The tenor around the Patriots heading into a pivotal divisional game against the Bills on Sunday at Gillette Stadium is this: how did we get here, and are we really as bad as our 1-5 record says?
Being around them since the spring, there weren't any signs that this team thought they'd be sitting at 1-5 six weeks into the season. This wasn't a tanking team that expected to hold the sixth overall pick in the upcoming draft as things currently stand. Many believed Bill O'Brien would improve the offense, including pundits like this scribe, who saw steady improvement each day in camp. Add that to a good defense, and the Patriots could possibly compete for a playoff spot or middling at worst.
That's not to say the team was naive enough to think they'd be hanging a seventh Super Bowl banner at Gillette Stadium in Week 1, 2024, and injuries have certainly taken their toll on this roster. Still, truthfully, nobody saw 1-5 coming. So, with external questions about buy-in and head coach Bill Belichick's future job status, the feeling is more one of disbelief rather than not believing in what they have in the locker room.
As they turn the page to Buffalo and the final 11 games on their schedule, the Patriots season could go one of two ways. They'll start pointing fingers while running for the nearest lifeboats, or they'll stick with the program by believing that they are better than their record says and improve with plenty of season left to turn things around.
There's still time with 11 games remaining on the schedule to make something of this season, whether that's in the best interest of the franchise long term or not. Belichick, his staff, and players will at least try to give us a meaningful football season. But now it becomes as much about the team's mentality as the X's, O's, Jimmy's, and Joe's. Without buy-in, there won't be a turnaround, and the unimaginable will happen: a Bill Belichick-coached team picking in the top ten, or possibly higher, of an NFL draft.
The other obstacle standing in the way of snapping a three-game losing streak is a team they haven't been able to solve in recent memory. Besides the famous wind game during the 2021 season in Orchard Park, the Bills and quarterback Josh Allen have owned the Patriots, flipping the script from the Brady era. Since the 2020 season, Buffalo is 7-1 against New England, with four consecutive wins over the Patriots. The Bills have outscored the Pats 211-115 (+96) over that span, and Allen has dominated Belichick's defenses. In his last seven games against Belichick, Allen has added an outstanding +0.34 expected points added per drop-back while averaging 7.8 yards per pass attempt with 18 touchdowns to two interceptions.
Belichick has thrown everything at Buffalo's quarterback, who thrives in chaos, making him such a challenging player to defend, even for a Pats coach who has devised successful game plans to stop some of the best offenses in NFL history. Certain quarterbacks thrive in structure, so if you beat the scheme, you can beat them. Others have unique mobility, but their legs are their biggest threat, so make them throw within the framework of the offense, and you'll be okay.
But what do you do against a quarterback who does things that would make most offensive coaches pull their hair out and, for such a detailed game plan defense, doesn't play the same rules as everyone else? It's one thing to construct a plan against a traditional quarterback, but this guy breaks every rule, and somehow it works because he's that talented.
With Allen, you can have every element of the play defended perfectly, and he'll stick the old bird up at you while throwing a haymaker. Ask the Giants, who did everything perfectly from pressuring the QB, rotating the coverage post-snap to make Allen hesitate, and covering all of his downfield options, just to have the Bills quarterback do some silly nonsense on several occasions last Sunday night.
Although it's a tough task without a full deck personnel-wise, we hope Bill Belichick will show us something different, do something creative, and don't just throw every call on the sheet at Allen, hoping that something sticks. In the past few matchups, defensive play-caller Steve Belichick has emptied the bag against Allen, searching for answers. He's probably called every defense the Patriots had in their game plan. But maybe the Allen answer isn't in their traditional install, which is why they haven't found a good way to defend Buffalo over the last few seasons.
It's time to see the greatest defensive mind in NFL history to give us one more game plan that we can hang in the louver next to all the others. It's been three seasons since the Patriots have been truly competitive with Buffalo, and as much as this version of the Pats isn't likely to change that, here's to hoping Belichick finally has a solution to their Bills problem.
Here are our keys to victory and key matchups as the Patriots host the Bills on Sunday:
Defensive Key - Fight Captain Chaos With Chaos to Slow Down Josh Allen
The Bills are in their second season with offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey at the helm, and the local criticism you hear of Dorsey is the very definition of first-world problems.
As we know all too well around here, when you're in a Super Bowl or bust window, every decision gets over-scrutinized because the margins are often the difference between a championship and falling short of the ultimate goal as a title contender. The Bills are still a shotgun-heavy operation that is analytically driven in their offensive philosophy, with the third-highest early-down pass rate in the NFL. But to keep the franchise quarterback healthy, the goal is to be more balanced, and Allen is dealing with a shoulder injury that has limited him in practice.
Buffalo has done everything it can recently to make the offense less reliant on Allen and stud WR Stefon Diggs playing hero ball. That's a trump card that the Bills have that very few offenses can match, let alone stop it as a defense. But they've fizzled out in the playoffs because there's been too much on the shoulders of their two stars.
