Allen, Health Give Bills the Edge
NFL Wild Card - Buffalo-New England has turned into a hardcore rivalry over the last couple years as the Bills have tried to establish themselves as the new class of the AFC East. A late-season blowout in 2020 was a statement that the torch had been passed, but Bills fans didn't have long to celebrate because the Patriots roared back with a vengeance in 2021. Each team won at the other's house, with the Patriots sneaking past the Bills in a windy Monday night contest with an extreme run-heavy game plan and then the Bills holding off a late Patriots comeback attempt to claim victory three weeks later. Bills superstar Josh Allen and Patriots rookie Mac Jones may have ended up with similar passing DVOA numbers for the season, but Allen made it clear in that Week 16 game that he has the much higher ceiling thanks to his legs, his arm, and possibly his sheer will to win.
Nonetheless, for the season these two teams came out extremely similar in Football Outsiders' metrics. They had similar offense, defense, and special teams. The Bills finished slightly ahead in our full-season numbers, and the Patriots slightly ahead in the weighted numbers that assign less strength to early-season games. Both teams are well-coached. This should be a close, exciting battle between two of the best teams in the league this season.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||23.3% (4)||27.7% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||31.2% (2)||26.2% (3)|
|Patriots on Offense|
|NE OFF||BUF DEF|
|DVOA||10.5% (9)||-18.1% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||16.5% (5)||-15.0% (3)|
|PASS||24.8% (9)||-23.0% (1)|
|RUSH||4.9% (7)||-11.9% (11)|
|Bills on Offense|
|NE DEF||BUF OFF|
|DVOA||-12.8% (4)||9.7% (10)|
|WEI DVOA||-14.8% (4)||11.3% (8)|
|PASS||-12.6% (3)||20.6% (13)|
|RUSH||-13.1% (9)||2.8% (9)|
|DVOA||0.0% (18)||-0.1% (19)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England is likely to lean on the running game in this one, just as they did in the first two iterations of this matchup. The Patriots rushing offense has been especially potent in the back half of this season, ranking third in DVOA in Weeks 10 to 18. Damien Harris has performed exceptionally this year, ranking fifth in DYAR and 10th in DVOA among running backs. Rhamondre Stevenson has served as a great complement to Harris and found similar success in his rookie season. He was 19th in DYAR and 16th in DVOA, both the highest marks posted by a rookie running back. It would be gratuitous to replicate the 46-rushes-on-49-plays performance from Week 13, as New England was forced into that game plan by the whipping, 40 mph winds. Buffalo knew the only thing they needed to really worry about in that first matchup was to stop the run. According to Next Gen Stats, the Bills had eight or more defenders in the box on 60% of Harris' runs and 71% of Stevenson's carries in Week 13.
The Bills did much of the same in Week 16, except they could no longer rely on the weather eliminating Mac Jones and the Patriots passing game. Buffalo played a lot of tight man coverage, taking away Jones' options over the middle and underneath. He finished the game with 14 completions on 32 attempts for 145 yards and two interceptions; his 43.8% completion rate and 4.5 yards per attempt from this game both serve as his season lows in those respective categories.
Buffalo should have to respect the pass if only slightly more in their third matchup than they did their second. New England was without wide receiver Nelson Agholor in Week 16 after he was placed into concussion protocol the week prior. Agholor isn't exactly a world-beater, but Buffalo's safeties would undoubtedly respect the pass more than they would against N'Keal Harry, Agholor's Week 16 fill-in.
Agholor or not, one receiver will not solve the passing woes Jones has suffered through in the back end of the regular season. Since New England's Week 14 bye, Jones has a 59.9% completion rate, well below his season average of 67.6%. Over those four games, Jones threw for six touchdowns and five interceptions, with a three-touchdown, interception-free game against the Jacksonville Jaguars propping those numbers up a bit.
Jones has also held the ball longer on dropbacks in the latter part of this season. This is good for the Buffalo defense. Buffalo has had 19 sacks in the last four games, although 14 of those came against the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets. Buffalo's starting front seven generated one sack and 11 pressures in Week 16, meaning Jones was pressured on just over one-third of all dropbacks. Jones has really struggled when under pressure this season. His QBR falls from 58.3 without pressure to 24.2 when pressured according to ESPN Stats and Info. His completion rate falls from 71.5% to 51.0%, and his yards per attempt goes from 7.82 to 5.07.
