The Patriots will head to Buffalo this Sunday for their final road game of the 2023 season, looking to build on their two wins in the last three games as they face a 9-6 Bills team that is quickly becoming the team no one wants to play in the postseason, assuming they can make it there. New England already knocked off the Bills earlier this season in a last-second victory, it was their first win against their divisional rivals after four straight losses as they've struggled to contain quarterback Josh Allen and his potent attack.
Buffalo is still looking to punch their postseason ticket and with three straight wins they're ascending the AFC picture, but now they'll face a Patriots team with nothing to lose that is coming off a big win of their own. It should be another tough AFC East matchup in the crazy football environment in upstate New York that always makes things a little more intense and fun.
What must the Patriots do to sweep the Bills and put a damper on their postseason hopes? Here are this week's 10 Things to Watch!
Make the Easy Throws
Bailey Zappe led the Patriots to a second win in four starts out in Denver, as his escapability and big play delivery were key factors in getting a win against the Broncos. Next up, he'll face a veteran Bills defense that has been hit hard by injuries this year. After already losing Matt Milano and Tre White earlier in the season, the Bills took on the Chargers last week without veteran safety Micah Hyde and defensive end A.J. Epenesa and Chargers backup Easton Stick had some success throwing downfield, putting up four throws of 20-plus yards. Despite the focus on the big passing plays, it might actually be the short stuff that helps the Patriots most. Zappe's been less effective with the layups and that could be the final frontier for his 2023 development over the two final games. Hitting the easy throws, keeping the chains moving and forcing Josh Allen to stay on the sideline is the best bet for a win.
Get Pop a TD
It was clear from the early days of training camp that the sixth-round pick out of Liberty was an NFL player. Pop Douglas' quickness immediately stood out and the rookie has carried it over into the regular season, posting another impressive game against the Broncos that gave him 44 catches for 517 yards on the year, second-best on the team and just one catch behind leader Ezekiel Elliott. For Douglas two goals could put a nice bow on his first year: getting the first touchdown of his career and surpassing Elliott to finish the year as the team's leading receiver. Both would be nice feathers in Douglas' cap, as the Patriots have finally restocked their slot receiver position with a player who can get open in a phone booth.
Stick with Parker
The Patriots extended DeVante Parker this offseason and though he's missed four games, against the Broncos he showed why is a valuable outside presence as a receiver. Over his two years with the Pats, he's shown time and again that he has a unique ability to win contested catches down the sideline, none more important than the third-down 27-yard reception that set up the game-winning field goal. Zappe should continue to exploit Parker's matchups, as he did last week with four catches for 60 yards. Parker will give Buffalo's outside cornerbacks something to think about on every down.
"DP is one of those guys where you kind of put it up anywhere and he has the opportunity to go up and get it," said Zappe earlier this month.
Have a Day, Christian Barmore
Christian Barmore was a wrecking ball against the Broncos, registering three sacks and playing disruptive and stout football all game long. In his third season, Barmore is reaching the potential the Patriots saw in him when they traded up to select him in the second round of the 2021 draft. There's just no telling what a possessed defensive lineman can do to an offensive gameplan and that makes Barmore one of the true wild cards in this matchup. If he can continue to not only disrupt timing but also finish Josh Allen off with sacks, he could play a key role in shutting down Buffalo's attack.
"We always talk about marrying up the rush and the coverage," said Jerod Mayo this week. "Having a guy like Barmore, especially playing at the level that he's playing at right now, is definitely a huge benefit for the success of our defense."
Mack Wilson Making Plays
Sometimes injuries force teams to discover new things about their players and after the loss of Matthew Judon, it's been linebacker Mack Wilson who has made the most of his opportunities. Wilson nearly had an interception last week to go with a forced fumble and his third sack in the last three games. Wilson's move to the edge has enabled him to get away from taking on bigger offensive linemen, instead playing more in space where his athleticism is best put to use. The proof is in the playmaking, and that's what Wilson has been doing consistently. Against Josh Allen, Wilson's speed and agility will be of significant importance and he should have the chance to continue his clutch play.
