Patriots

What a strange situation the Patriots are in as they face the possibility of being swept by the Bills

Can’t even fault their fans for buying that giant billboard on Rt. 1.

Stefon Diggs has been a catalyst all season. David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Welcome to Season 9, Episode 15 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

No other AFC East team got walloped with the butt-end of the Patriots’ dynasty more often than the Bills. Yes, even including the Jets.

Bill Belichick is 35-7 against the Bills in his career – 35-6 since he became coach of the Patriots before the 2000 season. The Patriots beat the Bills 15 straight times – sweeping both annual matchups for seven seasons in a row — from the 31-0 rout in the 2003 season finale until the Bills snapped the streak with a 34-31 win in Week 3 of the 2011 season.

Overall, the Patriots have beaten the Bills 76 times in their shared history, their most wins against any opponent, and eight more than they have against the Jets.

So, yeah, the Bills and their fans can’t be faulted for savoring their AFC East title, which was clinched with their 48-19 rout of the Broncos last Saturday. It’s the first time since 2008 that a team other than the Patriots won the division, and the first time since 1995 for the Bills.

How long ago was that? Jim Kelly was still their quarterback, fellow Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed were his chief weapons, and Marv Levy, also enshrined in Canton, was their coach. Levy is 95 years old now.

So yes, it’s been a long time, and the Bills, who seek their 12th win Sunday, have earned this moment. Can’t even fault their fans for buying that giant billboard on Rt. 1, if we’re being honest. Gotta respect the move.

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Of course, these unfamiliar circumstances, particularly to Patriots fans new this millennium, are nothing anyone wants to get used to. The Patriots have little to play for but pride and the chance to finish with at least a .500 record, since Bill Belichick isn’t the tanking-for-draft-position type.

It bears watching whether Jarrett Stidham gets any time at quarterback. But no matter whether he sees some action or Cam Newton takes all the snaps, this is the first time since Jim Kelly’s heyday that the Bills have a more enviable quarterback situation than the Patriots.

In his third season, Josh Allen has emerged as a genuine superstar, completing 68.7 percent of his passes for exactly 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns, and just nine interceptions. He’s vastly improved his completion percentage (up from 58.8 percent last year) and decision-making while continue to use his rifle arm to make daring throws downfield.

Allen, who has been named AFC Offensive Player of the Week four times this season, won’t win the league MVP award, but even being in the conversation confirms his remarkable progress season over season. It’s not just that the Patriots need to figure out a way to slow him. They also need to figure out how to find someone like him.

Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started …

THREE PLAYERS I’ll BE WATCHING

Stefon Diggs: Allen has thrown touchdown passes to 13 different receivers, but his No. 1 target – and another reason the quarterback has taken a leap forward this season – is clear-cut. In his first season with the Bills, Diggs leads the NFL with 111 receptions, totaling 1,314 yards and five touchdowns. The reception and yardage totals are career highs for the sixth-year pro, who came over from the Vikings in March along with a seventh-round pick for 2020 first-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks and a fourth-rounder in 2021. The deal looks like the quintessential win-win trade, with the Vikings using that first-round pick on sensational rookie Justin Jefferson, who has produced in a Diggsian fashion (73 catches, 1,182 yards, 7 touchdowns). Belichick had plenty of praise for Diggs this week, noting at one point that he has a habit of making catches on passes that look like they will fall incomplete. The Patriots did a decent job defending Diggs, who has six 100-yard games this season, in the Bills’ Week 8 win. He had six catches for 92 yards, including a 41-yarder in which every Patriots defensive back past and present seemed to miss a tackle.

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J.C. Jackson: When I was 10, I remember being puzzled by a 1980 Stanley Morgan Topps football card. He’d made the Pro Bowl the previous season, catching 44 passes for 1,002 yards and a league-leading 12 receiving touchdowns. Yet his football card did not have the coveted AFC All-Pro designation. I recall asking my dad about this, and he said something that always stuck with me.  “Sometimes young players don’t get recognized until a season after they deserve it.” Sure enough, on his 1981 card, Morgan had the AFC All-Pro designation. That memory burrowed to the front of my mind this week when Jackson, who is second in the NFL with 8 interceptions and has had a much better season than reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, was left off the Pro Bowl team, while Gilmore got selected. It’s the kind of oversight of an ascending player that happens too often. But the oversight drew notice, and it will prevent it from happening to him again. He defended Diggs in Week 8, and he’s certain to have the assignment today with Gilmore sidelined. Patriots fans know he’s up for the challenge. The rest of the league will catch on.

