Week 16 sees the Buffalo Bills travel to to a facility that’s been the bane of the team’s existence this millennium.
In a game taking place on Christmas Eve, their opponent won’t be in a giving mood. The New England Patriots come into Sunday’s tussle having wrested control of the AFC away from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Though they did so in controversial fashion, the fact remains that the Pats are now in prime position to take the top seed in the conference.
But the visiting Bills have plenty to play for themselves. They currently sport an 8-6 record after consecutive home wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins. As a result, they’re is in the thick of the playoff race with just two games remaining. With an upset win on Sunday, their hopes of erasing the longest postseason drought in North American pro sports become tantalizingly viable.
But that’s easier said than done given Buffalo’s track record at Gillette Stadium. Since it opened in 2002, the Bills have played at least six road games against five NFL teams (Patriots, Dolphins, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs). Their two wins in 16 away contests against the Pats in that time is by far the worst. The following visual paints a rather stark picture as to how rough the sailing’s been.
Despite the road adversity in this series, Buffalo’s given the Pats some battles in recent years. Those two wins came in 2014 and 2016, albeit in games where Tom Brady either didn’t play or came out early. And four of the Pats’ last six wins have come by an average of just 5.5 points. So what needs to happen for the Bills to keep this close and potentially shock Brady and company?
Week 16 Buffalo Bills Keys to Victory
Clog the Seams To “Rob” Gronkowski
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski made headlines for all the wrong reasons the last time these teams played. His cheap shot on rookie corner Tre’Davious White earned him a one-game suspension and gave Bills fans even more reasons to hope he falters on Sunday. But that’s far from a likely occurrence. Only Jimmy Graham, Kyle Rudolph and Zach Ertz have more touchdown catches among NFL tight ends than Gronk’s seven. And his 15.9 yards per catch leads all players at the position in the league. He also has at least 80 receiving yards in eight of his 12 appearances in 2017.
The eighth-year pro possesses a total package skill set that epitomizes the term matchup nightmare. His initial burst and quickness off the snap make him a headache for linebackers on short and intermediate routes. Further up the field, his combination of athleticism and stature gives him an edge against undersized corners and safeties. His head coach said it best after Sunday’s win in Pittsburgh: “Even when Rob is covered, he’s still open.”
In week 13, the Pats pulled away courtesy of a dominant third quarter. But Buffalo was within striking distance at halftime. Part of it stemmed from the dynamic play of their tandem of safeties. Both Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer did a great job disguising their coverages pre-snap. It limited Gronkowski to just two first half catches. Both excel in what’s called a “robber” role that aims to choke away those pockets of space deep down the middle where Gronk loves to gash defenses. It’s that look within the framework of a cover three shell that could prove crucial if executed well on Sunday.
Physical Cornerback Play
A corollary to bottling up Gronkowski, and one that’s a bit less difficult, is shutting down the Patriots’ wide receivers on the boundary. The unit’s been short-handed all year after Julian Edelman tore his ACL during the preseason. Others have stepped up, though, with Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan combining for 11 touchdowns on the season. Cooks is among the bigger deep threats in the NFL, with his 17 yards per catch third among receivers with at least 50 receptions this year.
But if there’s anything the Dolphins showed in week 14, it’s that you can hinder New England’s receivers with physical play at the line of scrimmage. Xavien Howard had a field day, picking off Brady twice in Miami’s upset win on Monday Night Football. It primarily disrupting the timing of the Pats’ pass game by playing effective press man coverage. Jam the receivers at the start of their routes and don’t allow them to achieve consistent separation. That’s one variable in the overall formula of taking away Brady’s weapons downfield.
Still, the loss to Miami demonstrated Gronk’s importance to New England’s identity on offense. A week later, he did just about everything on their final drive of the game which resulted in a game-winning touchdown. His presence further underscores the need for proactive, physical play out of the Bills’ corners. Last week, the secondary as a whole turned in its best performance since week eight’s win over the Oakland Raiders. A repeat effort from White, E.J. Gaines and company is necessary for a week 16 upset.
More Balance on Offense
The Bills pretty much held serve during their three-game home stand. They went 2-1 with wins over the Colts and Dolphins along with what can only be termed an expected loss to the Pats in the first week of December. But Buffalo had their opportunities in that game. Tyrod Taylor marched them down the field on the opening possession before a terrible decision led to a red zone interception. And despite 48 yards passing out of Taylor in the first half, the Bills trailed by just six at halftime.
It didn’t get much better for Taylor in the second half. While New England scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, Taylor managed just two of six passes for 17 yards before getting pulled in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. It’s too bad because the Bills run game held their end of the bargain. LeSean McCoy totaled 93 yards on 15 carries with the team as a whole registering 183 yards on the ground, its third best mark of the season.
In the end, Taylor completed just half of his 18 passes on the day for a paltry 65 yards. His 35.6 passer rating ranked as the eighth worst mark for a quarterback who attempted at least 15 passes in 2017. It also marked the second time he finished with a rating under 40 after a similar performance against the New Orleans Saints in week 13. That inconsistency, especially compared to his impressive outing against the Dolphins, is a contributing factor to the myriad opinions amongst fans and pundits regarding his potential as a franchise quarterback.
So how can he engineer sentiment back in his favor? It starts with contributing to a much more balanced attack on offense against the Pats. That requires the Taylor from the Dolphins and Broncos game to show up. Not the one from those two forgettable efforts at home against New Orleans and New England.