(Josh Allen photo courtesy Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports)
This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.
Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.
Just like everybody had it circled on the NFL schedule when it was released — the 3-0 defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots facing the 3-0 Buffalo Bills.
Though it smacks of hyperbole, the Buffalo Bills may need to win this game Sunday to prevent the New England Patriots from running away with the AFC East.
In all fairness to the Bills, though, this game does represent a valid measuring stick game about the progress second-year quarterback Josh Allen has made since becoming the full-time starter last year and how much of Buffalo’s first 3-0 start in eight years can be attributed to him or a soft schedule.
The Patriots, though, have roared through the first three games in dominant fashion and have yet to allow a touchdown defensively. New England has outscored opponents 106-17 and torn through its other two AFC East rivals — the horrid Miami Dolphins and New York Jets — by a combined 73-14 after pasting the Jets 30-14 last Sunday.
The defending Super Bowl champions have not only looked the part of defending champions, they may even be better than last year — a frightening proposition considering tight end Rob Gronkowski retired and Antonio Brown lasted all of one game before the embattled wide receiver got embroiled in another off-field controversy that led to the Patriots cutting him.
Yet New England’s offense has just plowed through any and all internal and external obstacles on that side of the ball. Tom Brady has been near-flawless, throwing for 911 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception and completing 67.9 percent of his passes.
Four receivers already have at least 10 catches, paced by Julian Edelman’s 17, and Phillip Dorsett has caught three of Brady’s seven TD tosses while totaling 13 catches for 87 yards.
While the defense has benefited from playing a pair of overmatched opponents in the first three weeks, the Patriots have still put up gaudy numbers on that side of the ball as well. New England has given up an average of 199 yards in the three wins and limited New York and Miami to a combined 289 in the last two.
The run defense has yet to concede as run longer than nine yards and limiting opponents to 2.29 yards per carry while making seven tackles for loss. New England has forced six takeaways — all via interceptions — and recorded 13 sacks.
The Bills’ first 3-0 start since 2011 — a season that ended 6-10 by the way — has come from contributions on both sides of the ball. Allen has shown a dual-threat capability, throwing for 750 yards and three touchdowns while picking up another 105 on the ground with a pair of scores.
The latter proved critical in Sunday’s 21-17 victory over Cincinnati as Allen finished with 46 yards on nine carries and scrambles. He had 21 of those yards on three runs in a four-play span during Buffalo’s game-winning drive, which was capped by veteran Frank Gore bulling his way in from a yard out with 1:54 to play.
Buffalo has averaged 151.3 yards on the ground in the first three games, but the Bills would welcome back rookie running back Devin Singletary after he sat out Sunday with a hamstring injury. The third-round pick averaged 12.7 yards on 10 carries in his first two games, giving Buffalo a different look in the backfield compared to the 36-year-old workhorse Gore.
The Bills’ defense is yielding 299.7 yards per game but was strong again versus the run Sunday in limiting the Bengals to 67 yards. Buffalo’s run defense appears to be a feast-or-famine group — it has recorded eight tackles for loss but also given up 11 runs of 10 or more yards.
In order for Buffalo to achieve its first 4-0 start since 2008 — another season that ended with a losing record at 7-9 — the Bills are going to have to play a near-flawless game to end a five-game losing streak to the Patriots and defeat Brady for just the fourth time in 34 tries.
Patriots run offense vs Bills run offense
For the Patriots, a key portion of their offensive proficiency is having strength in numbers. In this instance, it means depth at the running back position with Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead.
White missed last weekend’s win versus the Jets as his wife was giving birth, which resulted in Burkhead seamlessly stepping in and accounting for 69 yards rushing and receiving to go with a touchdown.
One of the few areas of concern offensively is Michel getting off to a slow start. The second-year running back is averaging just 2.4 yards per carry, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick has noted it has been a combination of things that have prevented Michel from getting into gear, something he hopes happens in this contest.
“There’s been times where he hasn’t been able to get started and that’s always a problem with the running game,” Belichick said at his Wednesday availability. “If you can’t get them through the line of scrimmage, you can gain some yards, but it’s hard. There are things he can do better.
