ORCHARD PARK — In case anyone forgot — and given the events of the past week, no one would blame you — the Buffalo Bills have a pretty important game coming up Sunday afternoon.
Lost in the avalanche of emotions sparked by the chilling scene that unfolded Monday night in Cincinnati when Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field from cardiac arrest, the Bills end one of the most fascinating regular seasons in team history with a chance to… to secure the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.
And how juicy is that? It happens to meet their arch-rivals from the AFC East, the New England Patriots, who are playing for their lives after the season at an obviously emotionally charged Highmark Stadium.
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If the Patriots win, they’re in seventh, but if they lose, they’ll need help elsewhere to get in through the back door. They would need the Dolphins to lose to the Jets, the Steelers to lose to the Browns, and the Titans to lose to the Jaguars or tie them. So yes, they really have to win.
Jump to:Sal’s Bills vs Patriots Prediction
But while the Bills are already AFC East champions, their stakes are huge, too. They need to go to Kansas City to lose in Las Vegas on Saturday night to keep their top seed hopes alive, but even if the Chiefs win, a Bills win would lock out the all-important No. 2 seed, what at least two playoff home games means.
That matters because if the Bills eventually make it to the AFC title game and the Chiefs lose in the divisional round, Buffalo would host and have a shot at qualifying for Super Bowl 57.
Strangely, despite all of this, almost no one said a word about the game because all attention was focused on the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Hamlin is recovering greatly.
This is obviously great news for him, his family and the entire Bills organization. And getting it back to football has certainly allowed the relieved team to put their much-needed attention back on preparing for a game the Bills would love to win and turn to Hamlin.
“It’s like cramming for an exam that you’ve probably been waiting for until the last minute. I think that’s what we’re trying to do right now,” said general manager Brandon Beane of the Bills’ shortened training week. “These guys are professionals. They will be ready on Sunday.”
Here’s my preview of the game:
Buffalo Bills on offense: Josh Allen owned the Patriots
Allen has had surgery in his last three meetings with New England, counting wild card play last year. He completed 69.5% of his passes for 845 yards with 10 TDs and no interceptions. In the December 1 game at Foxborough, he was 22-of-33 for 223 yards and helped the Bills control the ball for more than 38 minutes, despite some mid-game slippage.
New England, with their outstanding pass rush led by Josh Uche, who had two sacks that night (albeit with LT Dion Dawkins being sidelined and replaced by David Quessenberry), put pressure on Allen, but he did a great job to escape to find completions and that was a big reason the Bills converted 9 of 15 third downs, leading to the dominant period of possession. He was able to bring Stefon Diggs into play and that will be essential in this game as well. On the first drive against the Bengals, you could see Allen looking for Diggs, who’s been a bit stuck lately.
The Patriots rank fourth in the NFL for lowest completion percentage allowed (61.6%) and lowest passer rating (82.3), mostly because of their pass rush, but also because DBs like Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jabrill Peppers and Jonathan Jones played well. Dugger, in particular, was a force with three picks, two of which he returned for TDs (he also has a fumble return TD) and 72 tackles.
Under Dugger’s leadership, this is a Patriots defense that has thrived on big games all year as it has scored a touchdown in four straight games, a first in team history and the first time since the Buccaneers in 2002, that an NFL team has done this. Overall, the Patriots have seven defensive TDs this season, the most in the NFL, and just as their offense has struggled all season, they’ve needed them all.
Buffalo Bills on Defense: Get Heat on Mac Jones
The Patriots QB is playing at a functional, even successful, level if he can deliver his first read, or at least has enough time in his pocket to get to his second read. But when a defense can throw him off that rhythm, he really struggles when things go off script.
In the earlier game, the Bills’ first game without injured edge-rusher Von Miller, they blitzed Jones with just three dropbacks but still pressured him 39.5% of the time, according to Pro Football Focus, and Jones was helpless .
Before a meaningless end to the game drive, Jones had just 129 yards of pass and the Patriots had four three-and-off possessions. They ended with just 242 yards and 14 first downs. And 48 of those first 129 yards came on a screen pass to fast defenseman Marcus Jones, resulting in their only TD of the game. It was the rookie’s first offensive snap all year, so he caught the Bills off guard.
First and foremost, the Bills have smothered RB Rhamondre Stevenson, never allowing him to get in the kind of flow that could take some of the load off Jones. As the Bills built a 17-7 lead at halftime, Stevenson had just 34 yards and finished with just 60. The Patriots need their running game because it allows Jones to leverage more game action, but that was never a factor that night .
For the Bills, stopping the run is the first step, and when that happens, it’s awfully hard to see the Patriots having a lot of success going forward.
If Hamlin’s condition hadn’t improved so much over the past few days I could have argued convincingly that this was going to be a very difficult task for the Bills as I tried to get motivated and prepare to play against an arch rival, who must win to reach the playoffs. The Bills already had a short week with Monday’s game in Cincinnati and then lost a day of practice because no one was willing to work with Hamlin in critical condition.
But now the pendulum has swung the other way, especially after players had a Zoom call with Hamlin on Friday morning that clearly energized them and got their spirits soaring. Hamlin’s situation will likely be a rallying point for the Bills now, and amid a frenetic atmosphere at home, the Bills should be able to stop New England’s anemic offensive and take care of business.
Bills vs. Patriots: News and Notes
▶ You’ll notice various honors in the league, particularly in Buffalo, to Hamlin. The Bills will wear a No. 3 patch on their jerseys and wear hats with his number. In addition, all clubs are allowed to outline the 3 in each 30 yard line number on the field in either red or blue. An announcement is also expected to be made at each stadium before the game to thank the first responders and medical team for their care.
▶ The Bills put Hamlin on the injured reserve list and activated CB Christian Benford off the list. He is expected to play on Sunday.
▶ Buffalo ranks second in the NFL for total offense with 402.3 yards per game, while New England ranks 26th with an average of 312.9 yards per game. The Bills average 28 points per game (fourth-highest in the NFL), while the Patriots average 21.3 points (17th in the NFL).
▶ A win would secure the Patriots their 36th winning season since the 1970 merger, second only to the Steelers’ 38.
▶ If he gains 14 rushing yards, Stevenson will become the first Patriot to reach 1,000 since LeGarrette Blount in 2016.
Buffalo Bills 2022 schedule
Thursday, September 8 at Rams, W31-10
Monday 19 Sept vs. Titans, W 41-7
Sunday 25th September at Dolphins, L 19-21
Sunday Oct. 2 at Ravens, W23-20
Sunday, October 9 vs. Steelers, W 38-3
Sunday, October 16 at Chiefs, W 24-20
Sunday October 23 Bye week
Sunday, October 30 v Packers, 8:20 p.m
Sunday 6 Nov at Jets, L 17-20
Sunday 13 Nov vs Vikings L 30-33
Sunday, Nov. 20 vs. Browns, W 31-23
Thu 11/24 at Lions, W 28-25
Thu 12/1 at Patriots, W 24-10
Sun. 12/11 vs Jets, W 20-12
Sat. 12/17, vs. Dolphins, W 32-29
Sat. 24.12. at Bears, W 35-13
Mon. 1/2 at Bengals, ppd.
Sun. 1/8 v Patriots, 1 p.m
Sal Maiorana can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana. To subscribe to Sal’s new twice-weekly newsletter, Bills Blast, please follow this link: https://profile.democratandchronicle.com/newsletters/bills-blast