The New England Patriots have won the AFC East every single season since 2009. They’ve won it 14 of the past 15 seasons and are already well on their way to making it 15 of 16.
The Buffalo Bills, during the same approximate span of time, have finished last in the AFC East seven times, third six times, and second just three times. They are already well on their way to making it eight last place finishes.
Lucky for all of us football fans, those two teams are set to square off on ‘Monday Night Football.’ It should be a lot of fun, assuming you enjoy the Patriots blowing out bad teams. Because we absolutely have to, let’s break down what to watch for on each side of the ball on Monday night (8:15 p.m., ESPN).
When the Bills have the ball
The less said about this anemic and, frankly, embarrassing group, the better, so let’s do this quickly. The Bills currently have the single worst offense of the past 30 or so years, and not by a small amount.
Buffalo’s 81 points so far this season are 25 fewer than any other team in the league. Their 3.9 yards per play average is well short of the next closest team. NFL wide receivers have thrown more touchdown passes (four) this season than the Bills (three). Buffalo has just seven total offensive touchdowns. 29 of the other 31 teams in the league have at least twice that many. Their third-down conversion rate of 27.4 percent is laughably low, and is better than only that of the Cardinals. The Bills have only been in the red zone 13 times (fewer in the NFL) and when they’ve gotten there they have rarely turned the opportunities into touchdowns. Their average drive has covered just 19.7 yards and generated just 0.98 points; since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002, just a single non-expansion team (2004 Bears) failed to crack both 20 yards per drive and 1 point per drive for the entire season.
In the best passing season in league history, Nathan Peterman, Josh Allen, and Derek Anderson have combined to complete less than 53 percent of their pass attempts. Their combined interception rate of 6.0 percent is somehow higher than their yards per attempt average of 5.4. And this is in a league where the average yards per pass attempt (7.5) is three times higher than the average interception rate (2.4 percent). The team’s season high in passing yards is 209. There are eight different teams that have thrown for more than 209 yards in every single game they’ve played this season. Their team passer rating of 48.8 is nearly 20 points worse than the next closest team.
Buffalo’s leader in targets is Kelvin Benjamin with 37, but he has caught a pathetic 37.8 percent of those passes. The collective passer rating of Peterman, Allen, and Anderson on throws to Benjamin is TWENTY SEVEN POINT EIGHT. They would literally be better off throwing the ball into the ocean on every play. The Bills’ leading receiver is Zay Jones, whose season receiving line (19-226-1) basically just looks like what the Saints’ Michael Thomas did back in Week 1 (16-180-1).
The run game hasn’t been much better, with LeSean McCoy, Chris Ivory, and Marcus Ivory have combined to average 3.8 yards per carry. That’s 25th in the league. The Chargers’ running backs have equaled that mark just after first contact. Those backs have achieved a first down on just 17.2 percent of their runs. That ranks 27th in the NFL. That trio has just one rushing touchdown, fewer than every team in the league’s running backs have save for the Panthers, Jaguars, and Buccaneers. Realistically, the team’s most consistently effective runner has been Josh Allen.
It’s not worth discussing the Bills’ offense and the Patriots’ defense from a matchup perspective because the matchups don’t particularly matter.
When the Patriots have the ball
New England’s offense being at full strength lasted for about a week.
After playing last week’s game without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots are now down running back Sony Michel for this game against the Bills. Michel had been absolutely on fire before going down with what looked like a serious knee injury early in New England’s win over the Bears, posting rushing lines of 25-112-1, 18-98-1, and 24-106-2 in the previous three games. He’ll presumably be replaced in the lineup by Kenjon Barner, who is best known for his time at Oregon and has not had much of an NFL career to speak of.
The Pats seem extremely unlikely to use him in the same fashion as Michel, but instead will probably lean on a heavy dosage of James White throughout the evening. That suits their purposes just fine, as they essentially use short passes to White and Julian Edelman as an extension of their running game anyway. Brady knows exactly when and where those guys will pop open, and which one of them will be open most immediately after the snap. Buffalo’s pass defense has been strong this season (fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA) but has been friendly to running backs, allowing a 40-322-3 receiving line to players at the position and ranking 24th in DVOA. Riding White and the short passing game until the outcome is no longer in doubt, then turning the reins over to Barner so as to ensure that nobody actually integral to the team’s hopes gets injured, seems like the optimal strategy.
Realistically, it should not take that long for the Pats to put the game in a position where the outcome is no longer in doubt. The Bills’ defense is a strong unit but the offense is so inept and turnover-prone that the Pats should be set up with good field position and easy scoring opportunities all night. It would not be a surprise if their defense itself got a score on the board.
When the Pats do actually have the ball in their hands, almost all of the intrigue comes in the passing game.
The Bills seem likely to shadow Josh Gordon with star corner Tre’Davious White, who is having another excellent season after coming up just short in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race last season. White has been thrown at 28 times this season, according to Sports Info Solutions, allowing only 12 catches for 125 yards and a score. That’s a 68.3 passer rating, essentially the equivalent of turning every opposing quarterback into Cade McNown. Gordon’s passing-game usage has been progressively ramped up since he arrived in New England, and last week he finally played 95.3 percent of offensive snaps. He’s a full-blown starting receiver now, and with his talent and Brady’s, there are bound to be some explosions throughout. In the two games where he’s played more than 80 percent of the snaps, Gordon has nine catches for 142 yards.
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Elsewhere in the secondary, though, there are weaknesses that can be attacked by players like Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson. New England’s quick-snap passing game creates opportunities for yards after the catch, and corners Phillip Gaines and Ryan Lewis have not been quite as reliably consistent as White. Getting Edelman matched up on either of them is a win for New England, and if he starts winning in the short game, that will only open things up for Gordon and Gronkowski down the field and over the middle.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Bills 10
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