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6 keys for the Bills’ division showdown with the Patriots: Preview, more for Week 13

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Josh Allen Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen calls out a play during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The Buffalo Bills look to grab their first division win of the season when they head on the road to take on the New England Patriots

Buffalo Bills (8-3) @ New England Patriots (6-5)

Game Details:

  • Location: Gilette Stadium in Foxboro, MA
  • Time: Thursday, December 1st at 8:15 p.m. ET
  • Channel: Amazon Prime

Betting Stats:

  • SPREAD: BUF -4
  • OVER/UNDER: 43.5
  • MONEYLINE: BUF (-205), NE (+170)

Top Matchups/Storylines:

Can the Bills nab a division win?

This seems like such a silly way to start this off, but the fact of the matter is that the Bills are 0-2 in their division with losses to the Dolphins and Jets. Denver is the only other AFC team that doesn’t have a division win, and you certainly don’t want to be in the same category as them. With Buffalo in a fight to claim the AFC East crown, they’re going to need to start winning games in their division, perhaps all of the remaining ones. 

 

How will Buffalo adjust without Von Miller?

I covered this in detail yesterday, so I encourage you to check out that article, but a central component of that is the improving health of defensive ends Gregory Rousseau and A.J. Epenesa. Head coach Sean McDermott said that both were trending in a good direction for this game, and their returns will be crucial to offset the loss of Miller. 

Over the last three years, Buffalo has spent significantly to improve their defensive end depth and while Miller was the big addition of 2022, A.J. Epenesa (2020 Draft – Rd 2 Pick 54), Gregory Rousseau (2021 Draft – Rd 1 Pick 30) and  Boogie Basham (2021 Draft – Rd 2 Pick 61) were all acquired with important draft capital, so now is the time for them to step up. 

 

Is Josh Allen actually getting healthier?

Even though Tony Romo would have you believe that every bad Josh Allen throw is because of his elbow, the Bills quarterback had his first “full” practice since before the elbow injury. We also saw last week, particularly on this fourth-quarter throw to Stefon Diggs, that Josh Allen’s arm strength is certainly still there, so his being even healthier this week is a great sign. 

However, the health of Josh Allen’s arm is only part of the equation. He simply hasn’t seemed like the same quarterback over the last few weeks. Even the hug he gave Diggs after the game was one of relief rather than the screaming intensity we saw after a late touchdown against the Chiefs last postseason. It almost feels like Allen has been relieved to get these last couple of wins. 

Part of that could be because he’s not 100% and another part could be that he’s losing faith in his offensive line (more on that below), but this still feels like a more tentative version of Josh Allen.

The best sign for the Bills that Allen may be turning a corner was not the throw to Diggs but Allen gaining 78 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. After he had rushed just three times for seven yards against the Browns, we commented that Allen looks hesitant to leave the pocket and seemed to be second-guessing himself. There was less of that against the Lions, and while there are still issues, a week of better health could go a long way to fixing some of them. 

 

Can Buffalo’s offensive line hold up?

One of the issues I alluded to above was the poor performance of the offensive line. With Mitch Morse out last week, the Bills slid Ryan Bates to center and Greg Van Roten to right guard. Then, Dion Dawkins hurt his ankle and David Quessenberry had to enter the game at left tackle. It was close to a disaster from there. 

The Bills allowed 17 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, three coming from Van Roten and another three coming from Bates. However, a bigger concern is that Spencer Brown allowed six pressures and he’s the team’s regular starter at right tackle. 

While Mitch Morse has returned to full practice, Dion Dawkins did not practice on Monday or Tuesday with his ankle injury. If he doesn’t play, Buffalo could be in big trouble if it’s forced to go with a similar alignment again against a Patriots defense that’s second in the NFL in sacks and second in the NFL in quarterback pressure rate. 

 

Can Isaiah McKenzie repeat his breakout performance?

Coming into this season, McKenzie’s biggest game was on December 26th last year against the Patriots when he caught 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. He was starting that game for an injured Cole Beasley and it was his only regular season game with over 12 yards receiving. 

McKenzie’s biggest game of this season game last week when he caught six passes for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Lions. It was only his second game of this season with over 37 yards receiving even though he is now the team’s starting slot receiver. 

The big similarity between the Lions and Patriots is that they both play mostly man coverage with one high safety. Given McKenzie’s speed and shiftiness, he has had more success in the NFL against man coverage than zone, where somebody like Beasley was more adept in sitting down in the creases. With another game against the Patriots on tap, and Josh Allen potentially going to be under heavy pressure, the Bills need McKenzie to win his routes much as he did in the two games mentioned above. 

 

Will the Bills have a new look secondary?

Tre’Davious White was back for Buffalo last week but on a clear snap count, playing the first two drives and then sitting for the rest of the game. Considering it was his first game back in a year, and the turf at Ford Field is the same kind of turf in the Superdome, where White tore his ACL, this wasn’t a surprise.

However, the big question will be how many snaps White plays this week. It’s highly unlikely the former Pro Bowler is a full-time player for Buffalo, but if he can play at least 50% of the snaps, that should go a long way to shoring up a secondary that has started to struggle of late. 

Another change could be in the rotation opposite White. I mentioned in my studs and duds column that Dane Jackson has been a target for opposing offenses to pick on lately. Even with Christian Benford going on the IR, it’s possible that the Bills could start to cut into Jackson’s snaps now that first-round pick Kaiir Elam seems to be recovered from his ankle injury and the team signed former Pro Bowler Xavier Rhodes from their practice squad. 

It’s not hard to envision a future where White plays the vast majority of snaps at one corner and Elam and Rhodes split the majority of snaps opposite him, but whether or not we begin to see that on Thursday is anybody’s guess. 

 

For more NFL coverage, like this Buffalo Bills preview, visit amNY Sports

Ed Oliver Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver (91) recovers the fumble by Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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