“Certainly we can block better and coach better so we’ll try to do those and improve in every part of our offense, not just the running game but play-actions and passing game and everything else.”
The Bills have been spotty against the run in their first three games, sometimes making big plays but also sometimes allowing chunks of yardage. They had five plays in which they recorded tackles for loss versus the Bengals but also yielded four runs of 10 or more yards.
Buffalo ranks eighth against the run, yielding 88 yards per game, making it one of four teams to be in the top 10 in the league in run offense and defense. Last season, the Patriots offense played two distinct ways versus the Bills last season, rolling up 311 passing yards in a 25-6 road win and then riding Michel for 116 yards in a 24-12 victory at home.
The Bills also lost a key part of their depth along the defensive line with tackle Harrison Phillips lost for the season with a torn ACL. It leaves Buffalo with only three defensive tackles on its roster, including first-round pick Ed Oliver.
“He was developing,” Bills coach Sean McDermott told ESPN.com about Phillips. “A good, young player and an important part of our defense.”
Patriots pass offense vs Bills pass defense
Edelman and Gordon were known quantities within New England’s passing game, with Gordon taking on the role of designated deep threat with Gronkowski retired. But the surprise element in the early going has been the play of Dorsett.
Originally acquired in the 2017 trade with Indianapolis when the Patriots sent them Jacoby Brissett, Dorsett is still technically not a starter, but has had his number called more often. Brady has targeted him 14 times through three games, a much higher rate than the 42 last season when he caught 32 passes, and has run the whole route tree well.
Last week, his average yards at the point of the catch was only 4.2, well off his season mark of 10.0, but he made up for it by averaging 4.7 yards after the catch on his six receptions.
“We put him all over the field, and (he) just continues to improve,” Brady told NESN on Wednesday. “I think this has been a big year for Phil. He’s worked really hard, put himself in a great position to take advantage of his opportunities, and he’s certainly done it, so everyone’s happy for Phil. Nobody deserves it more than him. And he’s going to need to keep doing it.”
A key feature of Buffalo’s impressive start has been its secondary. Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are one of the better tandems in the league, and the high-quality play has filtered throughout the back end.
Much the way Belichick schemes his defense with a vanilla look that morphs into something exotic during the play, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has that same ability thanks to his safeties and players with active hands at all three levels. Buffalo has registered 24 passes broken up, which is tied for second in the NFL and behind only the Patriots (25).
“What I see on the field a lot from some of our opponents during the course of the season, and you hear it. They have a hard time understanding our coverages sometimes and what they are going to get based on what we have shown,” Frazier told the team’s official website. “It has a lot to do with what our safeties are doing and that has a lot to do with why we were number one in the league a year ago in pass defense.”
This season has been more of the same early as Buffalo ranks in the top 10 in yards allowed, opponent completion percentage and in the top three in yards per attempt, yards per completion, and average gain per pass play.
Bills run offense vs Patriots run defense
The Bills ground game is, when at full strength, the three-pronged attack of Gore, Allen, and Singletary as the change-of-pace back. Buffalo was able to survive without Montgomery last week against a porous Bengals defense, but thriving against what has been a standout Patriots run defense without him is a tall order.
Allen is difficult to take down at 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds, and unafraid to take off as soon as he sees a running lane, and Gore is fourth all-time in rushing yards, a steady veteran who can take on limited bursts of additional work like he did against the Bengals.
“He’s like a running back. He breaks tackles, he’s got good speed, good power and he’s shifty and he avoids and breaks a lot of tackles,” Belichick noted about Allen. “Yeah, that’s another dimension. A sixth receiver in the passing game, if you will, and gives you another blocker in the running game when they have designed run plays for him.”
Singletary did not practice Wednesday, which marked the fourth straight one he has sat out due to his hamstring injury. The Bills do have depth at running back as T.J. Yeldon had his first touches of the season last week with eight carries for 30 yards. Yeldon, though, does not appear to have that dynamic movement Singeltary showed in his first two NFL games.
Yeldon also had a fumble in the red zone last week, further showing the importance of the Bills rookie.