Kyle Dugger: It’s important over the final two weeks to further identify players who will be ready for a bigger role next season, and to enjoy the optimism that comes with that. Dugger’s name should be atop that list. While his playing time is still limited — he played 38 snaps last week, his fewest since Week 6 against the Jets – he popped off the screen when he was on the field, stuffing a pair of runs and charting the first pass breakup of his career. I’m not sure quite when, but he’s going to be a star.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK

Bill Belichick was an assistant coach with the Giants in 1983 when Bill Parcells decided Scott Brunner rather than Phil Simms would be his starting quarterback. In 1993, Belichick, then in his third season as Browns head coach, cut Cleveland native son Bernie Kosar and started Todd Philcox. In 2001, you may recall, he stuck with Tom Brady when Drew Bledsoe was ready to come back from a brutal injury. Belichick knows quarterback decisions and status updates are a big deal. He’s lived it again and again. He understands why reporters are asking about Cam Newton’s status, with the Patriots eliminated and Newton having thrown five touchdown passes, or one more than Jimmy Garoppolo did in two starts in the 2016 season. There’s no reason whatsoever for the petulance he demonstrated on multiple occasions when asked about it this week.

MATCHUP

Bills RBs Devin Singletary and Zack Mossvs. Patriots run defense.

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The Patriots’ run defense has become a downright debacle over the last two weeks, with the Rams and Dolphins combining for 436 yards on the ground. But the loss to the Bills in Week 8 was one of the first confirmations that it was a significant problem. The Bills ran for 190 yards in their 24-21 win, a week after the Patriots allowed 197 rushing yards to the Niners, who got 112 yards and three touchdowns out of an obscure back named Jeff Wilson Jr. that day.

In the Bills previous win over the Patriots, Singletary and Moss each had 14 carries, with the former picking up 86 yards and the later gaining 81 and scoring a pair of touchdowns. If you’ll recall, the Bills ran right out of the gate in that one, rushing on seven of 10 plays on their opening 78-yard touchdown drive, which concluded with a Moss touchdown run.

Singletary and Moss have continued to share the workload since for a Buffalo run game that ranks 18th in the league, averaging 108.2 yards per game. In the six games since that win over the Patriots, Singletary has carried 50 times for 259 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and a touchdown, while Moss has run 54 times for 230 yards (4.3 yards per carry) and a touchdown.

Practice squad callup Terez Hall has been valiant in trying to fill the massive hole in the Patriots’ run defense, making 13 tackles against the Dolphins while playing a career-high 63 snaps. But with Ja’Whaun Bentley, their best linebacker against the run, dealing with an arm injury, it’s a reach to assume the Patriots’ 27th-ranked run defense (133 yards allowed per game) will have any solutions on Monday night. The Bills ran for 140 yards against the Broncos last week, with Singletary and Moss combining for 149 yards on 21 carries and Allen contributing a pair of touchdown runs. They should have similar success Monday.

PREDICTION, OR THE BILLS SHOULD HAVE TO START J.P. LOSMAN AT QUARTERBACK

We didn’t know it then, and it hasn’t always appeared that way afterward, but the Patriots’ loss to the Bills on Nov. 1 now stands out as a microcosm of the season. The Patriots kept us in suspense, having a chance to prevail in the final moments – just as they did in the loss to Seattle and in wins over the Jets and Cardinals – but this time failing to pull it off. Newton was inconsistent at best, but appeared to be on his way to hero status until he fumbled on the Bills 15-yard line with 31 seconds left. Belichick made a couple of odd decisions, including attempting an onside kick after the Patriots had just tied the score at 14 in the fourth quarter. And did I mention they couldn’t have stopped the run if the Bills had decided to line up 62-year-old Joe Cribbs at tailback?

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Now, eight weeks later, they face an emboldened and excellent Bills team that has five more wins than they do, has ended their division reign, and is looking to become the first AFC East team to sweep the Patriots in a season since the Jets and Dolphins did it in 2000. The guard has changed. The Patriots are playing for pride. The Bills have become the team that is playing for much more. Bills 31, Patriots 13.

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