New England Patriots playoff football is back! Sure, New England had a less than ideal finish to the season, losing three out of their final four games, but overall a trip to the playoffs is a nice bounceback season for Bill Belichick and company. The Patriots’ playoff opponent is the AFC East division rival Buffalo Bills. CBS will broadcast the game at 8:15 ET on Saturday night.
With the matchup quickly approaching, we wanted to preview the game using a ton of different statistical metrics. Without further ado, let’s hop right in.
Patriots and Bills Team Overview
Divisional record: 3-3
Playoff seed: 6
Strength of schedule: .481
Points for: 462
Points against: 303
Point differential: +159
Divisional record: 5-1
Playoff seed: 3
Strength of schedule: .472
Points for: 483
Points against: 289
Point differential: +194
(Numbers/stats via ESPN)
Despite typically being favorites in most playoff matchups post-2001, the “underdog” mentality has been a staple of the Bill Belichick-led Patriots. This week, however, the Patriots truly are the underdogs on the road against Buffalo. Vegas oddsmakers set the opening line at Buffalo -4.5, with 43.5 being the initial number for the over/under.
At the time of writing, the line has shifted a half-point to Buffalo -4. What does this tell us? That the “sharp money” (professional gamblers putting their money on the Patriots), which caused the line to move in the Patriots favor.
One reason for the sharp money moving towards New England could be the weather, but not in the way you’d think. With frigid temperatures expected in Buffalo, it seems as if a lot of fans are opting to stay home to enjoy this matchup, evidenced by the higher than normal (and lower-priced) volume of tickets that are for sale for the game.
What does this all mean? It means that the home-field advantage in this matchup may not be quite as big an advantage as expected, especially if it’s Patriots fans buying up the available tickets.
When looking at the odds, there seems to be plenty of reason for optimism for Patriots fans right? Well, now for the other side of that coin. ESPN’s football power index gives the Bills a 61.6% chance of winning, with the Patriots coming in at 38.4%.
However you choose to look at it, the odds favor Buffalo. But the game isn’t played on a spreadsheet, and you can bet that Belichick has some tricks up the sleeves of his hoodie for this one.
Home Field Advantage?
Buffalo has mostly taken care of business when playing at home, finishing with a 6-3 record in games played in Orchard Park. Meanwhile, New England has been better on the road this year than at home, finishing the season with an away record of 6-2. Interestingly though, when looking at DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) the Patriots’ offense has struggled in road games this season.
Patriots Home offensive DVOA: 2nd
Patriots Road offensive DVOA: 23rd
This trend will need to flip if the Patriots hope to beat Buffalo in Orchard Park. Funny enough, unlike the offense, the Patriots defense has been better on the road this season.
Patriots’ Home defensive DVOA: 10th
Patriots Road defensive DVOA: 2nd
Another crucial aspect of Saturday’s game is that New England is essentially playing with house money in this one. Going into a road playoff game with a rookie quarterback as an underdog means there’s very minimal pressure to win. But, for the Bills, who were a Super Bowl favorite coming into the year, it’s a must-win game at home.
Temperature vs. Quarterback
The weather forecast in Buffalo for Saturday night shows a high of 10 degrees and a low of 3 degrees. While we don’t have a usable sample size for Mac Jones as a pro in these kinds of freezing temperatures, history shows that Josh Allen has struggled in games that are below freezing at kickoff. Allen has gone 3-2 in his 5 career games that meet this criteria, and his stats in those games are as follows:
Completion %: 50.3
Passing yards: 166.6
(Stats via The Athletic)
Not exactly the type of numbers we’ve come to expect from Allen since his 2020 breakout season, which led me to the question: Are these numbers skewed by his first two seasons in the league when he was still developing as a player? Looking at numbers from CLNS media, it was obvious that Allen’s post-2019 stats in the three games he’s played with temperatures below freezing weren’t much better than the numbers he put up early in his career.
Completion %: 50.6
Passer rating: 58.4
(Stats via CLNS Media)
Though Allen’s numbers don’t show much improvement, the Bills as a team were successful in these games, posting a 3-0 record.
Despite the undefeated record in sub-freezing temperatures since Allen’s breakout season, his tendency to turn the ball over in these games presents an obvious vulnerability for the Patriots to exploit. Even if New England is unable to force Allen to turn the ball over, they must find a way to capitalize on his inability to complete a high percentage of passes in the cold weather.
