PATRIOTS // BILLS OVERVIEW
It’s always dangerous to assume that any division game is a predictable blowout, and Sean McDermott has been a genuinely quality coach during his time with the Bills — always getting this team to play hard, in spite of no clear cause for optimism.
With that said, the Patriots have won their last two games at Buffalo by 16 and 20 points, and the Bills will be trotting out a shell of an NFL offense, headlined by Derek Anderson at quarterback, Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones at wide receiver, and — with LeSean McCoy likely to miss this week — Chris Ivory at running back. Unless the Patriots commit multiple turnovers in their own territory, it’s difficult to see this Bills team putting many points on the board.
On the other side of this matchups: the Patriots can always put up points, but players have consistently produced below-average box score results against the Bills this season, and only three teams in the league have allowed fewer yards per game. On the full-weekend slate, this game is unlikely to produce many standout plays. On the Showdown slate, there will be such a narrow band of “above-average plays,” you will essentially be forced to take suboptimal plays in order to have any differentiation at all — making this a good night to just simply take a break, or to load up on NBA play in place of NFL.
Did I lose you yet?
Is my dad the only one still reading this? (I think he reads every Patriots game.) (Hi, Dad. Go Pats!)
Okay — for those of you who are (for some reason) still with me, let’s dig in.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
Only two teams in the NFL have allowed a lower average depth of target than the Bills, and only seven teams have allowed a lower YAC per reception rate — leading to the Bills ranking third in the league in fewest yards allowed per pass attempt, while ranking fourth in fewest passing yards allowed per game.
The goal of the Bills is to get after the quarterback (9th in adjusted sack rate), and to force teams to flatten out their routes — making pass catchers catch the ball while moving from sideline to sideline, rather than allowing them to catch passes while moving upfield. With the Bills mastering this approach, it has been tough for teams to hit for many big plays, with only the Jaguars allowing fewer pass plays of 20+ yards this season, and with only the Ravens and Colts allowing fewer pass plays of 40+ yards.
In talking specifically about wide receivers: the Bills have allowed only 135.7 receiving yards per game — with only the Ravens and Jaguars allowing fewer. This obviously makes it difficult for any individual player to go for more than 60 or 70 yards — but the best bet for production is Julian Edelman, who should avoid Tre’Davious White for much of this contests, having run 67% of his routes from the slot (where White has traveled only 3% of the time). Edelman has seen target counts of 9 // 7 // 8 since returning to the field, and if we remove touchdowns (i.e., looking only at receptions and yardage), he projects to post the highest score on the slate among wide receivers on either side. As for touchdowns: the one area where Buffalo has struggled this year has been in the red zone, where they have allowed the sixth highest opponent touchdown rate in the league. This has led to a middling seven wide receiver touchdowns, and Edelman (seven red zone targets already through three games) is as good a bet as any pass catcher on this team to score from in close.
Among the 96 cornerbacks who have faced at least 20 targets this year, Tre’Davious White ranks first in fewest receptions allowed per coverage snap. That “20 target” mark is a fair one to choose…because in spite of ranking 16th in the NFL in coverage snaps, White has faced only 21 targets all season — an average of three targets per game. That is sensational. Through seven games, White has allowed 12 catches (90 cornerbacks have allowed more) for 147 yards (93 cornerbacks have allowed more) — in spite of White regularly matching up against an opponent’s best weapon. White should stick with Josh Gordon for much of this week, making Gordon little more than a “shot in the dark, hope for a touchdown” play.
Chris Hogan should benefit from the attention on Gordon and the likely absence of Rob Gronkowski, but unlike last week, the matchup does not set up well for production. He ranks a bit higher than Zay Jones in this game…which says a lot about the sort of game this is.
If Gronk plays, he’ll match up against a Bills team that is middling against the tight end. For whatever you feel it’s worth: Gronk grew up in Buffalo, and he has gone for 94+ yards in six of seven career games in Buffalo (the one exception being a 54-yard, two touchdown game in his rookie year), and he has scored at least one touchdown in five of his seven games in Buffalo. If Gronk plays, he’ll be fighting through a bad back, and this is obviously a better Buffalo defense than many of those Gronk saw in years past.
