For the first time in nearly 60 years, one of the NFL’s liveliest rivalries will move onto the postseason stage.
Despite all the meaningful games the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots have played over the years, Saturday night’s wild card tilt at 8:15 p.m. on CBS will be the first postseason matchup of the teams since 1963. The Boston Patriots won that one, 26-8, after nearly a monthlong delay following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The primary conversation so far in this one has been the weather, far from surprising given the venue. The temperature at kickoff at Buffalo’s Orchard Park figures to be in the single digits, prompting a bit of unsolicited advice from former NFL linebacker Bart Scott for Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
What's the secret for NFL players who have to play games in sub-zero temps?@BartScott57: "Take some Viagra."
— Get Up (@GetUpESPN) January 13, 2022
Allen’s performance, as usual, will be under a microscope. See, the last time these teams played in foul weather, Bill Belichick turned back the clock to 1960s-era football, attempting just three forward passes amid a howling windstorm and prevailing 14-10 on Dec. 6. Allen completed just half of his 30 pass attempts in that game. Buffalo avenged that loss with a 33-21 win at Foxborough 20 days later in less apocalyptic weather conditions.
There hasn’t been much line movement in this game, not surprising given that it’s the third meeting of the season between the teams. Buffalo, the AFC’s third seed, remains mostly a 4.5-point favorite, though you can get -4 at FanDuel. The over/under opened at 43.5, where it has remained at some books, though most have moved to 44, including Caesars.
When the Bills have the ball
Belichick practically tied Mac Jones’ right arm behind his back in that Dec. 6 game, allowing him to throw just one pass in the first half. It was the first time in more than 40 years that an NFL team had attempted that few passes in a first half and won.
It was less a commentary on Jones’ abilities and more about the wind and New England’s defense, the fourth best in the NFL. However, Belichick won’t be able to count on 40 mph wind gusts this time to slow down Allen, and New England hasn’t been able to stop other teams lately. In the five games since that loss, the Bills have scored an average of 29.4 points per contest. And in that second matchup with New England, Allen threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns without throwing a pick.
The Bills have been committed to improving their running game and they showed signs of doing just that late in the season. They beat Atlanta 29-17 in Week 17 despite three Allen interceptions, thanks to improved blocking and Devin Singletary, who rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Having a second playmaker to take some scrutiny off the passing game and Allen’s own running ability could be the key to this game.
The New England run defense sputtered late in the season, allowing 270 yards rushing when they played the Titans on Nov. 28 and another 228 when they faced the run-heavy Colts three weeks later. If Singletary and Allen can break off some big runs early, New England could be in trouble. The Pats didn’t exactly look spry in the season’s final month, winning just one of their final four games, with that lone victory coming against the lowly Jaguars. In those three losses, the Patriots committed seven turnovers and forced only one.
When the Pats have the ball
Is Jones ready for this stage? Well, if he wants to keep up his Q-rating in New England, he had better be. He’ll be the first New England quarterback not named Tom Brady to start a postseason game since Scott Zolak in 1999.
Jones may have been the best rookie quarterback in the NFL this season, but he hasn’t been playing like it lately. Jones has been responsible for six of the aforementioned seven turnovers, with one of his interceptions going for a Miami pick six in the Pats’ 33-24 loss to end the regular season. Jones called his performance in that game “super embarrassing.”
New England ranks 27th in pass-run ratio as Belichick has looked to take the pressure off Jones, but it’s doubtful the Pats will be able to rely as extensively on the run in this game as they did in that windstorm five weeks ago.
The Bills appeared to confuse Jones in the second game this year with more man coverage than the Pats were expecting. Jones completed just 14 of his 32 passes in that game for 145 yards and the worst passer rating of his career.
It’s pretty obvious the Patriots would like to get a lead in this game, rely heavily on the run, and hope Allen makes a mistake that lets them pad it. The problem is, New England’s quarterback has been making too many mistakes of his own lately and there’s only so much the coaching staff can do at a certain point, particularly if the weather isn’t on their side.
Photo: Jamie Germano/USA Today