Keys to the game and Sal’s prediction for Buffalo Bills vs New England Patriots

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  • Buffalo Bills
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No one who calls themselves a Buffalo Bills fan was prepared for the team they loathe like no other, the New England Patriots, to so quickly get back to being, well, the New England Patriots.

“Tell me if you’ve heard this story before," Tony Dungy said last week on Football Night in America. "The New England Patriots have a smart, accurate quarterback who makes plays and doesn’t make mistakes. They’re playing physical on defense, they play great in the red zone, they get takeaways, they’re the most consistent team in the AFC and they’re looking toward the No. 1 seed.”

When Tom Brady bolted for the Bucs last year and led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl championship, Bill Belichick’s team could not overcome that massive loss and suffered through a 7-9 season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Fun times, indeed, because in their place, the Bills rose to the top of the AFC East with a 13-3 record, and the assumption was that this was Buffalo’s time now, an opportunity to rule the division for at least a little while as the Patriots scrambled to rebuild.

Well, the Patriots have been rebuilt. Already. They are the hottest team in the NFL as they enter Monday night’s showdown at Highmark Stadium riding a six-game winning streak and yes, they are leading the AFC East by a half-game over the Bills.

“Yeah, they're in first place,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said on more than one occasion this past week. “They won this division, what, 17 of 19 years before last season, something like that. They're playing complimentary football; they've got one of the best coaches, if not the best coach to ever coach the game; got a great young quarterback; playing really well on defense, special teams as well. So they're where they're at for a reason.”

More Buffalo Bills: Dane Jackson will be on the spot as he replaces injured Tre'Davious White

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McDermott’s “first-place-Patriots” message seemed calculated, as if he was using that phrasing as a way to give his players a little extra kick in the pants. He denied it, of course, saying to reporters, “With the job that you guys do every week in social media, I don't think they fall short of information at their fingertips.”

It was a nice deflection, but McDermott was making a point. He knows his team was talked about as the heavy favorite in the AFC East before the season began, and it only got louder after Buffalo’s win in Kansas City. But since then, the Bills have gone 3-3, the Patriots are rolling and have stolen much of that thunder, and McDermott wanted to remind his team of that.

Here’s my preview of the game:

1. Which of these teams will succeed in the elements?

Damien Harris lead the Patriots with 643 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Damien Harris lead the Patriots with 643 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.

As we know, weather can be just a bit unpredictable in these parts at this time of the year so the terrible advance forecast for Monday night with outrageous wind and possibly some mix of early rain and late snow may never materialize. But in the likelihood that it does, that could be problematic for the Bills offense.

We’ve banged this drum all season about the Bills running game: They don’t have one outside of Josh Allen’s occasional bursts on a designed keeper or scramble. Thus, if the wind makes it difficult for the passing game to function, what do the Bills do? Are they really going to be able to move the ball with Allen running and/or handing off to some combination of Devin Singletary, Matt Breida and Zack Moss?

The Patriots are far better equipped to play in lousy weather because they can pound it on the ground with their productive duo of RBs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson operating behind an accomplished, veteran and tough offensive line. And when offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels asks rookie QB Mac Jones to pass, most of the concepts will be short throws to backs and tight ends that are more easily managed in high winds.

Once upon a time Bills fans liked to think their team always had the advantage in bad weather. Well, that was back when they had Thurman Thomas and a competent line. These Bills have neither, even with the expected return of RT Spencer Brown and LG Jon Feliciano.

Allen does, however, have the much stronger arm in the QB comparison with Mac Jones, as was noted by TE Dawson Knox.

“When you can throw like he can, he can cut through the wind no matter how strong it's going,” Knox said. “Also, the forecast has changed three times in the last three days, you know how Orchard Park is. So, by game time there might be zero mile per hour winds. If for some reason it's a tornado out there on the field, we'll have to run the ball a little bit better. But we have confidence and Josh, all the confidence in the world, that he'll be able to get the job done no matter if it's 30 mile per hour winds or zero.”

2. It’s a cliché, but turnovers may decide this game

Patriots J.C. Jackson returns an interception agains the Bills.
Patriots J.C. Jackson returns an interception agains the Bills.

Every team repeats the mantra every week: Win the turnover battle and you usually win the game, and they aren’t wrong because it very often plays out like that. And in an expected bad weather game, if your defense can get a takeaway and provide a short field for the offense, that could result in a monumental swing.

