The NFL calendar is about to flip to Week 13. That means, at long last, the Patriots are on to Buffalo.
During the past month, Bill Belichick’s team has dumped the Jets twice, embarrassed Indianapolis, and just went toe-to-toe with the Vikings on Thanksgiving night before losing a heartbreaker.
All of that pales in comparison with what’s on deck and how they fare against the Bills on Thursday night.
This is really where the rubber meets the road for the Patriots. This is where Belichick’s team is defined, and to a lesser extent, Sean McDermott’s team.
Twelve weeks gone, it still looks like the Patriots have quite a few more warts than the Bills.
Last season, the Patriots were able to beat the Bills aided by monsoon-like conditions in Orchard Park. Then they lost their two subsequent meetings, and rather handily with the last one occuring in the postseason.
What, if anything, has changed since they last met?
Both teams have new offensive play-callers following the departure of their two highly successful offensive coordinators, Josh McDaniels for the Patriots, and Brian Daboll for the Bills.
Former Bills quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey was elevated into the role, while former Lions head coach and former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has taken over the play-caller duties.
It hasn’t exactly run smoothly for either one, although Mac Jones & Co. have struggled much more with the transition. But that’s the primary difference with the teams, along with the Bills adding eight-time Pro Bowl pass rusher and two-time Super Bowl champion Von Miller to the defense.
Most of the other dynamics have remained the same.
The Bills, at 8-3, are one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl, while the Patriots, at 6-5, aren’t in the discussion. That was the case last year, and is still the narrative this year.
Of late, the Bills have become a barometer of sorts for the Patriots, as opposed to the other way around.
The Bills are the “it” team with the star quarterback, while the Patriots are still trying to recapture some relevance without Tom Brady under center.
The final two meetings with the Bills last year were eye-opening in terms of how far the Patriots had fallen, but also set the bar for how high they need to rise.
The Pats were completely demolished in the Wild Card round game, 47-17.
For that matter, the Bills weren’t forced to punt in either of the last two games. It was a damning commentary on Belichick’s defense, but also drove home how much the offense needed to improve to keep up on the scoreboard.
With their Week 13 matchup ahead, we’ll see if they’ve somehow managed to close the gap. Or if the Bills, who sit atop the AFC East, continue to be an arm’s length above them.
The Bills have shown a bit of vulnerability in recent weeks. But will that translate when they play the Patriots?
On Thursday, the Lions gave the Bills all they could handle, and McDermott’s team looked shaky at times. But they ultimately rose to the challenge. When push came to shove, their superstars delivered.
They made the big plays when they absolutely had to have it, which is the hallmark of great teams.
Allen hit Stephon Diggs with an absolute laser down the middle for a jaw-dropping 36-yard completion in a crowd to set up the winning field goal with a few seconds left on the clock.
Not many quarterback-receiver combos make that play. But Allen & Co. are usually money when they need to be.
The Patriots? They left you both encouraged and discouraged by their performance against the Vikings. The offense finally looked functional, and capable of producing points. But their troubles in the red zone, not to mention with the game on the line, are problematic.
Same with the defense. They’ve been terrific against the lesser quarterbacks and receiving corps. But like last year, they fell apart against a good quarterback with elite weapons.
The Vikings — with Justin Jefferson delivering one pass to go along with the 37 Kirk Cousins threw — completed 81.6% of their passes, the second-highest percentage allowed by the Patriots in the Belichick era, per ESPN.
Overall, Cousins went 30-of-37 for 299 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
Basically, the Pats couldn’t take away the Vikings greatest strength. Jefferson had nine catches for 139 yards and a touchdown. Adam Thielen added nine catches for 61 yards and a touchdown. Tight end T.J. Hockenson had five catches for 43 yards and a touchdown.
Will it be any different with Allen and his weapons, led by Diggs, Gabriel Davis and Dawson Knox?
ESPN analyst Damien Woody believes teams can run on the Bills, which would fall into the Patriots wheelhouse.
And while he thinks Buffalo remains the favorite in the division, and a legitimate Super Bowl contender, they aren’t without flaws.
“I think the key with Buffalo, if you can keep the game close, you’ve got a shot at winning it,” he said. “They don’t operate well in close games.”
After their Week 7 bye week, the Bills have had some trouble putting teams away in the second half.
Case in point, in the five games since their break, the Bills have been outscored, 67-41, in the second half and overtime – a big reason why their record is just 3-2 in that time.
Allen, who is playing with a UCL injury in his throwing elbow, has also had some issues with turnovers, particularly in the red zone. Counting the Thanksgiving game against Detroit, he has now thrown a red zone interception in four of the past five games and has the most red zone picks in the league with four.
