Bill Belichick's Patriots generally hit the holidays and the last couple weeks of the regular season schedule cruising toward another postseason run.
But 2018 is clearly not a typical season, as New England (9-5) hits the penultimate week of regular season action coming off a two-game losing streak that's kept the Patriots from clinching the AFC East. The uncharacteristic late-season struggles, primarily on the road, also have the team on the outside looking in at the top two seeds in the AFC playoff picture and the first-round bye that those spots entail.
All is clearly far from lost though, even with the added drama this week of wide receiver Josh Gordon leaving the team, once again suspended indefinitely by the NFL for violating the terms of his previous reinstatement under the league's substance abuse policy.
So there will no talk of resting players over the final two games, but rather a need to win and a need to figure out a way to play the team's best football on both sides of the ball with the postseason looming.
That begins Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium – a return home that could be just what the doctor ordered for a Patriots team that's 6-0 in Foxborough this season – in a matchup with an upstart Bills (5-9) team that's won three of its last five games and, just like New England, has a 3-3 record over its last six games.
New England took care of business against the Bills in Buffalo on Monday Night Football on Oct. 29, pulling away for a 25-6 win in a game where the visitors had a mere 9-6 lead in the third quarter and didn't score a touchdown until the final period.
But thanks to an impressive overall defense and an injection of life on offense via first-round rookie quarterback Josh Allen and undrafted rookie big-play receiver Robert Foster, the Bills have a different look and feel heading into this still-meaningful late-season division battle.
"This is a lot different team than we saw up there," Belichick said to being his breakdown of the Bills this week. "Offensively, they've got a lot of explosive weapons. We didn't see Allen. He's been impressive; Foster. They have a lot of big plays. The receivers have done a good job. Obviously, [Charles] Clay and the backs, [Chris] Ivory and [LeSean] McCoy. So, a lot of weapons there. Defensively, they're at the top of the league in a lot of categories. They're playing very well, don't give up a lot of points, don't give up very many big plays, make you earn everything. We're going to have to have a lot of well-executed plays to move the ball and score points against them. We weren't able to do a lot of that up there, so hopefully we can improve on that this time. They're very well-coached and they have a good scheme. They play hard, they play well and they make you earn everything."
Earn everything is exactly what the Patriots are still trying to do. The hats and t-shirts that come with winning a division title have been on hold for two weeks, failing to come to fruition in both Miami and Pittsburgh. But being home for the holidays, including next week's season finale against the Jets, offers Belichick's team an opportunity to close out the season with positive momentum.
As we all wrap up the Christmas shopping and many gifts to finalize holiday preparations, here are a few keys to the Patriots hosting the Bills this Sunday afternoon in the friendly, festive confines of Foxborough.
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 16 matchup against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 23, 2018.
Opportunity knocks at WR: Gordon is gone, leaving a pretty sizeable hole on the wide receiver depth chart and in the outside passing game. He was second in the NFL with an 18-yard average. His production ebbed and flowed from week to week, but he was still a notable part of the passing game. Maybe most valuable was the amount of resources defenses focused on Gordon, including on Chris Hogan's wide-open 63-yard touchdown in Pittsburgh. Now, Hogan is part of the trio of veterans that also includes Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson that will look to pick up some of the slack in the passing game. Hogan is the only one of the three who has caught more than three passes in a game since Gordon arrived. All three have had multiple games with zero catches and limited playing time in that span. Now, at least one of them has to step up. Hogan, who's already been playing the most of the three, is the most likely candidate. It wasn't that long ago when Hogan was a key productive cog on a Patriots team that made a Super Bowl run. New England may need him to be that again, starting against the Bills No. 1 pass defense. Clearly, somebody needs to step up in the passing game with Gordon out of the mix.
Sony's stretch run – First-round rookie running back Sony Michel has had an up-and-down season. He's been a 100-yard factor in some of the Patriots best offensive performances this fall. He's missed time to injury. He's been ineffective at times. Now, though, New England may need the investment it made in Michel to pay off. Even with Gordon the Patriots probably needed to balance out the offense with an effective ground game to go far in the postseason. Now, Michel's ability to be a regular positive factor on the ground is even more critical. The Patriots passing game simply isn't effective enough and dynamic enough to carry the team to and into the postseason on its own. There must be balance on offense this winter and Michel is the one who needs to bring that balance, especially given his status as a somewhat rare first-round running back.
No Josh-ing around – Allen has become the life of the Bills offense, even if not exactly in the way a coach might like from the quarterback position. Allen ran for 99-plus yards in three consecutive games prior to last week. He's proving he has elite speed and athletic ability to scramble and make big plays with his legs, even as his completion percentage remains stuck near the flip of a coin and his passer rating for the year is a dismal 65.5. Allen is at his most dangerous when he scrambles, either running or chucking the ball with his strong arm. The Patriots pass defense will be looking to keep him in the pocket, where he'll have to make plays with his mind and his arm rather than his legs. But that has been easier said than done for defenses in recent weeks and New England's controlled pass rush has been hit or miss at times this season.
Start 'em up – The Bills are playing out the string, but are still playing hard. That said, if the home team can get off to a fast start and jump out to a multiple-score lead it can play the game on its terms and give the visitors a reason to want to get back on the plane to begin Christmas celebrations. The two-game losing streak, the transition to the post-Gordon era and the momentum toward the postseason would all get a nice boost from a fast start and early lead in front of the home crowd Sunday afternoon.
Foster, Buffalo for big play – Belichick emphasized how much big plays were a big part of Buffalo's improvements in recent weeks. One part of that is Allen. The other is the undrafted Alabama receiver Foster. Since returning from the practice squad in early November Roberts has been one of the most productive big-play receivers in the NFL. He has 17 catches for 438 yards and a pair of scores in the last five games. He has an ultra-impressive 24.6 yards a catch on the season and has a catch of 38 yards or longer in four of the last five games, notching three 100-yard games in that span and another with 94 yards. New England's pass defense was solid in Pittsburgh against far more notable weapons, but it can't look past Roberts' big play potential. Hitting big plays is probably one of the only ways the Bills can pull off the upset.
Clean it up – Before fans everywhere will need to clean up the post-presents wrapping paper scattered about the house, New England needs to clean up the issue with flags that's crept up late in the year. The Patriots have set new season highs for flags twice in the last month, including 14 in the loss in Pittsburgh. That just can't continue to happen with regularity, either against Buffalo or in the coming weeks. It's also important for the Patriots to continue to play pretty clean football in terms of ball security. A couple ways to let the Bills hang around on Sunday would be with flags (to either stunt offensive drives or extend those of the visitor) and turnovers. Playing clean is playing to win.
Prediction: The Patriots are stumbling a bit these days and the Gordon departure doesn't help. Still, they are by far the better team in this matchup. And the return to Gillette Stadium is huge given the way the season has unfolded. Buffalo is playing hard and does have a solid all-around defense that includes playmakers at all three levels. So, it may not be easy by any stretch Sunday afternoon. But, it's hard to envision the losing streak extending to three games in December. More likely the Patriots have a balanced productive day on offense, even if it's not explosive. The defense certainly has the ability to avoid allowing big plays, even with the way the run defense has struggled. Add it all up and New England should clinch the division title with a 26-16 win over the Bills to breathe a sigh of relief into Patriot Nation the heading toward the finale and the postseason.
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