The Bills and Patriots have been adept all year at forcing turnovers as they are tied for second in the NFL with 25 apiece. Buffalo has turned around and scored 74 points on the possession immediately following a takeaway while New England has scored 69. But here’s something else. Six of the Patriots takeaways came in the red zone and took probable points off the scoreboard, while the Bills have four red zone takeaways.

New England has been particularly opportunistic during its win streak as 17 takeaways have come in that span for a plus-13 margin. It has four in each of the last two games and no team since the Ravens in 2010-11 has had three straight games with at least four takeaways.

One of the key players Allen needs to be wary of is CB J.C. Jackson who was just named AFC defensive player of the month for November when he had four picks including an 88-yard TD and one forced fumble. He will likely be glued to Stefon Diggs in a premier matchup. Last year, Jackson had nine interceptions, one coming in the game at Buffalo. In the rematch in Foxborough, Diggs had a huge night with nine catches for 145 yards and three TDs, so there’s some history between these two.

3. Proving time for the Bills defense

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones throws through traffice against the Falcons last month.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones throws through traffice against the Falcons last month.

The numbers look great as the Bills rank first in the NFL in fewest yards allowed and second in points allowed, but as we know, they’ve also faced a litany of bad quarterbacks and bad offenses. The Patriots don’t have a high-powered offense, but they certainly have an efficient one that ranks 14th in yards and seventh in points.

Jones has enjoyed a tremendous rookie season and was just named NFL offensive rookie of the month for November. In four games, all wins, Jones completed 76.8% of his passes for 854 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions for a 117.2 QB rating which is the highest in the NFL in that span.

He has lived on high-percentage throws, a big reason why his 70.3 completion percentage ranks third in the NFL this season. The Patriots do an excellent job in the screen game because they have athletic linemen and tight ends who can get out in space and move people downfield, but lately, Jones has pushed the ball further and he has really made a connection with WRs Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne. Those two have a combined 101 catches for 1,243 yards and six TDs, and now they won’t have to deal with star Bills CB Tre’Davious White.

In what could be a low-scoring game, the Bills defense won’t have much wiggle room and it needs to have a big night against a Patriots offense that is well-schemed.

4. Other key points to consider in Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots matchup

New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85) makes a catch for a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns during the first half at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 14, 2021.
New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85) makes a catch for a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns during the first half at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 14, 2021.

► Since the start of 2019, the Patriots lead the NFL with 62 interceptions. They led the NFL in 2019, tied for the lead in 2020, and are tied again for the top spot with the Cowboys at 19 and three of those have been returned for TDs. In other words, Allen, who has thrown seven picks in the last four games, needs to be careful.

► Coming off a four-TD game, Allen has now accounted for 28 total TDs this season running and passing, second in the league to Tom Brady who has 31.

► The top two scoring tight ends are playing in this game as Buffalo’s Dawson Knox and New England’s Hunter Henry are tied for the league lead at the position with seven TDs each.

► The Bills have held opposing quarterbacks to a QB rating of 62.8 this season, which is the lowest in the NFL. Opposing QBs are only completing 57.6% of their passes, which also leads the NFL. Of course, all that was achieved with White on the field.

► The Patriots have a league-best 146 point scoring differential and the Bills are second at 144. The Pats are plus-68 in winning all five of their road games.

► The Patriots have not allowed a second-half point in a team-record four straight games, while the Bills have scored 176 second-half points and rank seventh in the league in fourth-quarter scoring at 8.5 points per game.

► Two of the best kickers in the league will be tested in the conditions. The Patriots' Nick Folk leads the NFL with 122 points and has made 31 of 34 field goals though he’s only 29 of 33 on extra points. Folk has made 50 straight kicks inside 50 yards dating to last year which is an NFL record. Buffalo’s Tyler Bass is fourth with 94 points and has made 20 of 23 field goals and all 34 of his PATs.

Sal’s prediction: New England Patriots 20, Buffalo Bills 17

I just don’t like the matchup for the Bills given the expected weather and the way the Patriots have been playing lately. New England is one of the most physical teams in the NFL in the trenches, and the Bills have been exposed a little this season when they’ve gone up against teams who win at the line of scrimmage.

Offensively with a line that includes the likes of Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Ted Karras, the Patriots have the edge up front, even if Star Lotulelei is back at DT. And then on defense, edge rusher Matthew Judon and DT Christian Barmore have been dominant players and the Bills’ line, even if it’s back at full strength, will have its hands full, especially when you factor in players like linemen Deatrich Wise and Lawrence Guy and LBs Dont’a Hightower and Chase Winovich.

The Bills are better at the skill positions, but this feels like a game where toughness will be more important than skill.