The Patriots run defense shares some elements in common with the Bears in that it counts on its linemen to occupy the offensive linemen so linebackers Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and safety can clean up.
New England ranks third in the league in lowest percentage of four-yard runs or more allowed at 31.3 — well below the league average of 44.7 percent. According to both coaches and players, the success is not about any specific scheme, but rather an adherence to fundamentals and winning 1-on-1 battles.
“You need to play with your hands first, get your hands on the guy you’re playing against, and also driving your feet, pushing them back behind the line of scrimmage, and in a sense creating a new line of scrimmage,” lineman Deatrich Wise told the Newbury Port News. “And then getting off blocks successfully and making a play.”
Bills pass offense vs Patriots pass defense
In a way, the Bills have mirrored the Patriots with their acquisition of wide receiver Cole Beasley. He has made an instant impact with 17 catches for 171 yards, giving Allen a dependable target who has the potential to turn short passes into big gains.
He also brings a needed amount of swagger into this game given the Bills historic lack of success in this series.
“I don’t know anything about it, dude,” Beasley dismissively added to The Associated Press when asked about New England’s success over Buffao. “I don’t know. It’s another game, another week, just preparing the same way we do every other week. It’s all about the process for us and we still have so many new guys on offense, I don’t know what the number is, like eight new guys on offense or something crazy. We’re just trying to figure out what we do well and what we do best.”
While Beasley does most of his work underneath, John Brown has emerged as the deep threat with 18 catches for 246 yards and a touchdown. Buffalo also has been integrating tight end Dawson Knox into the passing game more, and he is coming off his best game of the season with three catches for 67 yards and a touchdown versus Cincinnati.
One of the luxuries of having a shutdown corner is it essentially closes off half the field and allows a rotation of coverage into the other half to help neutralize an opponent’s passing game. Now put that luxury in the hands of Belichick on a week-to-week basis, and it forms one of the tentpoles of his philosophy of taking the away the best thing an offense does.
That is what ex-Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore does for the Patriots.
Given the Patriots have yet to trail this season, opponents have had to test Gilmore in their bids to try and overturn deficits, but it has not met with much success. Opposing QBs are 8 for 16 for 80 yards throwing Gilmore’s way, and he has broken up three passes. He also notched a pick-six in the Week 2 win over Miami.
Belichick could match Gilmore up against either Brown or Beasley, but he also has depth at the position with Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, and Jonathan Jones.
Special Teams and Other Things
Though not enough to call it a concern, it is worth noting Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski has missed more extra points (3) than missed field goals (1), though he has made 6 of 7 in the latter category. He also has not made a field goal longer than 41 yards, with the lone miss coming from 48.
New punter Jake Bailey has performed to Belichick’s high expectations, putting nine of his 13 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and allowing only two to be returned for a grand total of five yards. Gostkowski has been reliable on kickoffs, though, as 19 of his 22 have resulted in touchbacks.
As for Belichick, the game is the same old, same old for him. Find the team’s strength then find a way to neutralize it. He noted Buffalo’s improvement on defense during his weekly media availability, complimenting Jackson’s ability to hide coverages and their sound fundamental play across the board.
After waxing two overmatched opponents, it will be interesting to see if the Patriots work their way into this game or come out hard — they have outscored opponents 53-0 in the first half, with the defense setting the tone while the offense catches up.
It is the biggest game for Bills Mafia since last year’s home game versus New England, which was a Monday night affair and an above-average defensive battle until the Patriots pulled away late with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns — one on an 84-yard interception return by Devin McCourty — to cap a 25-6 victory.
Allen was not under center in that game due to injury, with then-backup Derek Anderson overmatched by New England’s defense most of the contest. Buffalo’s defense is going to have to put forth a similar effort to have any chance of pulling off the upset here, and that means Frazier forcing the Patriots off the field, or at the very least, avoiding giving up big plays.
Having Singletary back would be a huge boost for the offense, which also needs to sustain drives to help limit Brady’s damage. McDermott has schemed well against the Patriots in his two seasons in Buffalo, and now he is starting to have the talent that can execute those schemes at a higher level.