This problem could be exacerbated with the potential absence of starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn. Wynn was questionable to play in last Week's game against the Miami Dolphins because of a bad hip, then exited the game with an ankle injury. Wynn was limited in practice on Tuesday and did not participate on Wednesday. Wynn's absence also affects the Patriots run game; 20% of New England's rushing plays are run either behind Wynn or around him. However, it is the other side of the line where the Patriots have the advantage over Buffalo in the running game. Buffalo ranks fourth in adjusted line yards on runs to the left end and second on runs to the left tackle, but they rank 14th and 18th, respectively, on runs listed as right end and right tackle.
The biggest advantage the Patriots offense has over the Bills defense is likely on the sideline. The adjustments Josh McDaniels makes after seeing the film from Week 16's loss to the Bills and Week 18's loss to the Dolphins are going to be the biggest determinant for success on this side of the equation. After the acquisitions of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith this offseason, many speculated we would see a return to the two-tight end sets the Patriots used to dominate the 2010s. New England didn't end up going that direction. According to Sharp Football Stats, New England has run just 142 snaps of 12 personnel this season.
However, it may behoove the Patriots to embrace their big-bodied pass-catchers this week. Buffalo's secondary has stonewalled receivers all season long. The Bills led the league in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, No. 2 receivers, and "other" wide receivers. Their numbers are much more pedestrian when targeting non-wideouts in the passing game. Buffalo ranks 13th in DVOA when covering tight ends and 16th when covering running backs.
This should not discount the Bills linebackers' abilities in pass coverage. Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds have both excelled in protecting the middle of the field and covering tight ends. Buffalo did an excellent job eliminating Henry from their Week 16 matchup, holding him to just one catch for 9 yards on six targets. New England may finally need to get Smith more involved in the passing game. The former Tennessee Titans star ranks sixth on the team in total targets with 45, but his involvement has fallen off a cliff since the bye, just seeing four targets in his last four games.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
This side of the equation is wholly dependent on how far Josh Allen can take this team. The Bills quarterback has not matched his near-historic highs of last season, but the passing attack has seen an uptick as the season progressed. Buffalo moved from 12th in offensive passing DVOA in Weeks 1 to 9 to 10th in Weeks 10 to 18.
Allen played exceptionally well in both regular-season matchups against New England this season. His Week 16 performance was especially impressive, going 30-for-47 for 317 yards and three touchdowns. Allen's 84.9 QBR in this game is his second-highest mark on the season. According to RBSDM.com, Allen generated an impressive 0.71 EPA/play on third and fourth downs that game. Buffalo converted three of four fourth downs, with the drives extended by those fourth-down conversions resulting in 17 combined points. Buffalo also converted six of 12 third downs in this game, including four out of five third downs with 10 yards or more to go. Neither of those marks are guaranteed to hold, especially against the Patriots defense that leads the league in DVOA on all third and fourth downs and on third-/fourth-and-long.
Allen's stat line in Week 13 (15-for-30 for 145 yards and a touchdown) is still impressive given the grave weather conditions, but it is a somewhat deceiving line as well. Allen's receivers dropped a number of would-be big gains. A lot of those drops came down to wind and temperature. The gusts of wind turned Allen's already-strong arm into a lethal weapon, while the below-freezing temperatures iced up the hands of some receivers. While the gale-force winds will not be making a return, the temps in Orchard Park, New York, are projected to be in the single digits around kickoff. NBC Sports Edge notes that Allen has played five games in below-freezing temperatures at this point in his career, none of which reached the lows this weekend is expected to. In those five games, Allen has a completion rate of 50.3%, a far cry from his career 62.3% completion rate. Allen's yards per game fall down to just 166.6 in cold weather, and he has a touchdown/interception ratio of 6:7.
That ratio is partially impacted by Allen's abysmal passing day against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 17, when he went 11-for-26 for 120 yards and three interceptions. This game, however, was the perfect example of how Allen can win games in multiple ways. Without much success through the air, Allen took to the ground, rushing a season-high 15 times for 81 yards and two touchdowns. Allen has returned to true dual-threat quarterback status in the last month; his four best rushing performances of the season came in the last five weeks. New England relied heavily on man coverage in the passing game, which is perfect for a mobile quarterback like Allen to exploit. Extending plays with his legs, Allen rushed 12 total times for 64 yards. It certainly helps to have an offensive line that has consistently improved throughout the season. Allen has not taken a sack in the last three weeks.
