The last time the Buffalo Bills won the AFC East before this season, in 1995, Tom Brady had just graduated high school and been drafted by the Montreal Expos.
In the 25 years since, Brady has led six Super Bowl seasons with the Patriots while the Bills have trudged their way through decades of mediocrity. Now, with Brady in Tampa Bay and the Patriots missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Bills have finally been able to end that franchise-defining drought.
The team currently has the fourth-best odds to win the Super Bowl behind the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, and New Orleans Saints. Here are five things to know about the surging Bills (11-3), who face the slumping Patriots (6-8) at 8:15 p.m. Monday at Gillette Stadium.
They’re in uncharted territory this millennium.
To say the Bills’ ascension to the AFC East throne has been a laborious, dragged-out process would be an understatement.
After making the Super Bowl four times in the early 1990s but never winning, the team missed the playoffs every year from 2000 to 2016. They finished second in the division, behind the Patriots, in 2017 and 2019 but lost in the Wild Card round both times.
Expectations are higher this season, as they’ve established themselves as one of the most consistent and complete teams in football. The Bills have won seven of eight games and are seven-point road favorites against the Patriots.
“They don’t make very many mistakes,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week. “They’re a smart team that plays hard, and they don’t do many things to hurt themselves.”
It’s been a long time coming…
Your Buffalo Bills are AFC East Champions. pic.twitter.com/YTaAZqzEXk
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) December 20, 2020
The teams’ roles have flipped so dramatically that ESPN’s promotional video for the game featured only Bills highlights and no Patriots clips.
Buffalo currently owns the No. 2 seed, behind only the Chiefs, and can lock up that spot this week with a win, a Pittsburgh Steelers loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and a Tennessee Titans loss to the Green Bay Packers. Even if those results don’t all happen this week, they can control their own fate by beating the Patriots this week and the Miami Dolphins next week.
Josh Allen has blossomed into one of the league’s elite quarterbacks.
One main reason for the Bills’ growth this season is the much-improved play of quarterback Josh Allen.
Allen, the No. 7 pick in 2018, threw more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (10) as a rookie – an alarming statistic that Patriots fans know all too well this season. He completed just 52.8 percent of his passes and posted a passer rating of only 67.9. Questions about his future in the NFL loomed, but Allen made significant strides the following season.
In 2019, he threw 20 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions, upping his completion percentage to 58.8 and his rating to 85.3. The consensus at that point was that he had plenty of potential but still room to grow.
This year, the University of Wyoming product Allen has emerged as exactly the quarterback the Bills envisioned, earning his first Pro Bowl nod and putting up big-time numbers in the process. He’s thrown 30 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions and has passed for 4,000 yards while bumping that rating to 104.2.
Cam Newton Live Press Conference 12/24: https://t.co/6WtuU5Ss5o
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 24, 2020
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he even wins (MVP) this year,” Patriots quarterback Cam Newton said Thursday.
Allen, who has always been a dual-threat QB, has added eight touchdowns on the ground and has even caught a TD pass along the way. He and Newton — who have both worked extensively with quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey — are the only QBs ever to post 30-plus passing TDs and eight or more rushing TDs in a season.
— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) December 23, 2020
Belichick called Allen a “hard guy to tackle” and said trying to bring him down is similar to tackling a running back. His ability to excel as a runner makes him that much more difficult to defend now as a passer, and Belichick commended him for his progress in that area.
“I’d say that’s probably the biggest thing is just his overall execution of the passing game and seeing the field, using all the players that are involved in the pattern,” Belichick said in late October.
In the Bills’ 24-21 win over the Patriots in early November, Allen was a modest 11 of 18 for 154 yards and an interception in perhaps his worst game of the season. It was, however, his first win over New England in four tries.
Allen expects a major challenge Monday night.
“We know that AFC East games are tough to win, especially winning a second time,” Allen told reporters. “They’ve been able to see us. They’ve got us on film. They’ve got arguably the greatest coach of all time coaching that team. They are always going to be ready.”
They have plenty of weapons around Allen.
Part of the reason Allen has thrived this season is because of the playmakers around him.
First-year Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs has been one of the best players in football at any position, racking up a league-high 111 receptions for 1,314 yards and five touchdowns. He already has the most catches in a season in Bills history and is only 55 yards away from leapfrogging Eric Moulds for the most receiving yards in a year (1,368).
The Pro Bowl pass-catcher injured his ankle in the Bills’ 48-19 trouncing of the Denver Broncos last Saturday, but head coach Sean McDermott said the injury “doesn’t seem very worrisome.” Diggs is questionable for Monday’s game, yet all signs point to him playing.
Sean McDermott on Stefon Diggs’ foot injury from the Broncos game: “The reports I’ve gotten are not overly worrisome.”@news4buffalo
— Heather Prusak (@haprusak) December 21, 2020
Cole Beasley has been a reliable No. 2 target with 79 catches for 950 yards and four TDs. Gabriel Davis (30 catches for 459 yards and six TDs), John Brown (29 catches for 386 yards and two TDs), and running back Devin Singletary (35 catches for 247 yards) have all been threats as well.
Singletary has a team-high 143 carries for 644 yards and two scores. Zack Moss (97 rushes for 416 yards and three TDs), who erupted for 81 rushing yards and two TDs against the Patriots earlier this season, is also a weapon.
Their defense has been up and down this season.
While the Bills have been electric on offense, their defense has been up and down this year.
Buffalo is in the middle of the pack in yards per game allowed (356.1) and points allowed (24.3), checking in 16th in both categories. The Bills are 15th in passing yards allowed per game (234.7) and 20th in rushing yards allowed per game (121.4) — a weakness the Patriots will likely try to exploit Monday night.
They allowed 26 or more points six times in their first 10 games, including four times in a six-game span where they went just 3-3. Their defense has made considerable strides since, yielding 18.75 points per game in their four straight wins.
Despite their statistical leap of late, Newton said he’s admired the unit throughout the entire season. He added that the Patriots can’t settle for field goals and have to execute in the red zone.
“They’ve got a great core group of guys,” Newton said. “We just have to be prepared for their scheme and what they’re trying to do. We have to make sure that we dictate to them and not allow them to dictate to us.”
The Bills have three players with 7.5 tackles for loss apiece in defensive end Mario Addison, defensive end Jerry Hughes, and defensive tackle Ed Oliver, and Hughes leads the team with 4.5 sacks. Safety Jordan Poyer has a team-high 117 tackles, Tre’Davious White leads the way with three interceptions, and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, safety Micah Hyde, and linebacker and Boston College product Matt Milano are three other names to know.
They have a chance at history.
If the Bills win, they’ll be the first division opponent to sweep the Patriots since 2000, when both the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins did so in the same season.
New England currently holds the all-time record in that category, but it’s possible the streak could be in jeopardy. The Patriots are 144-29 (.832) at home since 2002, including the playoffs, which is by far the best mark in the league.
Though the Bills have already locked up the division, there’s still plenty to play for — including seeding, bragging rights, and regality.
“It’s the defending AFC East champs that have held that position for multiple, multiple years,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said. “It’s one of the greatest, if not the greatest coach ever to coach our game. They’re going to be prepared, they’re going to be well-coached, and they’ll be ready to go. So we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
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