QB Regular Season Ranks
Despite the higher stakes in the playoffs, and what promises to be an unusually chilly affair on Saturday night, we can’t dismiss the overall body of work that Jones and Allen put together throughout the regular season.
Some say once you reach the playoffs what happened in the regular season no longer matters, but I believe it can provide some valuable insight into what you can expect to see in this matchup. Here’s a look at where each quarterback ranked league-wide in a few important advanced metrics.
Expected Points Added: 14th
Completion Percentage Over Expected: 8th
Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement: 12th
PFF Rank: 12th
Expected Points Added: 8th
Completion Percentage Over Expected: 12th
Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement: 11th
PFF Rank: 6th
(Stats via RBSDM stats, Football Outsiders, and Pro Football Focus)
Both quarterbacks put together an excellent regular season resume when considering the context of where they’re at in their respective careers. As expected, Allen bests rookie Jones in just about every category.
Jones does however have the edge in completion percentage over expected. When taking into consideration Allen’s previously highlighted struggles with accuracy in temperatures below freezing, this could prove significant.
It’s time to address the elephant in the room: Rookie quarterbacks rarely make the playoffs, and when they do, the results usually aren’t great. Since 2001, only 11 rookie quarterbacks have started during wildcard weekend. Here are the per-game averages for those 11 rookies on wildcard weekend:
Completion percentage: 55%
Passing yards: 187
Yards per attempt: 6.3
Sacks taken: 2.9
(Stats via Pro Football Focus)
Those modest numbers highlight the struggle it is to win playoff games with a rookie quarterback. It’s also important to note that Jones seems to recently have hit a bit of a rookie wall as well. NFL history and the current reality of the situation would seem to point towards Jones having a tough go of it on Saturday night.
That said, one of the more defining characteristics of Jones this season has been his ability to bounce back from mistakes/poor performances. Will he be able to do that on the biggest stage of his young NFL career? It will be fun to find out.
The Ground Game
Games played in freezing January temperatures often have a common denominator offensively: teams tend to lean on their ground attack and play smash-mouth football. New England is no stranger to running often – they ran the ball on 46.5% of their offensive plays this season. Buffalo typically favored their aerial attack, rushing only 40.3% of the time.
Buffalo’s reliance on the passing game makes sense, as they’re extremely dynamic through the air. Being able to run the ball, however, could play a big role in this one as it did in the Week 13 matchup.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at each team’s top three runners and their numbers in what I consider to be the three most important categories for a running back: yards per carry, yards after contact, and missed tackles forced.
Yards per carry: 4.54
Average yards after contact: 2.37
Missed tackles forced: 36
Yards per carry: 4.55
Average yards after contact: 3.35
Missed tackles forced: 38
Yards per carry: 5.14
Average yards after contact: 2.73
Missed tackles forced: 6
*44 total rush attempts
Yards per carry: 4.63
Average yards after contact: 2.94
Missed tackles forced: 41
Yards per carry: 3.59
Average yards after contact: 2.27
Missed tackles forced: 22
Yards per carry: 4.81
Average yards after contact: 2.38
Missed tackles forced: 2
*26 total rush attempts
(Stats via FTNfantasy.com)
It’s important to note the context of both Brandon Bolden’s and Matt Breida’s numbers. Efficiency metrics are often skewed when using such a small sample size. However, the big thing we can take away from this is that Buffalo’s overall rushing attack has been a bit more efficient than they’ve been given credit for. That’s notable when you consider the Patriots’ run defense has had its fair share of struggles as of late.
You didn’t think I’d talk about the Bills’ ground attack without mentioning Josh Allen’s rushing prowess, did you? While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison (for example, his average yards after contact numbers are affected by sliding to avoid hits), Allen put together a very nice campaign on the ground in 2021. Allen averaged 6.25 yards per rush attempt, 176 total yards after contact, with 18 missed tackles forced. He totaled 763 rushing yards on 122 attempts while scoring 6 touchdowns and running for 10+ yards 28 times.
The only blemish on his rushing resume for the 2021 season was his 5 fumbles on rushing attempts. Keeping Allen contained in the run game will be an incredibly important task. It’s no exaggeration to say Allen can win a game with his legs if you let him.