The running game as a whole has been a major improvement for Buffalo as the season has progressed. The Bills rushing offense ranked 25th in DVOA Weeks 1 to 9, but led the league in DVOA in Weeks 10 to 17. Allen's contributions on the ground have been a welcome addition, but the Bills' run game has really revolved around Devin Singletary over the last four weeks. He averaged 19 carries per game over the Bills' four-game win streak to close out the season, scoring five rushing touchdowns over that span.
New England did a good job of containing Singletary in their two regular-season bouts. Singletary had just 36 yards on 10 carries against the Patriots in Week 13, then had 12 carries for 39 yards and a touchdown Week 16. The Patriots would likely be poised to repeat the process in the wild-card round were it not for a laundry list of injuries to their starters. Both interior defensive tackles, Lawrence Guy and Christian Barmore, were limited participants in practice on Tuesday and Wednesday. Barmore, who has been a standout performer as a rookie, sustained a knee injury in the fourth quarter against Miami and underwent an MRI. The injury did not seem to be as bad as originally thought, and there is a chance Barmore plays on Saturday. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Kyle Dugger, both important in the Patriots run defense, missed Week 18's game against Miami.
With all these absences on the defensive end, Matthew Judon will have to step up and return to his level of play from earlier this season. Judon finished with 12.5 sacks and 64 pressures, most of them coming early in the year. However, since Week 13, Judon has just one sack and seven pressures in four games. He has missed time due to COVID, generating just three pressures in the three games since coming off the COVID/reserve list. Dion Dawkins was able to handle Judon well during Week 16, holding him to just one pressure.
New England also lost No. 2 cornerback Jalen Mills to the COVID-19/reserve list on Tuesday. If vaccinated, Mills could return for this game, but only after missing all of the team's practices. If not, Mills would be out, leaving New England with just three cornerbacks on the roster headed into Saturday. J.C. Jackson is slated to match up against Stefon Diggs, but beyond that, things get murky on both sides of the ball. New England's next cornerback up would be Joejuan Williams, who has played just 238 snaps on defense this season. The Patriots' other option would be Myles Bryant, who has lived on both ends of the performance spectrum in these Buffalo-New England games. Bryant had the game-sealing pass breakup to ensure a New England victory in Week 13, then got torched by Isaiah McKenzie for 11 receptions, 125 yards, and a touchdown on 12 targets. McKenzie has been a non-factor for the Bills since that game, with 18 targets in his last five games, including the 12 in Foxborough. It will be interesting to see whether Sean McDermott returns to that well or opts to work with Cole Beasley, who was absent from the Week 16 matchup.
Then there is the matter of Gabriel Davis and Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders has steadily fallen off over the course of the season, showing signs of his age as the year has progressed. Davis has had his ups and downs this season. He had the only touchdown for the Bills in Week 13's matchup with the Patriots, but he is also off the heels of a -74-DYAR performance against the Jets, the worst DYAR performance by a receiver this year.
Bill Belichick is going to have to place a premium on stopping any early scoring if the Patriots hope to stay in this. In the Patriots' last three losses of the season, opponents outscored them 35-0 in the first quarter. While those five touchdowns allowed have been compounded by the Patriots offense's recent penchant for slow starts, this has been a point of weakness for the defense all year. New England's 10.9% defensive DVOA in first quarters ranks 30th in the league.
The 2021 Patriots ended a streak of 25 straight seasons with above-average special teams DVOA. Instead, New England ranks 18th in special teams DVOA after leading the league last year, falling to 21st when looking at weighted special teams DVOA. Most of New England's struggles this year have been in kickoff returns and punting, while field goals and extra points have been a point of strength thanks to Nick Folk, Unfortunately, Folk has also made an appearance on New England's injury list this week dealing with his left knee. He has been a limited participant both days.
The good news for New England? Buffalo sits basically dead-even with them in the standings. Buffalo ranks 21st in special teams DVOA on the season and 19th in weighted special teams DVOA. Buffalo is mostly brought down by their punting units as a whole, with negative DVOA in both punt and punt returns. However, Buffalo is tied for the third-best kickoff unit in the league with 6.4 net points of field position above average.
Both of the previous matchups between these two teams had some anomalous elements. New England got some historic weather luck on their side in Week 13, intensifying their run-dominant game plan and translating that into a victory. Buffalo's fantastic performance on fourth down and third-and-long in Week 16 seems like it would be hard to replicate. Buffalo is the better team, both on paper and in recent performance, but the harsh temperatures may nullify some of the Bills' advantages on offense. If the Patriots are able to overcome their laundry list of an injury report and can get some guys back in time for Saturday, they may very well pull off the upset. This is going to be an extremely close contest either way, but Buffalo has a slight edge in this one.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.