Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Published 10:24 AM EDT Sep 24, 2019
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – They already have six Vince Lombardi trophies on display at Patriot Place, and based on what has transpired during the first three weeks of the 2019 season, should we bother wasting time dreaming that a seventh won’t be hoisted by the masters of snark, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, come February?
Granted, the Patriots have “earned” their 3-0 record by playing two of the worst teams in the league (the Jets and Dolphins) and a Steelers team that is a shell of its former self. Those teams are now a combined 0-9 this year, but quite frankly, I’m not sure it would have mattered who the Patriots were playing in the first three weeks; they weren’t losing to anyone.
“No one’s come close to even touching them at this point.” Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott said Monday.
Brady and the offense usually get all the accolades, and they’ve been typically outstanding so far (He has 911 yards passing already). But look at what the defense has accomplished, because that’s why they’re 3-0.
The Patriots have shut out their opponent in the first half in five straight games counting the 2018 playoffs and haven’t allowed a touchdown this season; they have given up only three points (the Jets scored on defense and on special teams Sunday); they are No. 1 in the NFL in fewest rushing yards, passing yards and total yards allowed; they lead the league with a sickly 52.8 completion percentage against; and they’re tied for the league lead with 13 sacks.
Sunday, the Jets gained 105 yards, which was the fewest allowed by the Patriots in 347 games under Belichick, counting the postseason. Yet this was Belichick’s response when he was asked about that effort.
“I think we’ve played good team defense at times,” Belichick said. “There’s still things we need to work on and be a little more consistent at, things we can definitely coach better, but our players have prepared well. The communication has been good.”
You just want to roll your eyes at the arrogance. They’ve given up three points on defense all year and still, the Hoodie broods.
“If you ever sit in a Bill Belichick meeting, don’t worry, he’ll find it,” safety Devin McCourty said, meaning Belichick will always find things to complain about.
Every year we want to believe things are going to change and the Patriots are finally going to go into decline, and that Brady is finally going to hit the wall now that he’s 39, or 40, or 41, or 42, but it never happens. They just continue to march on as the most successful, but most despised franchise, probably in NFL history. The team everyone wants to beat, the team no one can beat.
Next in the path of the wrecking ball are the 3-0 Buffalo Bills Sunday afternoon at what will surely be a raucous — at least at the start — New Era Field.
Do the Bills, who have lost 30 of the 33 games they have played against Brady, have a chance in this game? Sure, everyone has a chance in the NFL, the old “on any given Sunday” mantra is still alive and kicking. Team USA had a chance against the Soviets, and Buster Douglas had a chance against Mike Tyson, too, and look what happened.
Buffalo beating New England wouldn’t come close to being as seismic as those upsets, of course, but it would be a major upset nonetheless. For any team that beats the Patriots this year — perhaps with the exception of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on Dec. 8 in Foxborough — it will be considered a surprise worthy of a next-day civic holiday.
How can the Bills pull it off? Here’s a few things they must do.
Pass rush must show up
The Bills have not brought the heat enough in their first three games, but they survived because they were playing mono-ridden Sam Darnold, over-the-hill Eli Manning and the ever-average Andy Dalton.
Against the greatest of all time, they have to get after him or he’ll do what he’s been doing for 18 years and pick them apart. And yes, that will happen, even against Buffalo’s outstanding secondary because New England does such a great job with its route concepts that someone always seems to come open, often because Brady gets the time he needs to let things develop.
One key is that New England won’t do a lot of max protecting the way Cincinnati did, because they like having their skill guys out in the pattern. So, edge rushers Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy and the rest should get some opportunities, especially if ex-Bills castoff Marshall Newhouse starts at left tackle again for the Patriots.
Perhaps the Bills will catch a break if Julian Edelman (ribs) can’t play because he has been a thorn in their side for years. They no longer have Rob Gronkowski, and they parted ways with Antonio Brown after 11 ridiculous, tumultuous days. Still, there are wideouts Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett to worry about, not to mention running backs James White, Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead.
Give the defense a chance
The Bills’ defense has been put in some tough situations thanks to the offensive turnovers and some shoddy play on special teams, but they’ve generally been able to survive.
According to ESPN research, the Bills rank second-to-last in the league in average starting fielding position for their opponent — the 31-yard-line – but the Jets, Giants and Bengals didn’t really take advantage.
The Bills are No. 1 in the league in fewest yards allowed per drive (24.8), third in touchdown percentage per drive (16.8), and No. 1 in percentage of three-and-outs forced (36.2).
If the offense can play a clean game and the special teams perform better than they have and flip the field more effectively, even Brady could have a tough time sustaining long drives against the Buffalo defense.
Josh Allen has to be great
To beat the best, you can’t be mediocre, and Allen is fully aware of this.
“The Patriots are very well-coached and they got a guy over there that plays quarterback quite well, you know No. 12,” he said. “(Maybe) the greatest quarterback of all time. We understand it’s a tall task but at the same time we’re going to try and stick to what we do. Learn from this game, make adjustments, and go out and try to put our best foot forward next week.”
Allen has to avoid playing hero ball. There can’t be mistakes like the pick he threw against Cincinnati that turned the game in the Bengals favor and almost cost the Bills a victory.
Everything has to be on point from the play calls, to his checks, to the line calls up front, to the communication between him and his receivers once the ball is snapped. The Patriots will pounce on any mistake, no matter how small.
“It’ll be a challenging week ahead,” offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “It’s kind of unprecedented, what they’re doing on defense right now.”
Offensive line has to come together
Allen was running for his life too often against the Bengals, and if the line isn’t better this week, that will again be the case against the Patriots.
This is the first defense in the Super Bowl era to not allow an offensive touchdown in the first three games of a season. And while the Jets’ Luke Falk and the Dolphins’ Ryan Fitzpatrick/Josh Rosen duo scare no one, remember on opening night, the Patriots throttled Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
New England has allowed only 13.6 percent conversions on third down, meaning teams simply can’t put drives together. To date, 33 of 37 drives have ended in punts or turnovers.
One of the keys has been the Patriots dominance up front. They have controlled the line of scrimmage — the aforementioned 13 sacks, plus 10 QB hits and 27 hurries according to Pro Football Focus — and the Bills can’t let that happen.
If Jon Feliciano is out, that creates a major problem, because Belichick will surely try to take advantage of rookie Cody Ford who would slot in at right guard.
One way to slow down the Patriots would be to use some play-action, and some of the jet sweep calls might work, but perhaps those will be best suited for getting the Patriots to move and then have Allen quickly attack a vulnerable area. Easier said than done.
Maintaining ball control is also vitally important, and the Bills have done a nice job with this. All eight of their touchdown drives this season have come on drives of 70 yards or more.