The Bills have responded by drafting rookie TE Dalton Kincaid in the first round to become a reliable number two receiver to Diggs who can move the chains between the numbers, while Dorsey, albeit not enough to the fanbase maybe, has incorporated more under-center schemes to run the ball and sequence boot-action and traditional play-action.
In the Daboll years, the Bills were an RPO/gun early-down offense that became a more dangerous rushing attack because the now Giants head coach put the ball in Allen's hands as an option runner. However, it wasn't sustainable to put Allen at risk that often. After four straight seasons with over 100 rush attempts, Allen is on pace for just 63 rushes this season.
The big-picture goal for Buffalo is to become less boom-or-bust offensively so that one bad day in January doesn't send them home in the postseason. However, it hasn't exactly taken hold yet. In their four wins this season, the Bills have scored 38, 37, 48, and most recently escaped with only 14 points against the Giants (34.3 PPG). But in their two losses, Buffalo has scored 16 and 20 points (18 PPG).
Not to throw the past in Buffalo's face, but the dynasty Patriots could win playoff games in different ways. The Pats could win a shootout, a defensive battle, in bad weather, or what have you, and that's what the Bills are trying to achieve. With that said, that was then. This is now, and the Bills are in a different class than the Patriots. Even if they're working through some things offensively to be more well-rounded, let's not fool ourselves into thinking this Pats team will likely expose Buffalo's lack of reliable receiving options behind Diggs or being conservative with Allen.
Still, the Bills nearly lost at home to the one-win Giants with a backup quarterback, lost in London to the Jaguars the week before, and lost to Zach Wilson's Jets in Week 1. Let's take a look at how those defenses defended Allen to hold Buffalo to 16, 20, and 14 points:
The best way to describe the successful game plans against the Bills is to fight chaos with chaos. If you try to play Allen straight up with stagnant coverage and predictable pressure, your defense will likely get boat-raced by Buffalo's talent. You have to out-chaos the captain of chaos. For example, Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is notorious for his blitz-heavy defensive philosophy with some crazy exotic post-snap coverage rotations to spin the dial on quarterbacks.
Here, Martindale completely changed the post-snap picture on Allen while simulating pressure in the front to get 1-on-1 matchups for his pass rushers. The Giants show all-out pressure with six rushers on the line of scrimmage but drop out two defenders, making the Bills O-Line decipher the rush on the fly. In the backend, the pre-snap shell also shows cover zero, but the nickel over the left slot rotates along with the rushers dropping out into a cover three zone.
The Bills got bailed out by a roughing the passer penalty, but the rush and coverage are married up perfectly for the defense to win the down.
The Giants had success with Martindale's madness, but the Jets defense has had, by far, the most consistent success against Allen and the Bills recently. In his last three matchups against Robert Saleh's defense, Allen has thrown five interceptions to two touchdowns and is 1-2 against New York.
Due to their talent to win with four-man rushes, the Jets rattle Allen by emphasizing disguising in the backend. They also base their game plan on split-safety shells, which the explosive Bills offense sees plenty of, and Allen's numbers against split-safety schemes are less efficient than when teams play post-safety structures.
New York does everything in its power to hide the coverage from Allen before the snap. Above, you can see the back seven almost in a reverse "amoeba" defense where, instead of the popcorn popping up front, it's the backend that's unsettled. Then, the Bills try to give Allen a coverage indicator by shifting Diggs across the formation. Diggs is followed by a defender, which usually signals to the QB that it's man coverage. Instead, the Jets secondary rotates into a cover-2 zone, and Allen throws right into the trap for an interception.
In both examples, the defense throws as much post-snap processing at the Bills offense as possible. We'll reiterate once again that you cannot play this Bills offense straight up. They're too good. The key to slowing down Allen and company is to fight chaos with chaos.
Offensive Key - Attack Buffalo's Weaker Links at Linebacker and Corner, Borrowing From #PatriciaBall. Yes, You Read That Correctly.
Moving over to the offense, Bills head coach Sean McDermott deserves credit for keeping Buffalo's defense afloat despite so many new faces.
The Bills mutually parted ways with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier following the 2022 season, and McDermott has taken over the play-calling on that side of the ball. Along with a coaching shift, The Bills lost Tremaine Edmunds in free agency and recently LB Matt Milano to a long-term injury, losing one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Pro Bowl corner Tre'Davious White and underrated DT Daquan Jones are also out for the season.
Despite all the changes and talent lost to injuries, the Bills are still the sixth-best defense in DVOA, with the seventh-ranked pass defense and 13th-ranked run defense. Buffalo is also tied for the league lead in sacks (24.0), has the fifth-highest pressure rate (41.1%), and the Bills are tied for the second-most takeaways with 13 turnovers through the first six weeks.
