The final game of Week 13 of the 2021 NFL season is a battle for first place in the AFC East. The New England Patriots, back atop their rightful perch, travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills on "Monday Night Football."
New England has won six straight games after opening the season at just 2-4, while Buffalo has alternated wins and losses over its last six after beginning the season on a 4-1 hot streak. Each team needs a victory to keep pace with the Ravens and Titans at the top of the AFC playoff race, and along with the actual players on the field, that should make this an interesting matchup.
So, can the Bills reclaim first place in the division, or will the Patriots solidify their hold on the top spot? We'll find out soon enough. But first, let's break down the matchup.
How to watch
Date: Monday, Dec. 6 | Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Location: Highmark Stadium (Orchard Park, New York)
TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (click here)
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: Bills -3, O/U 41
When the Patriots have the ball
The Bills have been arguably the NFL's best defense in 2021. Entering Week 13, Buffalo ranks first in yards allowed per game, second in points allowed per game (more on the team that ranks first later in this post), first in EPA per play, and first in Football Outsiders' DVOA, with the fourth-ranked unit against the run and first-ranked unit against the pass.
The two teams to experience the most offensive success against the Bills, though, are two of the most physical, run-based teams in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts dropped 41 points on Buffalo and the Tennessee Titans hung 34 on the Bills. Those two teams are the only ones to score more than 23 against Sean McDermott's unit this year. Jonathan Taylor and Derrick Henry combined for 54 carries for 328 yards (6.1 per carry) and seven touchdowns on the ground in those two games. By way of perspective, consider that all other players have combined for 735 yards and four touchdowns on 218 carries (3.4 per carry) against the Bills.
The big differentiator in those two games was the work Taylor and Henry were able to do after first contact. The Colts averaged 4.74 yards after contact per carry, according to TruMedia; the Titans averaged 5.95 per carry. No other team has averaged more than 2.55 yards after contact per carry against Buffalo. New England ranks almost exactly average in yards after contact this season (2.73 per carry compared with a league average of 2.77), though rookie Rhamondre Stevenson has shown an ability to do better (3.2 per carry) than his backfield mates and could therefore be New England's best option in this matchup.
Buffalo tends to mix up its coverages in the passing game, utilizing each of Cover-1, Cover-3, and Cover-4 on at least 23% of snaps, per TruMedia. Of the three, Mac Jones has easily been at his best against Cover-4 so far this season, perhaps because it encourages the kind of underneath throws on which Jones excels. (His best performance of the year so far came against a Cleveland Browns defense that plays more Cover-4 than any team in the NFL, for what it's worth.)
He doesn't have the elite arm strength needed to test opponents down the field against one-on-one perimeter coverage, but he makes up for that with his incredibly quick coverage diagnosis, decision-making, and release. (Along with the fact that he is put in position to succeed by his play-calling and offensive line, which is always helpful.) Those traits tend to play up against teams that utilize the types of soft zones that have given many other quarterbacks trouble this season, but against which Jones has largely thrived.
In the absence of No. 1 cornerback Tre'Davious White, it'll be interesting to see if McDermott gets a bit less aggressive with his coverage tactics. That may not be advisable in this particular matchup, but it would only be natural for a defense to adjust to the loss of its best coverage player by going a bit more conservative. If that's the tack the Bills take, it would play into the hands of Jones and his receiving corps, who are better at finding soft spots than creating separation against man coverage.
When the Bills have the ball
The big question here is how Bill Belichick wants to make the Bills beat his defense.
Buffalo wants to throw the ball as often as possible, and just about every opposing defense knows that. As such, opponents have taken to utilizing the types of soft zone coverages that gave the Chiefs so much trouble earlier in the season, essentially daring the Bills to run the ball with the likes of Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, and (more recently) Matt Breida. Belichick has used this style of defense against other pass-happy opponents before, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him utilize it again here.
But Belichick also knows that Allen has been somewhat vulnerable to the blitz. His EPA per dropback has been cut in half (from 0.14 to 0.07) when the opponent has sent at least one extra rusher after him, according to TruMedia. The Buffalo offensive line has not held up particularly well against blitzes this year, allowing pressure on more than 41% of blitzed dropbacks. (Allen, like all quarterbacks, tends to perform worse under pressure.)
The Pats have one of the best pressure units in the NFL, with Matt Judon leading a group that is terrorizing opposing passers. Judon ranked fourth in the NFL with 50 total pressures coming into Week 13, and New England supports him by bringing the rush from all over the place. Whether it's Christian Barmore, Deatrich Wise, Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Josh Uche, Chase Winovich, Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, or whomever else, the Belichicks figure out a way to put them in position to get into the backfield and bother the opponent's signal-caller.
So, will Belichick sit back and dare the Bills to fight left-handed, or will he try to heat up a quarterback who can be prone to big mistakes when under pressure? (Does the expected inclement weather play a role here?) Just as importantly, what will he do on the back end to complement what he does up front?
As we detailed prior to the Patriots' loss to the Buccaneers, there are many different ways Belichick can approach covering an opponent with multiple high-level passing game threats. In this matchup, it's pretty clear that Stefon Diggs is the top target. Belichick could choose to shadow him with J.C. Jackson, his best cover corner, or he could break out his "one-double" coverage, using Jackson against Emmanuel Sanders and double-teaming Diggs whenever possible. Diggs lit up New England's secondary for 6-92-0 and 9-145-3 in two matchups last season, and you can be sure Belichick will refuse to allow that to happen again.
A game plan focused on stopping Diggs could force the passing game to run through Cole Beasley and Dawson Knox over the middle of the field, where New England has strong coverage linebackers. The Patriots can also sit on routes and take chances trying to jump Allen's passes, looking to create a turnover on any player where he's not pinpoint accurate. That could leave them susceptible to double moves on the outside -- especially by Diggs -- but it might be worth the risk.
Prediction: Bills 24, Patriots 20