“There’s plenty we can take from it.”
That was Bill Belichick’s simple response when asked over the weekend about the last game played between the Patriots and Bills, last January’s embarrassing 47-17 loss for New England in Buffalo that wasn’t even as close as that blowout score might indicate.
Recall that night that the Josh Allen-led Bills secured touchdowns on all seven of its possessions that mattered, the only time the home squad didn’t finish a drive in the end zone was when it let the clock run out on the first half and the final score.
No punts for Buffalo, Allen completing 21 of his 25 throws for 308 yards with five touchdowns for a 157.6 passer rating. He also paced a rushing attack that churned out 174 yards on his ground, his six carries picking up 66 yards.
That ugly nightmare night for a Patriots’ defense that statistically fancied itself among the better squads in the NFL saw Buffalo pile up nearly 500 yards and 50 points, going a perfect 6-for-6 in the red zone and 6-for-6 on third down before a Mitch Trubisky kneel-down to end the misery.
Allen and the Bills bullied the Patriots like the big brother in the AFC East that they are.
But a new season brings a new opportunity, and that comes this Thursday night at Gillette Stadium when a banged-up Allen and the seemingly more beatable Bills arrive in Foxborough. Over the last month Buffalo and its MVP-caliber QB have come back to earth a bit. Allen turning the ball over too often as the Bills lost to the Jets and Vikings and most recently barely got by the life-filled Lions.
Forget the Buffalo team that didn’t punt against New England over a pair of meetings late last December and on Super Wild Card Weekend. These Bills don’t look quite so super at this moment in NFL time, though their 8-3 record is still tied for second-best in the conference.
Sure this latest battle will be affected by Allen’s injured elbow and whether he throws the ball to the wrong team, as he’s done seven times in the last five games. (Beyond his 11 interceptions, Allen has also lost three fumbles on the season.) And Buffalo’s impressive defense will be hindered by the absence of veteran pass rusher Von Miller.
But it’s just as much or more about the Patriots. The team that shows up. The offense that tries to continue the bit of momentum it’s picked up under Mac Jones’ direction the last few weeks, even if that “momentum” included Thanksgiving night’s loss to the Vikings in Minnesota.
It’s about a New England defense that once again has put up impressive stats and rankings through more than half a season that supposedly have it among the better units in football, although it didn’t look quite that formidable struggling to stop Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson and the rest last it took the field for the first of a litany of tough tests down the stretch of the season.
The Bills aren’t exactly the same team that took it to the Patriots the last couple times the teams have met. The Patriots aren’t, either.
But as New England works to remain entrenched in the AFC Wild Card picture, they get a significant opportunity to prove what kind of team it is. A chance to see how they measure up with an opponent that’s clearly established itself among the NFL’s best for this season and in recent years.
It certainly sounds like the Patriots know both the task and opportunity at hand.
“So we're just going to work and see where we're at,” the Patriots QB Jones said with a matter-of-factness that would make his head coach proud.
Sure the Patriots remember and maybe even are motivated by last winter’s blowout loss to the Bills in Buffalo, as Jones himself clearly was this offseason when a phone from the game was hung in his locker with the final score written on it.
How could they forget?
For years, the Patriots were the measuring stick not just in the AFC East, but for the entire NFL. Teams would use battles with New England to assess just how close they were to the cream of the crop. To figure out if they were contenders or pretenders.
In many ways, the Bills are now one of those measuring stick teams offering opponents measuring stick games. They certainly are in terms of the AFC East, a division they’ve won each of the last two seasons.
As Belichick and Tom Brady said so often over the years, the most important football is played after Thanksgiving. That’s when teams establish who they are and who they aren’t.
The time for focusing on the process or getting better or establishing an identity is over.
Thursday night it’s time for the 2022 Patriots to show us exactly who they are.
And there is no better opponent to do that against than the Bills.
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