McDermott, a defensive-minded head coach, hasn't changed their defensive philosophy much without Frazier. The Bills still play the fifth-highest rate of zone coverage and major in split-safety schemes, with a league-highest rate of two-high safety shells (56.2%). Buffalo plays more cover three than any other coverage structure but bases out of cover-2 and continues to use a 4-3 over front with the defensive tackles lined up over the guards.
Every week, it feels like we preface the Patriots offensive game plan in the same way; if the Patriots offensive line can block Buffalo's defensive front, there are areas to attack in this Bills defense. With superstar edge rusher Von Miller back in the fold, Miller joins a disruptive front that includes Ed Oliver, Greg Rousseau, Leonard Floyd, A.J. Epenesa, and run-stuffer Jordan Phillips – this is another incredibly disruptive group.
Making a big assumption that they can hold their own against Buffalo's front, there are two ways that the Patriots can move the ball relatively well against this defense. First, running at and testing new linebackers Terrel Bernard and Dorian Williams. This is not even close to the peak Edmunds-Milano duo that the Bills had in the past. Bernard, a 2022 third-rounder, is having a nice start to his second season with a team-high 16 run stops, but Milano is an All-Pro linebacker, and Edmunds is a two-time Pro Bowler who now plays for Chicago.
New England has always had some success running the ball on the Bills over fronts by using pullers to attack the frontside B-Gap and backside C-Gap bubbles. Giants running back Saquon Barkley also hit some big runs using gap (trap) schemes that put the Bills linebackers right in the middle of things at the point of attack.
In the passing game, the Giants used a Bill O'Brien staple to attack the weak spots in the Bills pass defense. Above, the Giants are running "HOSS X-Follow" against Buffalo's staple cover two scheme. This concept gives the quarterback a single-high answer to the HOSS side and a two-high beater by flooding the short zones with X-Follow (No. 1 runs an in, No. 2 runs a return route). Tyrod throws the in-cut to the X-Follow side with the Bills in cover two.
In this play, the Giants are running the same passing concept. The Bills are in man coverage (cover 1) this time, so Tyrod throws the seam fade against a press-man corner. One would expect the Patriots to attack CB Christian Benford as the Giants did here, as Benford has allowed a 68.4% completion rate into his coverage this season.
The Giants are having similar issues with line play and consistency in the passing game and only scored nine points against the Bills last Sunday night. But Daboll and O'Brien are cut from the same cloth, and the Giants put some good things on film the Patriots can use.
Borrowing From #PatriciaBall. No, Really.
Before you scroll past this section, hear me out; the first half in the season-finale versus Buffalo was probably the Patriots best half of offense against the Bills in Mac Jones's career.
Granted, it all fell apart when Jones threw three second-half interceptions, but the Pats game plan in the opening two quarters had Jones dealing. The Patriots quarterback was 13-of-16 for 119 yards and two touchdowns while generating +0.32 expected points added per drop-back.
The Patriots came out firing offensively by getting the Bills into single-high coverage playing from under center, with Jones completing all seven of his play-action pass attempts for an 8.9-yard average. Above, the Pats get man coverage on first down, typically a split-safety down for Buffalo, and Jones throws the safer dig route to the outside receiver on double in-breakers.
When the Bills played their split-safety zone schemes on early downs, Patricia had Jones attack the underneath coverage rather than throw into the teeth of the defense down the field, using bunch formations to present quick-game answers, which we've seen O'Brien do plenty.
Ultimately, Jones struggled in the second half throwing into Buffalo's split-safety zones, with all three of his interceptions coming against those coverages, and two on passes over 15 air yards (19.8 and 15.8 yards). O'Brien will hopefully get Jones to make better decisions by avoiding testing downfield coverage against split-safety zones.
Although it's tough to trust this group right now, there's hope for this offense if they stick to what works against the Bills defense.
- Patriots CB Jonathan Jones/J.C. Jackson vs Bills WR Stefon Diggs - here we go again. The Pats defense hasn't had an answer for Diggs since he got to Buffalo. Last season, Diggs had two 90-plus-yard games and a touchdown in each. Diggs is being targeted on vertical routes this season even more than usual, so instead of a "cone" bracket where the Pats defend him inside-out, it might be better to have a corner underneath with safety help over the top. You have to make Allen beat you by throwing to someone other than Diggs. I wouldn't be surprised if he's doubled significantly.
- Patriots LB Marte Mapu vs. Bills QB Josh Allen - The Pats rookie didn't play a single snap in Vegas last week. But, in theory, Mapu was drafted for this matchup. Are you actually going to use him or not? He's here to spy Allen, right? He has to be. Come on, Bill.
- Patriots RT Vederian Lowe vs. Bills EDGE Von Miller - here we go again, part two. It's another week where Lowe is in a huge mismatch against an elite edge rusher. Miller is still working his way back from a torn ACL on Thanksgiving last year. But if it's Lowe again, Miller will be a problem. Greg Rousseau is a pretty good pass-rusher, too. Is Conor McDermot ready?