenson leads the team in rushing first downs and is behind only Meyers in looks on third down. With Harris out and Meyers nursing a shoulder injury, I wonder how much the Patriots will lean on Stevenson.
The Bills are 25th in rushing success rate allowed over their last month of games, and Jones is ahead of only Zach Wilson in adjusted completion percentage under pressure. We’ll take the short-yardage check downs, but Stevenson’s rushing ability may be the key to keeping Jones upright and the offense moving.
But Don’t Bench These Guys
Similar to the last couple of weeks, I’ll keep the recommendations reasonable. We shouldn’t need to go too far off the beaten path with either offense. Plus, the pressure of the fantasy playoffs makes every decision all the more important. So, I’ll try to balance a safe floor with a relative ceiling in two players I like for tonight’s game.
Fantasy managers were already looking for a reason to bench Davis, and then we see him usurped by McKenzie in prime time. His 38-yard outing in a down-to-the-wire matchup continued a two-game slide with similar results earlier in the month. But, despite the poor results, his usage isn’t any different than it has been throughout the season.
Davis’ route utilization and target share have ebbed and flowed all year. With just three slot targets, his perimeter role invites additional volatility. Buffalo’s high pass rate may give Davis a floor, but the volume doesn’t equate to a consistent ceiling, as we see for Diggs.
But we’ve seen receivers with a similar archetype be successful against the Patriots this season.
Donovan Peoples-Jones (5-74-0) and Josh Reynolds (10-92-0) had positive results against New England. Coincidentally, both played alongside primary receivers with high-end route-running ability from the interior. Diggs should put the defense in conflict at the intermediate area of the field, creating space for Davis to work deep for big gains tonight.
OK, I know what I said at the start of this section; I promised I wouldn’t go off the board, but I couldn’t help myself. Boxscore scouts will look at Nelson Agholor’s targets and chase the points. However, Agholor earned over half his yards on one deep shot from Jones. New England will need more than a deep threat to keep the offense moving, and Parker can work the same area of the field as Meyers.
Take last week, for example. The highlights go to Agholor and Hunter Henry, but Jones hit Parker for a 40-yard gain before Henry’s overturned touchdown. While at the bottom of the team in targets, Parker led the team in receiving yards. But, in typical fashion, his injuries have kept him from being a reliable option.
His last start came in Week 7 against Chicago, when he dominated the team’s air yards and was second in targets. It’s a four-game sample, but a healthy Parker leads the team in routes and receiving yards with Jones under center. If Meyers’ injury keeps him from a full complement of snaps, expect Parker to pick up the slack against Buffalo’s secondary.