It’s Now Or Never For Heavily Favored Bills As Carolina Pays A Visit

Buffalo hosts the reeling Panthers with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance
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It used to be that facing Bill Belichick and Tom Brady was a trying puzzle for NFL teams to solve. As the Buffalo Bills just found out, facing either/or also poses quite the challenge.

After hard-fought losses to Belichick’s streaking New England Patriots and Brady’s reigning champs from Tampa, the Bills’ path to the playoffs now eases considerably. Three of the Bills’ final four games are against weaker teams, with the other one a shot at revenge on Belichick coming the day after Christmas in Foxborough.

A letdown against a struggling Carolina Panthers team on Sunday would imperil the Bills’ hopes of winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl. Could Carolina pull the upset? Seems unlikely given everything swirling around the Panthers (5-8), who are 1-4 in their last five, with that win coming against the Colt McCoy-led Arizona Cardinals in Week 10.

Carolina hoped bringing back Cam Newton might provide a boost, but he has been erratic enough that ex-XFL quarterback P.J. Walker has been inserted in each of the last couple games and offensive coordinator Joe Brady, a respected mind in NFL circles, was fired less than two weeks ago. It’s amazing what havoc a season-ending injury to one of the NFL’s best playmakers, in this case Christian McCaffrey, can wreak.

For what it’s worth, Carolina coach Matt Ruhle said this week that he’ll stick with Cam as his starter. Newton’s career certainly isn’t headed the right direction, as he has lost his last 11 starts. The Bills, whose pass defense ranks first in the NFL in yards per attempt (5.7) and opponent QBR (67.7) don’t figure to make Cam & Co.’s jobs any easier this week, especially if a hamstring injury keeps Carolina’s best receiver, D.J. Moore, on the sideline.

How do the Bills respond?

Josh Allen was a bit limited in practice this week due to a toe injury, but it certainly looks like he’ll go in this one, sparing Bills fans the sight of Mitchell Trubisky trotting out there in a crucial game (they’re all crucial at this point). They certainly can’t entirely blame Allen for the team’s disappointing 7-6 record. He was brilliant in the second half against Tampa and, overall, threw for 308 yards and two scores along with running for another 109 and a touchdown.

Still, critical Bills observers will note his sub-90 quarterback rating in the team’s last three losses. The health of his toe is crucial because the Bills probably aren’t going to be able to win this one through the air, as Carolina has the best pass defense in the NFL.

Expect Buffalo to play with a little anger after the tough losses, meaning the Panthers might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Bills are aware of their playoff positioning (a seventh seed, just a game ahead of the Miami Dolphins, for crying out loud), so they should play with the requisite energy.

They figure to come after Newton hard in this game, but that’s nothing new. The Bills have pressured the opposing QB in 27.6 percent of their snaps, best in the NFL. His struggles, plus all the heat Buffalo’s front seven and blitzers will bring, could make for another chaotic Sunday for the Panthers’ woeful offense.

Betting trends

The Panthers are in disarray and it shows at the betting window. They’ve lost their last three games against the spread (ATS), making them 5-8 ATS on the season. On the other hand, an over bet cashed in their last three games.

Buffalo is 1-3 in its last four ATS. Overall, the Bills are an even 6-6 ATS and 6-7 in covering the over. The line opened at Buffalo -9.5 and was bet up to as high as -12 before settling at 11.5 at many books on Friday. The Bills could be bet at -11 at DraftKings , while Caesars was among a few books offering them at -12.

Per DraftKings, Buffalo is still -300 to make the playoffs, so nobody seems to be jumping ship just yet. In fact, now might be a decent time to buy low. The Bills are +1200 to win the Super Bowl.

One interesting nugget: Carolina has covered as a road underdog in eight of its last nine.

The total is set at 44.5, and whether the teams eclipse that total figures to boil down to the quarterbacks — specifically, the health of Allen’s toe and the ability of Newton to run a competent offense. As of this writing, DraftKings was offering under 44.5 at -105.

The upshot

The key to how easily the Bills handle Carolina – or, perhaps, whether they handle them at all – is, of course, Allen. The Bills are 6-1 in games in which Allen’s QBR is over 100. As usual, he’ll be looking to get the ball to Stefon Diggs as often as possible, but Carolina’s standout corner Stephon Gilmore could have something to say about that. The Stefan-Stephon matchup might be the most intriguing confrontation of the afternoon.

The Panthers, as mentioned earlier, have a very good pass defense, having held Matt Ryan to under seven yards per attempt last week. It might make sense to run the ball more in this game, but Allen’s sore toe might complicate that. You wonder whether the Bills’ coaches have lost some trust in Devin Singletary, as they didn’t call a run play for anyone other than Allen in the first half against New England. This would be a good time to try to re-establish a traditional ground game.

The expected total is low for all of the reasons mentioned above, and relatively good weather by Buffalo-in-December standards, with temperatures that might even creep above freezing, could make that a decent play, particularly if Allen plays like he did in the second half last week.

Photo: Jamie Germano/USA TODAY

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