WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
Although Rex Burkhead is back in the mix following a neck injury, Sony Michel has clearly become New England’s No. 1 option at running back. Michel has three 100-yard games this season, which is the most by a New England rookie since Robert Edwards had three 100-yard games in 1998. Running room may be hard to find since the Bills have one of the league’s top defenses. The good news is that Buffalo has been better at defending the pass than the run. Five of Buffalo’s last seven opponents failed to rush for more than 83 yards, although the Bills did lose linebacker Matt Milano to a broken fibula during a Week 14 loss against the Jets. Milano required season-ending surgery. The Patriots ran for 76 yards on 25 carries during their first meeting with the Bills this season, and Michel has been held in check over the past several weeks.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
This could be a tough test for Tom Brady and company. Through their first 13 games, the Bills led the league in pass defense. Julian Edelman and James White each put up big numbers in the receiving department when the Patriots beat the Bills 25-6 in October. Edelman caught nine passes for a game-high 104 yards in that contest, and White led all receivers with 10 catches for 79 yards. Brady was 29 of 45 for 324 yards in that game but did not throw a touchdown pass. He’ll also be without Josh Gordon on the outside after the receiver stepped away from the team to deal with off-field issues. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander leads the Bills with 6.5 sacks, and two of those came in the loss to New England. Defensive end Jerry Hughes has 6 sacks, and defensive lineman Kyle Williams has 5.
WHEN THE BILLS RUN
The Bills were limited to 46 yards on 19 rushing attempts in their loss to the Patriots earlier this season. Here’s how tough it was for Buffalo’s running game that day: LeSean McCoy, Buffalo’s top running back, gained 13 yards on 12 carries, and that included one run of 12 yards. Quarterback Josh Allen has been Buffalo’s leading rusher this season. He rushed for more than 100 yards in losses to the Dolphins and the Jets, and has gained 351 yards on the ground in his last four games. The Patriots have allowed an average of at least 5.3 yards per carry in nine of their last 10 games, including a season-high 189 yards (9.2 per rushing attempt) in the loss to the Dolphins. The Patriots will be more focused on the run against a rookie quarterback with a limited passing game, so things should improve this week. Keeping Allen in the pocket will be the key.
WHEN THE BILLS PASS
This looks like the biggest mismatch in the game — not so much because the Patriots have defended the pass well but because Buffalo hasn’t been able to generate much offense through the air. Allen has yet to pass for more than 245 yards in a game, and the Bills have eight touchdowns passes in 13 games. The Bills entered their Week 15 matchup with Detroit ranked 31st in passing offense. Allen did not play when Buffalo lost to New England earlier this year, but Derek Anderson passed for 290 yards in that loss. The Patriots were 29th among NFL teams in sacks after their Week 14 loss to Miami, even though they collected a season-high five sacks in that game. Trey Flowers leads New England with 6.5 sacks. Allen hasn’t consistently shown the ability to move the ball through the air and is completing just 52 percent of his passes. Rookie Robert Foster has emerged as of late and has 19 receptions for 468 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but the Bills don’t have enough weapons to truly threaten the Patriots secondary.
Buffalo hasn’t been good on special teams, and some in the Buffalo media openly questioned whether or not Danny Crossman, the team’s special teams coach, would keep his job after a messy performance in a Week 14 loss to the Jets. Stephen Hauschka had a field goal attempt blocked in that loss, and Buffalo also allowed returns of 51 and 86 yards in the first half that led to 10 points. Those returns allowed the Jets to keep things close in a game that saw Buffalo outgain New York 230-68 in the first half. New England hasn’t been good in kick coverage this season either, and Stephen Gostkowski missed a PAT and a field goal attempt in the Week 14 loss to the Dolphins. Albert McClellan turned in the rare feat of blocking two punts in that loss, and the coverage turned in an excellent play to down a punt at Steelers 1 last week.
The Patriots are back at home for this contest after playing four of their last five games on the road. New England is 6-0 at Gillette Stadium this season and is averaging 33.5 points per game in those six victories. Buffalo has a 2-5 road record and is averaging 15.1 points away from home. The Patriots have also won 15 of the last 17 games against Buffalo that were played at Gillette Stadium. New England should be the more motivated team as well, since the Patriots have more to gain with a victory. New England is playing for a home game and a bye in the AFC playoffs, while the Bills have already been eliminated from playoff contention. Buffalo has been outscored by 136 points in the first half of its nine losses this season, so a strong start by the Patriots may take the drama out of this game early.