5 focal points if the Patriots are to upset the Bills

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If the Patriots are to get the win Thursday night against the Bills at Gillette Stadium it’ll obviously be an upset.

As Bill Belichick said, it will clearly take New England’s “best game” to get the job done.

While Buffalo may not be playing its best football of the year, the Josh Allen-led squad is still the 8-3 favorite in this AFC East battle that’s pretty critical to both teams as we hit the month of December.

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The two-time defending division champions, Buffalo has won four of the last five matchups in the series and obviously dismantled the Patriots in dominating fashion the last two times the teams met. Those meetings last December and January were borderline non-competitive as the Bills – stop me if you’ve heard this a time or two this offseason and million times this short week -- never punted in either contest.

The cause doesn’t seem as lost or hopeless this time around is it did last January. While it will still be considered a significant upset if New England can secure the victory – and shake up the potential postseason projections for both teams -- there are a few focal points of attack the Patriots can certainly target to get the job done.

1 – Turnovers: Allen has thrown 11 interceptions and fumbled the ball nine times this season, losing three of those. The Patriots are generally an opportunistic team on defense, tying for fifth in the NFL with 18 takeaways and tying for fourth with 12 interceptions. Allen has thrown at least one interception in four of the last five games, multiple interceptions in three of those games. Meanwhile, Mac Jones has been doing a better job taking care of the football, having now gone three straight games without an interception. He must continue to play clean football against a Bills defense that’s second in the NFL with 20 takeaways and tied for second with 13 interceptions.
It’s a virtual certainty that the Patriots will need to win the turnover battle – maybe by two or more – if they are going to upset the Bills on Thursday night.

2 – Protect Mac: Jones and the Patriots’ passing game are coming off their best game of the season, nearly 400 yards through the air last Thursday night in Minnesota. A big part of that success against a suspect Vikings’ defense was New England’s offensive line giving Jones time to work. Sure there were short, quick passes. But there were also plays down the field that he had the time to execute. The Bills pass defense is not healthy and not a great unit. The back end is in flux and Von Miller is missing from the pass rush.
Jones and his receivers should have chances to make plays through the air, but that all starts with the Patriots line – that will be without Isaiah Wynn and possibly working David Andrews back into the lineup -- giving its quarterback the time and pocket confidence to do his job.

3 – Judon’s big night: A week ago New England faced a team that was without its starting left tackle and had been dealing with pass protection issues. But NFL sacks leader Matthew Judon and the Patriots rush never made Kirk Cousins uncomfortable. Buffalo will be without left tackle Dion Dawkins and there is no question that the Patriots pass rush must make Allen feel some pressure. Now, the Judon-led rush also needs to pressure Allen without giving him the lanes to scramble. That’s not an easy task. Still, if Judon wants to be considered a truly elite pass rusher, these are the kinds of spots he needs to step up in late in the season in a key division game at home. It’s not all on Judon – Deatrich Wise Jr., Josh Uche and the rest need to chip in – but somehow, some way the New England pass rush needs to do its share of lifting to keep Allen and the talented Bills passing game in check.

4 – Do something special: The Patriots have been on both ends of the spectrum in terms of games being decided on special teams the last two weeks. New England got the exhilarating win over the Jets with Marcus Jones’ season-saving punt return touchdown. But last Thursday the Patriots landed the seven-point loss thanks in large part to the Vikings kickoff return for a touchdown. (By the way, missed penalties by the officials were a part of both plays!) Whether it’s a key Nick Folk field goal, a critical Michael Palardy punt (for better or worse?!) or the return units flipping the field for one of the teams, if the game is a tight one there’s a good chance the kicking game will play a significant factor in victory or defeat. Under Belichick the Patriots are a team that’s supposed to win the third phase more often than not.

5 – Stay up late: New England is in the second leg of a four-game stretch all played in prime time. Late last Thursday night, Jones and the Patriots wilted in the fourth quarter. With chances to steal one on the road in Minnesota, Belichick’s team wasn’t up to the late night task. In all likelihood if New England is to pull off this upset it will require big plays to be made in the fourth quarter and maybe even into the closing minutes. That means Jones and the offense may need a drive to points with the game on the line. It means Devin McCourty and the defense will have to keep Allen from the late-game magic that’s become part of his greatness in the last couple years. If the Patriots play well enough to give themselves a punchers’ chance at the upset, they need to prove they can land that late punch to take the fight.

Prediction Time: The current Bills are not the unbeatable beast the Patriots were embarrassed by 47-17 on Super Wild Card Weekend last January. There are certainly ways that New England can hang with Buffalo and even pull off the upset. But it won’t be easy and it will take a performance that we’ve not yet seen from Belichick’s team this season. The defense will need to prove it can counter a MVP-caliber QB. It will need to show that it can cover a true No. 1 receiver. It will likely have to make a key stop at a key time. Offensively the Patriots must play a much cleaner game that they have most of the season in terms of turnovers, penalties and negative plays. Jones and Co. will also need to be more productive in key spots such as third down, the red zone and in the fourth quarter, areas that remained an issue even in last week’s “breakout” performance in the losing effort. It’s just hard to bet against Allen the way he’s played the Patriots over the last two years – including 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the last four meetings. It’s hard to envision the Patriots will make the key plays on both sides of the ball late. New England should put up a fight on the Thursday Night Football, but we’ll go with the 28-20 win for the Bills who are still the measuring stick squad in the AFC East.

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