Before this stretch, he had thrown two in his career (first 67 games), according to ESPN.
Even so, the Bills have won their last two games, and seem to have righted the ship, at least on offense. Defensively, however, they lost Miller to a reported knee injury. He’s expected to miss some time.
They had been without some key members of their secondary, most notably cornerback Tre-Davious White, who was active against the Lions after missing the first 10 games getting comfortable following ACL surgery last year. Safety Jordan Poyer, who had also missed some time, also returned.
White, however, was on a pitch count. He played just 15 snaps against the Lions and then watched the rest of the game from the Bills sideline. Dane Jackson played the entire game and rookies Christian Benford and Kaiir Elam split time on the other side.
Safety Micah Hyde, meanwhile, is done for the year. But they’ve managed to get by to this point with their depth and reinforcements and still have one of the best defenses, statistically, in the league.
“I believe from top the bottom, they got the best roster in the league,” said Woody. “Their quarterback just gotta stop turning the ball over.”
While the task might not seem quite as daunting as last season, the Patriots are still going to be hard-pressed to get over the Buffalo hurdle. We’ll see what plays out Thursday night at Gillette.
It’ll be interesting to see how long Zach Wilson sits in Robert Saleh’s doghouse.
The second-year quarterback wasn’t going to see the field at all Sunday, with Mike White starting, and veteran Joe Flacco the backup against the Bears at MetLife Stadium Sunday.
Understandably, Saleh doesn’t want to bury Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft. But what if the Jets look better with White at the controls?
Saleh, publicly anyway, was still behind Wilson, whose play and attitude have come under fire, most notably after the recent 10-3 loss to the Patriots. Wilson took no accountability, which didn’t sit well in the Jets locker room.
“Is it a small step back? Absolutely,” Saleh said during his media session Wednesday. “But do I think it’s going to be a great leap forward when he gets a chance to reset himself? Absolutely. So, this is not putting a nail in his coffin. This is not that. This is not close to that. But I do believe, at the end of this, it’s going to be a rejuvenated, renewed young man.”
Owner Jerry Jones told reporters Thursday that he had made official contact with free agent receiver Odell Beckham Jr. about joining the Dallas Cowboys for the stretch run.
Jones indicated speaking with Beckham on the phone on prior to the Cowboys’ 28-20 Thanksgiving Day victory over the New York Giants.
Jones said the phone visit went well, and an official in-person visit is being set up for the receiver, who is a free agent, and nearing an end to his rehab from ACL surgery.
When told that Jones had made contact with Beckham after the game, quarterback Dak Prescott sounded hopeful.
“He’s not stopping,” Prescott said via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about Jones and the Cowboys’ continued pursuit of Beckham. “But that’s good. I might send him another message … let him know how I feel. But I’m focused on what I can control and the guys in the locker room now. ”
Along with the Cowboys, the Bills and Giants are also reportedly in the mix for the star receiver.
Kansas City head coach Andy Reid appreciates being the beneficiary of calling plays for one of the best offensive tandems in the NFL.
Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce are certainly in the conversation with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski for best QB-TE duos all-time.
Mahomes and Kelce merely teamed up for four touchdown passes, including the game-winner with 31 seconds to go, in last week’s 30-27 win over the Chargers.
“You’d like it to last forever,” Reid said of Mahomes and Kelce via the Kansas City Star. “These guys grow old, and it’s not (going to last forever), so what I do is I try to enjoy every minute of it, every play. Their chemistry is ridiculous.
Mahomes said he and Kelce are very much alike, that’s why they click.
“He’s just a competitor,” Mahomes said. “I think that’s the best talent that Travis has. It’s not the size, the speed, the route running. It’s that he will compete to the very end, and he’s going to go down fighting.
“I think that I’m the same way, as I’m going to do whatever I can to win no matter what the score is. We have a lot of guys like that on this team, and I think that’s what makes great teams is guys that won’t give up even when it doesn’t look great.”
Compliments to the chef
Patriots DL Carl Davis got a kick out of hearing that Mac Jones would trust him the most to cook at Thanksgiving dinner.
Jones was asked the question during his appearance on WEEI’s “Merloni, Fauria and Mego” show.
For his part, Davis said he was somewhat surprised by Jones’ choice, but “you can never go wrong with the big fellas.”
At 6-5, 320 pounds, there’s a lot for Davis to feed.
For the record, Davis said he loves to grill. He’s not really a turkey guy, but if you’re looking for a steak, ribeye in particular, Davis is your man.
“I got my own secret recipe, which is still a secret so I can’t tell you,” Davis said with a smile.
Davis said he takes his cues by talking with the chefs in the cafeteria about recipes.
“I’m pretty inquisitive, he said. “I like to ask a lot of questions.”