PATRIOTS RUN OFFENSE
Buffalo is best attacked on the ground, though they have still been solid in this area, ranking 15th in yards allowed per carry and 16th in yards allowed per game. The Bills have allowed nine touchdowns to running backs — six rushing, three receiving.
With Sony Michel set to miss this game, James White will operate as the upside leader, while Kenjon Barner will fill a portion of the role Michel is leaving behind. In his previous three games, Michel had carry counts of 25 // 18 // 24. White spiked to a season-high 11 carries last week after Michel went down, while seeing an incredible double-digit targets for the third time in four games. There were whispers when the Patriots drafted Michel that this team hoped to replicate some of the things New Orleans was doing with Ingram and Kamara — and that is essentially how White has been featured this year, in the “Alvin Kamara role.” Barner should see 12 to 16 carries of his own (where he will be dependent on yardage and touchdowns — same as Michel before him), while White should take on a bigger role in all phases of the offense.
BILLS PASS OFFENSE
It seems silly to even worry about “matchup” when talking about this embarrassing Bills passing attack. Unbelievably, the quarterbacks on this team have combined for an average of 156 passing yards per game. That is not a typo. Through seven games, the Bills have three total passing touchdowns. Usually, we’re hunting for three passing touchdowns in a game.
Stephon Gilmore has excelled this year in the Patriots’ secondary, ranking sixth in the NFL in receptions allowed per coverage snap — with 16 catches allowed for 173 yards (numbers not too far off what White has been doing on the other side). There have been 37 passes thrown into Gilmore’s coverage, and only 43.2% of these passes have been completed. Gilmore should primarily stick to Benjamin, who has caught only 37.8% of the passes thrown in his direction this year.
Zay Jones has yet to top four receptions in a game this year (he has hit that mark only once), and he has topped 38 receiving yards only once. A bet on Jones is a bet on a busted play, or on an unpredictable visit to the end zone.
This passing “attack” rounds out with Andre Holmes (eight catches on the year) and Charles Clay (who has topped 29 yards only once — a scintillating 4-40-0 game at Green Bay).
BILLS RUN OFFENSE
If McCoy gets cleared from concussion protocol in time, he will be the clear top play on this side of the ball, with touch counts in the two games before his concussion of 26 and 19, and with a still-superior skill set. The Patriots have allowed only two rushing touchdowns to running backs all year, but they do rank 24th in yards allowed per carry, and the best (only?) way for Buffalo to move the ball will be by attacking the Patriots’ slow linebackers through the air (only four teams have allowed more receptions to running backs than the Pats).
If McCoy fails to get cleared in time, Ivory (36 snaps last week) and Marcus Murphy (18 snaps last week) will split the load. In spite of the Bills getting trounced 5-37 against the Colts, Ivory saw 16 carries (to go with a surprising three catches on six targets) — as the Bills seem content to simply run out the clock in games when they fall behind at this point, rather than exposing themselves to more embarrassment at the hands of their quarterback situation. Buffalo ranks 26th in pace of play on the year, in spite of their 2-5 record.
Murphy saw four carries and six targets of his own, and something in that range should be expected if McCoy does indeed miss.
White is the prize play on this slate, and I like him enough that I would even consider him in tourneys on the full-weekend slate. But outside of White, it’s pretty ugly, with Edelman carrying the highest on-paper floor, and with the rest of floor rankings looking like this:
Floor :: Tom Brady // Patriots DST // Ivory // Stephen Gostkowski // Barner // Gordon // some mix of Anderson, Zay Jones, Kelvin, Clay, Murphy, and Steven Hauschka.
If Gronk plays, his floor will be tough to nail down, as his role has been smaller than normal this year (only one game with 100 yards; only one touchdown all season; no games with more than eight targets), and he will be playing through a back injury in a game the Patriots will likely have in hand early, but he obviously carries upside any time he is on the field.
Ceiling on the rest of these players is tougher to sort through behind White, as much of “ceiling” will come down to touchdowns — which are the least predictable element in NFL DFS, and therefore introduce the most variance. If playing this slate, I would probably staple White to 100% of my teams (with Edelman on at least 50% or 60%), and then I would “tell different stories” with the rest of each roster, trying to mess around with various ways in which this game could play out.