WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
Outside of a disastrous performance across the board in Week 1 against Baltimore and Sunday’s meltdown against Indianapolis, the Bills have actually been pretty solid defensively. Entering Week 7, they ranked eighth in rushing yards allowed per game and sixth in yards allowed per play. The running game had become a strength for New England, but an injury to Sony Michel in Chicago could prove to be problematic. James White, who effectively helped salt away last week’s win over the Bears, will assume lead back responsibilities with Kenjon Barner filling a complementary role. That may or may not be enough against the Bills, who have posted solid overall numbers on run defense. Without Michel the Patriots will likely feature a less-balanced attack and that should allow Buffalo to control the running game.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
This a great matchup, as New England is starting to get the passing game in gear, even with Rob Gronkowski’s back injury taking him out of last week’s game in Chicago. Buffalo’s front seven is getting production from a number of key players. Jerry Hughes already has more sacks this year than all of last year, the interior line is improved and Jordan Poyer has been a ball hawk in the secondary. Entering Week 7, the Bills had not allowed a team to pass for 300 yards in 15 consecutive games, the longest streak in the NFL. Young corner Tre’Davious White is impressive, but with Julian Edelman rounding into form since returning from his suspension and Josh Gordon looking more and more comfortable each week, the Patriots passing game is tough to handle. Buffalo has the personnel to create mismatches up front, whether it’s Hughes or Trent Murphy in pursuit off the edge, but the offensive line has been excellent in pass protection and that will be key Monday night.
WHEN THE BILLS RUN
LeSean McCoy has been a workhorse most of his career, rushing for 1,000 or more yards in four of his last five seasons, including two with the Bills since Philadelphia traded him to Buffalo in 2015. This year has been a bit of a slow start for the 30-year-old, who, despite still being one of the Bills best offensive players may finally be reaching that inevitable decline that plagues most running backs in their 30s. He’s also dealing with a concussion that could have him out of the lineup Monday night. The Patriots have been up and down against the run, allowing 100 or more yards in each of the first three weeks before shutting down the Dolphins and Colts, who lack the personnel to beat teams on the ground. The Chiefs did damage on limited opportunities but the group bounced back with a better effort in Chicago last week, not including the scrambling efforts of Mitch Trubisky. The Bills don’t have many other options offensively other than running the ball, and without McCoy is hard to imagine much production.
WHEN THE BILLS PASS
New England’s maligned secondary should get a break this week against a passing offense not equipped to exploit its recent inability to defend big plays. Devin McCourty has struggled in coverage, and the front seven can’t consistently generate the kind of pressure to knock opposing quarterbacks out of rhythm. But the Bills are a mess right now with rookie first-round draft pick Josh Allen dealing with an elbow injury that will keep sidelined for a few weeks. Since they don’t trust Nathan Peterman after benching him in Week 1, they now have 35-year-old journeyman Derek Anderson as their starter for the time being. Second-year receiver Zay Jones is finally meeting expectations, and tight end Charles Clay is worth keeping an eye on, but the Bills can’t possibly be expected to compete with this nightmarish quarterback situation.
The Patriots entered Week 7 against the Bears allowing the fourth highest number of kick return yards in the NFL, which is startling for a team that pays as much attention to detail on special teams as they do. But they turned around their misfortune Sunday in Chicago. After an early fumble that put Chicago back in the game, Cordarrelle Patterson redeemed himself with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Patriots also blocked a punt that resulted in a touchdown and suddenly look much safer on special teams than they did two weeks ago. What’s even more promising is Buffalo is an absolute mess on special teams after muffing a punt, nearly losing the ball on a kickoff and then having a punt blocked in a loss to the Texans, so the Patriots could have more opportunities for game-breaking plays Monday.
Monday Night Football on the road within your own division is always a tall task, and the Patriots always have at least one, maybe two, slip-ups against AFC East rivals in a tough spot like this one. But the Bills just don’t have the personnel to match New England on any stage, let alone this one. It’s hard to get past the idea that the Bills are relying on a 35-year-old who hasn’t attempted more than 98 passes in a single season since 2010, no matter how bad New England’s secondary has been in recent weeks. Buffalo’s only hope is its defense making some big plays early to get the team off to a fast start and whipping the crowd into a frenzy. It’s also hard to image what schedule-makers were thinking when they scheduled this game in a prime time Monday night slot, considering the Patriots have won 26 of their last 29 against the Bills. Buffalo’s wild crowd gives the Bills the intangibles, but not much else.