Picks and Plays
The Patriots are the pick in this game, but the line bears close watching all the way to kickoff since a hook in either direction will add or detract confidence in taking them at either 6.5 or 7.5 points compared to the current spread of a flat touchdown.
New England is an impressive 18-8 ATS in its last 26 games as a road favorite and 12-3 ATS in its last 15 on the road versus teams with a winning home record. The Pats are also 16-5-1 against the number in their last 22 in Buffalo, while the Bills are 2-5 in their last seven as home underdogs.
This line swung completely through the flat-touchdown total to the low-end hook at 41.5 points in the final hour before kickoff, but the under is still a solid play. There is still a healthy amount of skepticism regarding Buffalo’s offense and its effectiveness. Add in what looks to be one of Belichick’s best defensive units ever — weak early opposition aside — and it has the feel of a game in which only one team, if either, will reach 20 points.
Both teams have one key offensive cog listed as questionable for this game — Edelman for the Patriots and Singletary for the Bills. Both have the potential to be game-breakers, but the Patriots at least have fill-ins at wide receiver should Edelman not play.
Singletary is a unique part of Buffalo’s offense, with Yeldon a lesser version of him. If the rookie running back cannot play, expect another heavy dose of Gore between the tackles with Allen occasionally testing the edge to see what is available against a stout Pats run defense.
The Patriots still remain the play, though, especially without a high-side hook to dissuade from taking the Bills.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: New England Patriots 24, Buffalo Bills 14
UNDER 41.5 points
The under is 5-2 in the last seven meetings between the teams but also trending strongly for both individual clubs. It is 7-2 in New England’s last nine matchups with AFC East teams and 6-2 in its last eight on the road.
On Buffalo’s side, the under is 9-3 in its last 12 games as an underdog and 5-0 in its last five following a straight up victory. The under has also hit four times in the Bills’ last five versus above-.500 teams. There are some places where this has slipped to 42 points, so shop around in a bid to try and find the hook to help your cause, though there is still plenty of confidence in the under.
The “5” in this instance is the best prop play of the three that will be given, and getting a high-side hook on a TD+FG combination is too good to pass up given the caliber of New England’s defense. Allen’s lone touchdown drive against the Patriots last year came with the game well decided, and one of the two scoring drives that ended in field goals began just outside the New England red zone.
Other prop plays worth considering:
Bills UNDER 17.5 points (-110) — BEST PLAY
James White OVER 34.5 receiving yards (-114)
Phillip Dorsett OVER 50.5 receiving yards (-114)
Both picks are hedging Edelman could aggravate his injury and be a limited participant in this game. Of the two picks, though, White is the better play given Buffalo’s secondary should do a decent job against New England’s receivers and make Brady check down to White, who should be able to carry his number with ease.
Dorsett is more of a challenge, but offers two-way value — if Edelman stays in the game, Dorsett should find favorable matchups as New England’s No. 3 receiver, and if Edelman is limited, Dorsett has the speed to run underneath routes and pick up multiple targets to get him over his total.
Patriots -4 1st Half (-110)
That plus-53 first-half margin with no points allowed for the Patriots shines like a neon sign begging to take them for the first two quarters. The other positive is that if New England is held to one touchdown, it could still finish with no worse than a push if they keep Buffalo in check for a halftime score such as 7-3, 10-6, or even 14-10.
UNDER 20.5 points 1st Half (-110)
Buffalo’s offense has picked up the pace in its last two games with 35 points, but facing the Patriots is an entirely different animal than scoring points against the Giants and Bengals. The low-side hook on a touchdown total prevents an aggressive play, but there is still more confidence in New England’s defense than Buffalo’s offense.
Patriots OVER 12 points (-105)
The Patriots have scored at least 13 first-half points in their last five regular-season games dating back to the final two weeks of 2018. Though the Bills defense is formidable, so is Brady and New England’s offense, who can move the ball in a variety of fashions to counter Buffalo’s strong secondary.
Two touchdowns will be challenging, but certainly within reach for Brady and the Patriots.