ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There’s no overhyping Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots.
Everything is on the line for the Bills.
Start with the season. A loss would kill the Bills’ chances of winning a second consecutive AFC East title, which the Patriots could clinch if their win Sunday were coupled with a Miami loss or tie against New Orleans on Monday night.
Losing wouldn’t eliminate the 8-6 Bills from the playoff hunt, but falling short of the division crown they were heavily favored to capture because of their edge in talent would feel like a massive failure – for the team and everyone who cares about it.
Next is the Bills’ presumptive status as an AFC heavyweight. It’s fair to say, at a minimum, it has been compromised by their having already lost twice as many games as last year. The fifth defeat, against the Patriots three weeks ago, delivered a huge blow to the credibility that had already taken a beating in losses against Indianapolis and Jacksonville. The Patriots have been and will always be the biggest measuring stick for the Bills, Brandon Beane’s identifying the Kansas City Chiefs as the “gold standard” notwithstanding.
There are individual reputations on the line, too.
The largest of those belongs to Sean McDermott. Though he attempted to walk back his uncharacteristic “don’t give Bill Belichick too much credit” remark after the Hoodie’s all-run-no-throw game plan gave the Pats all that they needed for a 14-10 victory Dec. 6, there was no retracting his frustration. That’s perfectly understandable, even if it wasn’t advisable.
Belichick is McDermott’s white whale. Those two wins against New England last year, McDermott’s first after going 0-6 against the Pats, lost plenty of luster after the Monday night debacle. If the Bills lose Sunday, it will be as if they never happened.
Beating the Patriots requires winning the coaching chess match, something Frank Reich did in the Colts’ 27-17 win last weekend. McDermott, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier must prove they can conquer the master.
It’s incumbent upon McDermott and Frazier to figure out a way to not only avoid having their defense trampled again by the Pats’ running game, but also to force rookie quarterback Mac Jones to have to make as many plays as possible with his passing arm. Belichick took Jones out of the previous game by having him throw only three times. The coach did not trust his QB to handle the windy conditions or the Bills’ defense or the roaring prime-time crowd.
The Bills must put that trust to the test again, just as the Colts did in ending the Patriots’ seven-game winning streak last weekend. Jones had one of his rougher outings of the season. He had his lowest completion percentage since Week 8. His two interceptions gave him his first multi-interception game since Week Three.
“I think every experience is a learning experience,” Jones said. “Everyone’s different. Everyone comes from different places, but whether you win or you lose, you can still learn. In college, you lose games and you have to learn from it. In the NFL, obviously, it’s hard to win, so you have to learn from the errors you make personally, which are the most important because that’s how it affects the team.
“I’m always very hard on myself because if I don’t play great, then it affects the people around me.”
Which leads us to Josh Allen. His reputation hangs in the balance as well. A player widely seen as one of the NFL’s best at his position would have a tough time living down a loss to Jones, who is fine for a rookie but a long way from Allen’s category.
Allen has to go back to the heavy-lifting he did in the second half of the overtime loss at Tampa Bay. He has to inject the big-play dynamic with the sort of consistency missing for much of this season, a chore likely to be more difficult with receivers Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis out of the lineup after being placed on the reserve/Covid-19 list.
A running game would help … but, as usual, that might be asking too much.