All About Ezekiel Elliott
Though Ezekiel Elliott has been carrying the load ever since Rhamondre Stevenson was lost, it's really been his increased usage in the passing game that has been the biggest change. Yes, Elliott had 17 and 22 carries against in Zappe's first two starts, but over the last four games he's seen 30 passing targets after only seeing 20 in the first 11 games. Back in Week 7 against the Bills he had just one target and no catches, as Zeke's receiving ability will be a new twist for the Bills to deal with.
"Zeke's been unbelievable," said running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri. "He is all about football. He takes the game very seriously. He prepares extremely well. A lot of people questioned if he still had some left in the tank, and I think he's proven a lot of people wrong. He has a lot left in the tank, um, whether it's in the run game or the pass game, he protects the quarterback. He runs extremely hard. I'm just really proud of him."
Stopping Josh Allen
The Bills have evolved slightly under new in-season offensive coordinator Joe Brady, but the major elements of their attack remain and it boils down to Josh Allen, whether he's making pinpoint throws in key situations to Stefon Diggs or picking up key yardage himself with his legs. In the Week 7 matchup, the Pats blitzed Allen on half his dropbacks, producing a 41.3 percent pressure rate. It was still a middle-of-the-road performance for Allen as far as his 2023 goes, but the Pats frustrated him enough and made the clutch plays they needed to to finally get a win.
Steve Belichick described his gameplan philosophy against Allen after facing him 10 times.
"From year to year you kind of look at it starting with the personnel, and who you have and who they have," said Belichick. "And then during the season, that conversation is still relevant in terms of injuries and players available and stuff like that, as well as schematically from year to year. You kind of take bits and pieces of it, but some's more applicable than others."
Keep Cook Contained
Second-year running back James Cook has surpassed 1,000 yards as he's emerged into a bigger role under Brady. Two games ago, in a romp over the Cowboys, Cook posted a career-high 179 rushing yards. But if there's one thing you can say about the Patriots, it's tough running up the middle on them, so that should inspire the Bills to try to get Cook out in space, a similar plan of attack that the Broncos tried to employ with limited success. Cook has been most effective off the left edge (3.24 yards per attempt, 11 runs of 10-plus yards), and behind the right tackle (4.19 yards per attempt). The Patriots edge defenders will have to play stout to keep Cook contained.
"Cook's done a good job of running, running the ball downhill, hard to tackle, physical runner, and does a good job of making the defense cover every edge," said defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington.
Matching up with Diggs and Co.
It's hard to write about Allen and not highlight receiver Stefon Diggs as the duo is capable of playing buddy ball on any snap and sometimes they seem nearly impossible to stop, even when everyone knows who is getting the ball. Now in his fourth season with the Bills, Diggs is once again on pace to surpass 100 catches for the fourth time, however, Diggs has caught the lowest percentage of his targets during his time in Buffalo, perhaps a sign of the team's offensive struggles earlier in the year that resulted in the firing of OC Ken Dorsey.
New England's young cornerbacks Alex Austin and Shaun Wade will have their work cut out for them, with Gabe Davis an explosive threat and rising slot receiver Khalil Shakir sure to challenge nickelback Myles Bryant. Jonathan Jones remains the key piece at cornerback for New England and should see plenty of Diggs.
"You know, those two guys are two phenomenal football players, athletes, competitors," said Patriots cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino this week. "I give them all the credit. They do a great job, but you know, we're good too. So you gotta play with that confidence, right? That I know the ball's coming my way. I know how they're gonna try to attack me. You know, having the anticipation and the readiness for that moment helps you in those situations."
Handle the Atmosphere
The Patriots have had some tough recent games in Buffalo since the 2021 December win known as "The Wind Game." Since then they got blown out 47-17 in the Wild Card Round, then allowed two kickoff returns for touchdowns last January in the season finale, falling 35-23. The Bills Mafia should be every bit as jacked up for this game, rooting on their surging team against a hated divisional rival, and that will challenge Zappe and the younger Patriots who are playing bigger and bigger roles. How Zappe handled things in Denver is a positive sign, but Buffalo is its own unique atmosphere that can cause mistakes to snowball on teams.
"They're extremely well coached. They're an extremely good football team and they're gonna play hard. They have a good scheme. The fans are gonna be loud like they always are. I expect a hard-fought football game. I expect nothing less whenever we go up and play a divisional opponent, especially up in Buffalo," said running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri.
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