Patriots vs. Bills preview: Which style will win out with AFC East on the line?

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  • Patrick Mahomes
    Patrick Mahomes
  • Josh Allen
    Josh Allen
    American football quarterback

Perry: AFC East race comes to a head with clash of contrasting styles originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It's not often we get divisional championship games in the AFC East, but Sunday's matchup between the Patriots and Bills comes damn close.

Consider this, according to FiveThirtyEight

  • If the Patriots win, their odds of winning the division shoot from where they are now at 67 percent to over 99 percent.

  • If the Patriots lose, their odds of winning the division drop from 67 percent all the way to 12 percent.

A week ago, prior to taking on the Colts in Indianapolis, the Patriots controlled their own destiny. Win out, and they were set to be the No. 1 seed in the conference with a bye in the postseason and home-field advantage throughout. Now they're a Sunday loss away from not only losing the bye but missing out entirely on a home playoff game.

Just like that. 

And while there's plenty of meat to this matchup -- we'll unwrap it methodically as we go here -- it feels as though there's a philosophical battle to be waged at Gillette Stadium because these two teams have approached their team-building strategy so differently.

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Which method wins this time of year? Leaning on the superhero quarterback? Or attacking with balance?

On championship weekend last year, the answer felt like an easy one. The four best quarterbacks in the league, arguably, were the last left standing: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.

You were either a have or a have not at the game's most important position. And if you were on the wrong end of that equation, you might as well have had your vacation plans settled for late January.

This year, though, it feels as though there has been a bit of a shift. It feels as though you have to have the ability to win in multiple ways. 

Yes, Brady, Rodgers and Mahomes remain at the top of their divisions. But Kansas City has the ability to win games defensively and has in weeks when Mahomes has been kept under wraps. Ditto for the Packers, who now have a top-10 defense to pair with their star signal-caller. The Bucs, already dealing with myriad injuries defensively, were shut out last week when they lost their most explosive playmakers.

Meanwhile, playoff contenders like the Patriots, Colts and Titans look like they're built to win when the weather is nasty. They have defenses that reside in the top half of the league in points allowed. They want to run the ball. And as teams have gotten faster and deployed smarter game plans that take away deep passes to limit the explosive aerial attacks in Buffalo and Kansas City, hard-nosed, old-school offenses that have benefited as a result.

So it seems as though there's another way to skin the NFL postseason cat. But that's what makes this matchup between the Patriots and Bills so fascinating. It'll provide us with a more definitive answer to what wins this time of year... In the Northeast... With the division on the line... 

I think there's a shift happening in the NFL that favors the balanced and the tough. And I think there's one team with a clear-cut edge in that regard.

Phil Perry

We should have a better indication than we do, but the first matchup between these two clubs featured conditions that would be considered of the outlier variety, even for Western New York in December. 

It could be that the team with the distinct advantage in the trenches -- which the Patriots have on both sides of the ball -- bullies its way to a bounce-back victory. It could be that an otherworldly talent at the game's most important position simply can't be stopped.

What do I think? I think there's enough evidence to suggest that the game is changing. I think there's a shift happening in the NFL that favors the balanced and the tough. And I think there's one team with a clear-cut edge in that regard.

Prediction: Patriots 23, Bills 20


X-Factor: Josh Allen's legs

It would be ridiculous to say, "No point in protecting your quarterback from the big shot in this one!" Josh Allen is the definition of a long-term investment for the Bills. But the fact remains that his ability to run the football is one of the most dynamic pieces to their offensive attack. And with the division on the line... it might be time to pull out all the stops with their designed quarterback runs. 

Allen ran for 109 yards to help keep the Bills close against the Bucs two weeks ago, and he may be leaned on again to carry the load in more ways than one when he visits Foxboro. Hits be damned.

Devin McCourty knows he and his teammates have to be ready for those types of play-calls from Buffalo offensive coordinator and former Patriots assistant Brian Daboll. 

"The fake bubble screen, QB draw," McCourty said. "Or they run a crack toss with him running. Those designed QB runs, if you're not on top of it, you look up, they have an extra guy because the quarterback is running, that ball can be into the secondary and it can be 15 or 20 yards before anyone's close to them. Those are the plays you gotta be prepared for." 

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"When the quarterback is one-dimensional it makes the game a whole lot easier unless they're those generational quarterbacks like the Bradys, Mannings, guys like that," Adrian Phillips said earlier this week. "Of the new-age quarterbacks, if you can make them one-dimensional then... When you get a guy who's confident in his running ability it makes it that much harder because you're covering for five, six seconds and then he might break the pocket and run for 30 yards. 

"Last game we played them, we were covering, we thought we had good coverage and then boom next thing you know you blink, and he's 30 yards down the field. It just makes you that much more tired and it makes you that much more irritated because you have those chances to get off the field, but with a guy like that who's super mobile, he just finds a way to get it done.

"When he's confident, when he's standing in the pocket tall, and he's able to see those reads and he's able to take off whenever he feels like it, it's a long game for the defense."

Number to know: 2

The Bills' dynamic duo at safety had but three opportunities to make an impact on the passing game in the first matchup. That number should see a significant bump this weekend, which means Mac Jones will have his hands full. 

Sean McDermott's offense has long been known as a zone team that disguises well, and Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde have given the Patriots -- even with Tom Brady behind center -- fits at times because of their ability to do a little bit of everything.

On one snap, Poyer and Hyde both may stay in the deep portion of the field. On the next, Poyer may spin down into the box with Hyde staying deep or vice versa. On the next, one of the pair may lurk low pre-snap and then sprint to the deep portion of the field. Both can blitz. Both are impactful against the run. 

Suffice to say, it's a challenge, particularly for a rookie quarterback. And particularly for a rookie quarterback who plays in a system where routes are adjusted based on coverage looks. If he and his wideouts don't see things through the same set of eyes, it could lead to disaster.

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That's why the injury situation at receiver in New England is worth monitoring. If Nelson Agholor (concussion) or Kendrick Bourne (COVID-19/reserve list) can't go, that'll mean Jones is without two of the wideouts with whom he has a sizable number of game-day reps.

N'Keal Harry has also been limited in practice this week with a hip issue. The ability for Jones and his pass-catchers to be on the same page could be stressed if it's Gunner Olszewski or practice-squadders Kristian Wilkerson and Tre Nixon. 

"You gotta be ready to go, gotta do that for your team," Olszewski said this week. "That's why we're here every day. Guys you don't see making plays on Sunday, I'm sure they're working on it in practice Wednesday through Friday. Me myself, I'm the same way, I try to work on everything I can to be ready when the team needs...

"We're practicing like we always do. Maybe getting a little more reps here and there but we don't feel shorthanded, I'll say that."