5 keys for the Bills’ clash with the Patriots: Preview, more for Week 18

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Devin Singletary Buffalo Bills Giants
Devin SIngletary (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Buffalo Bills will return to the football field for the first time since Damar Hamlin’s harrowing collapse when they take on the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon. 

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New England Patriots (8-8) @ Buffalo Bills (12-3)

Game Details:

  • Location: Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, NY
  • Time: Sunday, January 8th at 1:00 p.m. ET
  • Channel: CBS

Betting Stats:

  • SPREAD: BUF -7
  • OVER/UNDER: 42.5
  • MONEYLINE: BUF (-320), NE (+250)


Top Matchups/Storylines:

How mentally/emotionally present with Buffalo be?

Obviously, the biggest component of this entire game is the recovery of Damar Hamlin. We’ve written about it numerous times on this site, and people have covered the story from every angle, but it goes without saying that he will be on the minds of all the Bills’ players when they step onto that field on Sunday. 

We have no idea what type of practice they’ve been able to get in this week. We don’t know the mental state of the players, even as Hamlin recovers, and whether or not they’re ready to play at top-end speed and make hits or get hit. 

And all of that is totally reasonable. 

What the players lived through on Monday night is impossible to understand unless you’ve been in a similar situation, and they will all recover and react to it differently. Some may be amped up to get back on the field, to win a game for Hamlin and the city of Buffalo. Others may have trepidation or simply have their minds elsewhere.

We know that this team loves one another and that they will be fired up after getting to see Hamin via FaceTime on Friday. All the press conferences and Twitter updates make it seem like Sean McDermott will have them as ready as possible for this game. But just how ready that is will be impossible to know until the game is being played. 


Can the Bills get Stefon Diggs involved again?

In the lead-up to the Bengals game, I mentioned that Buffalo needed to get Diggs more involved. He had no targets in the first half against the Bears and finished with two catches in the game. Buffalo didn’t need him to beat Chicago, but Josh Allen has openly talked about getting his best friend more involved

We saw that right away against the Bengals with Diggs catching two passes for 26 yards on the first drive. 

I would imagine that focus on getting Diggs targets will continue on Sunday, especially after he beat the Patriots’ secondary for 92 yards and a touchdown on seven catches in the first meeting. In that game, Diggs was Allen’s go-to option whenever he needed a big first down or needed to close off a drive, and the wide receiver had no trouble gaining separation from New England’s secondary. 

With cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills getting in limited practices on Wednesday, it appears likely both will be able to suit up for the game, but if they’re not at 100%, it would be wise for Buffalo to try and continuously turn to their alpha receiver to exploit that. 


Which version of the Buffalo run defense shows up?

The Buffalo run defense has been mercurial all season. They rank 14th in yards allowed per carry and 4th in yards allowed per game, while also adding 10th in expected points added by their rushing defense, so, overall, they appear to be a slightly above-average unit. 

However, only five TEAMS have rushed for over 100 yards against Buffalo in 15 games so far this season, and they’re coming off of a game in which they held Justin Fields to 11 yards on seven carries. They also bottled up the Patriots in the first meeting, allowing just 60 rushing yards on 14 carries. 

The issue for Buffalo has been when they do get beat on the ground, they get beat badly. In the five games where teams were actually able to rush for over 100 yards, the Bills gave up an average of 175.8 yards, including 208 to the Packers and 188 to the Dolphins. 

Even though they neutralized Rhamondre Stevenson in the first matchup, the second-year back has had a good season, rushing for 986 yards on 4.8 yards per carry and can certainly break open big runs against this Buffalo defense if they don’t maintain their gap discipline and wrap up on tackles. 



Will the Bills reshuffle their offensive line?

I asked this question before the Bengals game and after one drive it appeared that the answer was no, but I think it’s worth another discussion.

The return of Mitch Morse also opened up the question of what Buffalo would do with its offensive line. With Morse out, Ryan Bates served as the team’s center while Greg Van Roten slid into the starting lineup at right guard. The simplest solution, which is what Buffalo chose against Cincinnati, is to move Bates back to guard with Morse back in the lineup and put Van Roten on the bench. 

However, we are now a week on down the road, which means another week for Ike Boettger to get healthy and back into playing shape after returning from the injured reserve last week and playing just six snaps against the Bears. Considering Rodger Saffold has had a tough year at left guard and has been an outright liability at times in recent weeks, is this the week we finally see Buffalo start to split some of his snaps?


Can New England handle Buffalo’s home-field advantage?

Home games in January are always a boon for the Buffalo Bills. Home games in January when the team is good are another level of loud, but I’m not even sure you can anticipate how loud it will be in the stadium on Sunday. 

The city of Buffalo loves its team. They have been grieving and praying with the players throughout every trial and tribulation this year, beginning with the death of Dawson Knox’s brother to the two blizzards and Damar Hamlin’s collapse. Now that Hamlin has turned the corner in his recovery and is making consistent and steady progress, these fans are going to be raucous on Sunday. 

They are going to make sure the Bills players know they’re supporting them. They’re going to make sure Hamlin can hear them back in Cincinnati. They’re going to bring every ounce of love and passion they have for this team into that stadium on Sunday, and it’s going to be a tough environment to play for the New England Patriots. 

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Josh Allen Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) waves to fans as he leaves the field following an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears in Chicago, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022. The Bills defeated the Bears 35-13.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)