How to watch, listen to Buffalo Bills vs New England Patriots game

When: 8:15 p.m. Monday

Where: Highmark Stadium

TV: ESPN (Steve Levy, Louis Riddick, Lisa Salters)

Satellite radio: Sirius 83, XM 225

Radio: 96.5 FM/950 AM

Series: Patriots lead 76-45-1 counting playoffs

Tipico betting line: Bills -2.5

Talking points

Bill Belichick was not a happy man last year in the two games his Patriots lost to the Bills.
Bill Belichick was not a happy man last year in the two games his Patriots lost to the Bills.

► Patriots coach Bill Belichick on Josh Allen: “His improvement has just been tremendous. Where it was three years ago, completion percentage, passer rating, decision making, production ... it's risen at a really remarkable rate. It's just remarkable how good he has become. Last year, this year, he's built on that, what it was when he came into the league, but he's really made tremendous improvement and has a lot of command of the offense.”

► Patriots QB Mac Jones on his year spent with Brian Daboll at Alabama: “I think Dabes is a great coach. I was very young at the time, but he coached me really hard. He taught me a lot about football. He's a great offensive coordinator and a great person. To get to know him was awesome, and I know he's done a really good job there.”

► Patriots OC Josh McDaniels on Bills defense: “This is the best group we’ve played all year. We don’t play a group that’s more connected than this one. Whatever the call is, all 11 guys know exactly what their role is on the call and they never make a mistake it seems. They just don’t give up many easy plays and they’re one of the best teams we’ll play this year in terms of limiting big production. They force you to be disciplined, they force you to execute play after play, they force you to drive the football.”

NFL rankings

Bills Patriots

Total offense: 389.3 yards (5th); 353.3 (14th)

Rush offense: 118.3 yards (11th); 115.3 (12th)

Pass offense: 271.0 (7th); 240.0 (14th)

Points scored: 29.6 (T2nd); 28.0 (7th)

Total defense: 275.2 yards (1st); 316.7 (4th)

Rush defense: 96.6 yards (6th); 115.8 (20th)

Pass defense: 178.5 yards (2nd); 200.9 (3rd)

Points allowed: 16.5 (2nd); 15.8 (1st)

Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots individual leaders

Rushing

Bills: Devin Singletary 98 carries, 459 yards; Josh Allen 69-383; Zack Moss 75-265; Matt Breida 21-109; Emmanuel Sanders 2-31; Mitchell Trubisky 10-27; Isaiah McKenzie 5-27.

Patriots: Damien Harris 154-643; Rhamondre Stevenson 76-351; Brandon Bolden 26-141; Kendrick Bourne 6-78; Mac Jones 27-71.

Passing

Bills: Josh Allen 274 of 410, 3,071 yards, 25 TDs,10 interceptions.

Patriots: Mac Jones 268 of 381, 2,850 yards, 16 TDs, 8 interceptions.

Receiving

Bills: Stefon Diggs 67 catches, 847 yards; Cole Beasley 62-530; Emmanuel Sanders 36-559; Dawson Knox 31-415; Devin Singletary 26-118; Gabriel Davis 17-312; Zack Moss 18-166; Tommy Sweeney 9-44; Matt Breida 6-67.

Patriots: Jakobi Meyers 59-620; Kendrick Bourne 42-623; Hunter Henry 35-394; Nelson Agholor 32-416; Brandon Bolden 31-296; Jonnu Smith 25-259; Damien Harris 13-84; Rhamondre Stevenson 12-117; James White 12-94; N’Keal Harry 8-117.

2021 Buffalo Bills schedule

9/12 vs. Steelers, L 16-23

9/19 at Dolphins, W 35-0

9/26 vs. Washington, W 43-21

10/3 vs. Texans, W 40-0

10/10 at Chiefs, W 38-20

10/18 at Titans, L 31-34

10/24 Bye week

10/31 vs. Dolphins, W 26-11

11/7 at Jaguars, L 6-9

11/14 at Jets, W 45-17

11/21 vs. Colts, L 15-41

11/25 at Saints, W 31-6

12/6 vs. Patriots, 8:15 p.m.

12/12 at Buccaneers, 4:25 p.m.

12/19 vs. Panthers, 1 p.m.

12/26 at Patriots, 1 p.m.

1/2 vs. Falcons, 1 p.m.

1/9 vs. Jets, 1 p.m.

Sal Maiorana can be reached at maiorana@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Buffalo Bills vs New England Patriots: Predictions, Keys to game