BILLS // PATRIOTS OVERVIEW
Josh Allen and The Great Backyard Offense will take the most entertaining show in football on the road, where they will match up against a Patriots team that has lost back-to-back December games for the first time since cavemen walked the earth. This is a meaningless game for the play-hard Bills, while the Patriots need a win here in order to maintain a shot at a first-round bye. This game has been awarded an early-week Over/Under of 44.5, with the Patriots installed as 13.0 point favorites.
BILLS PASS OFFENSE
Last week, my Main Roster bet on the idea that the Bills would lean pass-heavy with LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory both out of action and pass-catching back Marcus Murphy in the lead role (I was rolling with Allen // McKenzie // Foster on my main team regardless, but this bet dropped me from Julian Edelman down to Zay Jones, and “allowed me to get up” from Jaylen Samuels to Leonard Fournette — a swing-and-miss that cost me a big weekend) — and even with the Bills passing the ball on a shockingly low 42.19% of their plays, Allen and Foster outproduced their salaries, while McKenzie provided useful low-cost results once again. (Have I mentioned how fun this offense is? Yeah.) This week, the chances of the Bills controlling the game and leaning run-heavy from start to finish are lessened against a Patriots team that should be able to take and hold a lead. If this proves to be the case, we could see a less in-control Allen than we saw last week — which would be an Allen A) likelier to make mistakes, and B) likelier to take downfield, upside-producing shots.
From a matchup perspective, things shape up well for Allen under center, as the Patriots have allowed the ninth most passing yards and the 10th most quarterback rushing yards in the league. With the Patriots tightening up so well against the run near the end zone, they have also allowed the league’s fourth most passing touchdowns (tied with the Falcons, Dolphins, and Bengals).
On a per-pass basis, the Patriots have been a tough matchup for wide receivers this year, with a low 60.3% completion rate allowed to the position, and with a yards per attempt mark to wideouts of only 7.4. When the Pats miss in coverage, however, their man-heavy coverage scheme sets them up to miss big, with only eight teams in the league allowing more pass plays of 20+ yards this year. This sets up well for Robert Foster, who has target counts of 8 // 5 since Kelvin Benjamin was cut, while playing an every-down role in this offense. Foster continues to see looks both short and deep — and while he does have some boom/bust to his role, he is now sitting on four games of 90+ yards in his last five.
McKenzie continues to see manufactured touches in the run game, which he pairs with underneath work — yielding solid floors but low ceilings outside of touchdown production so far. McKenzie does have enough speed, and the Bills run into enough scramble drills, that he maintains some big-play upside. He also maintains a price that undersells his recent floor.
Zay fails to separate from tight coverage, which could make things difficult on him against the tight coverage of the Patriots. There is really no telling whether the Patriots will stick Stephon Gilmore on Zay or on Foster, but Jason McCourty has been almost equally tough on wideouts this year. Each receiver has a shot at beating this matchup, but Foster’s chances are higher.
The tight ends continue to operate with limited roles in this attack, locking the wideouts into clear and consistent volume.
BILLS RUN OFFENSE
LeSean McCoy appears on track to return this week after his one-game absence, bringing up a matchup against a New England team that ranks 31st in yards allowed per carry. Given what they showed us last week, we should expect the Bills to lean on the run for as long as they can in this one, opening opportunities for Shady to matter if he can get up to 16 or 17 carries. Working against him is A) a quarterback who prefers to throw downfield or tuck the ball and run rather than dumping the ball off to running backs, and B) a Patriots defense that has allowed the second fewest rushing touchdowns in the league to running backs. Consider Shady to be an upside play with an unattractive floor.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
One underrated set of statistics demonstrating how strong this Buffalo pass defense has been this year is volume, with only three teams in the NFL facing fewer pass attempts than the Bills. Part of this has been due to game flow — but a much larger part has been a Buffalo pass defense that has allowed the third fewest yards per pass attempt in the league. The Bills shave 8.8% off the league-average aDOT, and only one team allows a lower YAC/R rate than Buffalo. The Bills have given up the second fewest pass plays of 20+ yards, and they have been especially tough on wide receivers, allowing the fewest yards to the position (impressively doing so even with seven teams allowing fewer receptions). Only six teams have allowed fewer wide receiver touchdowns than the Bills have allowed this year.
The Patriots are typically content to “play the matchup” on offense — attacking an opponent’s weakness, rather than attacking their strength — but the last time these teams met, Tom Brady threw the ball 45 times in a 19-point win, signaling some hope that pass catchers could matter in this spot. Brady threw for 324 yards in that game, but he managed zero touchdowns. It should be noted that Sony Michel missed that game, likely playing a strong role in the Pats’ pass-leaning approach.
The most reliable wideout on the Patriots has been Julian Edelman, who once again has the best matchup — this time against a Buffalo team that is weakest over the middle. When these teams met in Week 8, Edelman went 9-104-0 on 10 targets.
The toughest matchup goes to Josh Gordon, who should be shadowed by Tre’Davious White for much of this matchup. Gordon has seen bounce-around target counts recently (12 // 5 // 3 // 9 // 2), shoving him into tourney-only territory. He has a high ceiling in this offense, but his floor is low in this spot. (NOTE: Gordon has stepped away from football to focus on his mental health. The Patriots will turn back to Phillip Dorsett on the outside, giving him a thin shot at upside, and likely strengthening the target shares of Edelman and Gronk.)
While the Patriots spread around some upside to Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson, the only other reliable piece in this attack is Rob Gronkowski, who has ranged between four and eight targets all season. As noted multiple times over the last month or so: Gronk does not look like his dominant self, and he is no longer a reliable piece, but he is still seeing enough work to pop off from time to time if you want to make an upside bet. Working against Gronk is a Bills defense that has allowed the second fewest receptions to the position.
PATRIOTS RUN OFFENSE
The Bills are still a difficult matchup on the ground — ranking seventh in fewest yards allowed per carry and ninth in DVOA — but volume has allowed enemy backs to rack up middling yardage production in this matchup (both on the ground and through the air), while the Bills’ shoddy red zone rush defense has led to this team allowing the second most running back rushing touchdowns in the league. With only seven catches all season, Michel is a completely yardage-and-touchdown-dependent back, but he is not a bad bet for some touchdown opportunities if you want to go there in tourneys.
The return of Rex Burkhead as a third member in this backfield will likely continue to cap Michel’s touch ceiling at 20 to 22, but the bigger impact has been felt by James White, who has touched the ball only six and seven times across the last two weeks. White still carries spiked-week potential, but his floor is no longer certain.
“On the road at Foxborough in December” seems like a recipe for a disastrous game from this raw Buffalo offense — but the upside remains, with Josh Allen, Robert Foster, Isaiah McKenzie, and (to a lesser extent) Zay Jones all in play. The last couple weeks, I comfortably used my Bills stack in cash games, and I don’t imagine I will be going that direction this week; but I will put in an extra tourney roster if I have to just to bet on this creative, aggressive Bills attack each week down the stretch. There is just too much upside in the way this offense is playing compared to the price tags these players are carrying for them to go overlooked. McCoy can also be played with or without other players on the Bills if you want to take a shot on his upside.
As is often the case on the Patriots’ side of the ball: this offense should score points, though with opportunities in this offense spread to various and often unpredictable sources, it’s tough to bet on much of this unit with confidence. Edelman is the most attractive option on the Patriots’ side of the ball from a floor/ceiling perspective, followed by Michel, and then some order of Gordon, Gronk, Brady, White for ceiling.