A Matchup of Stingy Defenses
Seemingly lost in this week’s talking points is the tantalizing matchup between two of this season’s top defenses. Buffalo’s defense led the league in fewest points allowed per game, and New England’s defense wasn’t far behind finishing second best in the league in fewest points allowed.
It’s worth noting that the team defensive numbers come with the caveat that both defenses played fairly easy offensive schedules. According to Football Outsiders, New England faced the 29th hardest defensive schedule and Buffalo faced the 31st hardest defensive schedule. That said, you can only play who’s on your schedule and both defenses had exceptional overall seasons.
Points allowed per game: 17.8
Points allowed per game on the road: 16
Points allowed per game last 3 weeks: 25.3
Points allowed per game: 17
Points allowed per game at home: 16.6
Points allowed per game last 3 weeks: 15.3
(Stats via teamrankings.com)
While the Patriots defense has surrendered slightly fewer points on the road than the Bills defense has at home, Buffalo’s unit did finish the season a lot stronger than New England’s. Making Buffalo’s strong finish even more impressive is the fact that they were able to do so after losing star cornerback Tre’davious White for the remainder of the year due to an ACL injury.
A lot of what has made these two defenses so effective has been their ability to create turnovers, get pressure on the quarterback, and defend the pass. The Patriots defense has the edge on the Bills in both the turnover and pass defense categories:
Pass breakups: 38
Forced fumbles: 9
Pass breakups: 38
Forced Fumbles: 10
(Stats via FTNfantasy.com)
When it comes to getting after the opposing quarterback, the edge goes to Buffalo’s top-ranked defense:
QB hits: 47
Unblocked pressures: 128
QB hits: 42
Unblocked pressures: 104
(Stats via FTNfantasy.com)
Although most of the attention this week has gone to the quarterbacks and the weather, both of these defenses deserve some recognition. Despite both units losing key contributors, for the most part, they’ve been balling all year.
The Jalen Mills effect
The biggest question for the Patriots’ defense right now is the status of cornerback Jalen Mills for Saturday night’s game. Hopefully, by the time you’re reading this, he has cleared the league’s Covid-19 protocols. Having Mills on the field will be absolutely crucial to New England’s success against Buffalo’s passing attack. Mills has had a tremendous second half of the season.
Beyond possibly losing a good player in Mills, is the fact New England simply lacks cornerback depth to replace him. As we saw the last time these two teams played, the Bills were able to easily exploit matchups against the Patriots’ secondary despite not having their full complement of pass catchers available.
Buffalo’s wide receiver room is deep with diverse skill sets, and the impact of having Mills on the field to match up against them cannot be overstated. However, even if cleared to play, Mills is already at a disadvantage this week having missed multiple practices. Myles Bryant, Joejuan Williams, and D’Angelo Ross will need to be ready to play important snaps.
Roster Additions Since the Last Meeting
Unfortunately, you can’t truly analyze a playoff matchup in today’s NFL without mentioning Covid-19. Here are the players that will be available for Saturday’s game after missing the last meeting due to Covid-19 protocols:
WR Cole Beasley
DE A.J. Epenesa
WR Gabriel Davis
OL Cody Ford
OT Bobby Hart
OL Yasir Durant
RB Rhamondre Stevenson
DE Deatrich Wise Jr.
While both teams are set to get players back that weren’t available in the previous contest, as of now only the Patriots have players (CB Jalen Mills, CB Shaun Wade) that could potentially miss Saturday’s game if they’re unable to clear protocols.
Injury Report (from Thursday)
The following is the injury report for each team from Thursday:
Patriots listed as questionable
Christian Barmore (knee)
Jamie Collins (ankle)
Kyle Dugger (hand)
Adrian Phillips (knee)
Cody Davis (wrist)
Nick Folk (left knee)
Damien Harris (hamstring)
Jakobi Meyers (thigh)
Isaiah Wynn (hip/ankle)
David Andrews (shoulder)
Lawrence Guy (shoulder)
Dont’a Hightower (knee)
Brandon King (toe)
Kyle Dugger and Isaiah Wynn look like the most likely candidates to miss the playoff gamer on Saturday. Reports have indicated some hope Dugger can play, but Wynn seems to be trending towards not playing. If he can’t go, that’s a big loss to the Patriots’ offensive line.