Rob Gronkowski could hit his goal of playing in all 16 regular-season games in 2014 Sunday against the Bills. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Because the relative worth of Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Bills is debatable — and because of that, trying to figure out potential matchups might very well be an exercise in futility — we’ve decided to eschew our usual game preview. Instead, we’ve created a checklist for New England fans as to what to look for come Sunday. Here are 10 things (in no particular order) the Patriots would like to accomplish Sunday against Buffalo:
1. Stay healthy: There are plenty of other elements for the Patriots to consider going into this one, but the singularly most important thing is to steer clear of injury heading into the postseason. (Because, as we all know, health trumps momentum at this time of the year.) That includes tight end Rob Gronkowski, quarterback Tom Brady, cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Given how Bill Belichick has approached these games in the past — and given the fact that they have two weeks between this game and their playoff opener — it’s reasonable to think that each one of these players will get some time against the Bills before being pulled.
2. Try and gauge the overall state of the offensive line: Despite the fact that it looks like Marcell Dareus might not play on Sunday, if Buffalo does roll out the same front seven it’s had over the course of most of the first 15 games, it’ll provide a nice test for the New England offensive line. The Bills are one of the best pass defenses in the league — they lead the league with 50 sacks — thanks in large part to the group that gets after the quarterback. Mario Williams has 13.5 sacks, while Dareus has 10. Jerry Hughes (9.5 sacks) and Kyle Williams (5.5 sacks) round out the group, which is an impressive collection of pass rushing talent as there is in the league. Left guard Dan Connolly (ankle), guard/tackle Cameron Fleming (ankle) and tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back) were all questionable as of Friday afternoon, and so a few backups could see time. But regardless, the New England line will face a stern test from a Buffalo front that should prepare them nicely for the playoffs.
3. Develop some confidence and consistency on offense heading into the postseason: Our scout hit on this in his game preview earlier in the week, but it bears repeating that the New England offense is looking to head into the playoffs on a better note than last week. In that contest against the Jets, the Patriots struggled to achieve any sort of real offensive rhythm, with only two drives that could best be described as anywhere near crisp and efficient. In the 2010 regular-season finale — a game similar to this one in that the top seed was already decided going into this one — the Patriots were a little sluggish out of the gate before Tom Brady and the rest of the offense got things together with a nice series at the start of the second half. It’s likely that the coaching staff will be looking for the New England offense to go out on a similar high note in this one before Jimmy Garoppolo and the rest of the backups take over.
4. Try and figure out your best option at nickel corner: The Patriots are going to be without Alfonzo Dennard on Sunday, but given how frequently he’s been a healthy scratch down the stretch, it’s reasonable to question how much he’ll be in New England’s plans come the postseason. With the assumption that Kyle Arrington will remain in the slot, that leaves Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, as well as the possibility of seeing Devin McCourty in a limited corner spot (something he’s done occasionally over the course of the second half of the season) this upcoming postseason. Smart quarterbacks and deep receiving corps have done well zeroing in Ryan and Butler over the last month, and that figures to be the case heading into the postseason. The Patriots need one of these younger players to assert themselves and seize control of the job.
5. Work on defending tight ends: The Patriots have struggled to contain good tight ends over the course of the season (Football Outsiders has them 29th in the league when it comes to defending tight ends), and they’ll get a chance on Sunday to go up against a guy who has done a really impressive job against them the last few seasons in Buffalo’s Scott Chandler. The Iowa product is not a high-profile target, but in eight games against New England, he has 27 catches for 364 yards and four touchdowns. That includes six catches on nine targets for 105 yards in the October contest against New England in Buffalo. “He’s got good skills — long, tall guy,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick of the 6-foot-7, 270-pounder. “Big target, big catch radius; he’s a hard guy to match up on. We’ve had a lot of trouble with him.” As a result, Sunday could represent a good barometer of where the Patriots are when it comes to their ability to slow elite tight ends come playoff time.
6. Reach necessary playtime incentives, and allow some players to achieve personal goals: There are some players who are looking to hit financial incentives in this one, but no one is anywhere near the sort of payday that Vince Wilfork could land. The veteran defensive lineman has a $1.25 million bonus looming if he plays 70 percent of the snaps this season, and can land another $500,000 if he finishes with 70 percent of the snaps and the Patriots finish in the top 10 in points allowed. Per Tom E. Curran, Wilfork has played in 74.1 percent of the snaps this year coming into Sunday’s game. That means the veteran needs to play if he wants to keep that total over 70 percent. (For what it’s worth, he played in 64 of a possible 69 snaps last game against the Bills, or 93 percent.) Miguel Benzan has a nice look at the numbers here — in addition, Benzan notes Julian Edelman has a $500,000 bonus waiting for him if the Patriots win 13 games. And then, there are personal goals: Gronkowski was very clear this summer in wanting to play in all 16 regular-season games in 2014 this summer. While it’s not to suggest he’ll go wire-to-wire in this one, to able to say that he bounced back from injury-ravaged 2012 and 2013 seasons by answering the bell all season long in 2014 would certainly be tremendously gratifying.
7. Get some in-game snaps for players in the middle and back end of the roster: Given the chance to get some extended reps in regular-season action, there are a handful of players who could get an opportunity to put some good play on film. That could lead to one of two things: one, they could become attractive if they are on the open market this offseason. And two, they could prove themselves to be valuable in certain situations when the postseason rolls around. It’s all about taking advantage of your opportunities, and if players like James White, Zach Moore and Brian Tyms are able to play significant snaps and show that they can have some sort of impact, it’ll bode well for them going forward.
8. Make sure special teams is fine-tuned as possible: The Patriots special teams unit is already one of the best in the league — the group has been at or near the top of the NFL all season long, according to the numbers from Football Outsiders — and figure to have a sizable edge in the postseason in this department. As a result, New England will utilize this contest against the Bills to make sure that things are clicking on all cylinders. The Patriots will face one of the better special teams units in the league this week in Buffalo, and it’ll be a good test for them going into the playoffs. Former New England practice squadder Marcus Thigpen has delivered a jolt as a punt and kick returner — he had a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Packers earlier this month, and while he doesn’t have enough returns to qualify for a spot among the league leaders for punt returners, his 14.8 average is best among anyone with at least nine opportunities. Kicker Dan Carpenter has made a league-high 33 field goals (with just one blocked, and his 89.2 success rate is sixth in the league. Meanwhile, punter Colton Schmidt has a respectable 43.3 average, and has placed 29 of his 61 punts inside the 20 while not having a punt blocked all season. And finally, the Bills have limited teams to an average of 20 yards per kick return (fourth-best in the league) and 6.2 yards per punt return (fifth-best in the league).
9. Get a sense for where Buffalo stands at this stage in their development: Use the game as a teachable moment in hopes of trying to figure out just how much a young Bills’ team has grown over the last year. Buffalo has made great strides on both sides of the ball over the last year-plus, and even if they lose on Sunday, the Bills’ 8-8 record would represent the best mark for the franchise since they finished 9-7 in 2004. It’s a good resume for a young team: The 2014 Bills are not only guaranteed of at least a .500 record with wins over the Packers and Lions, but four of their losses were by a touchdown or less this year. They have matured into a very good young defense, one that went the entire 2014 season without one of its top playmakers in linebacker Kiko Alonso. On offense, despite the uncertainty at the quarterback position, Buffalo is the only team in the league which has five different targets with 40 or more catches. Led by Kyle Orton, (64 percent completion rate, 2,842 yards, 17 TDs, 10 INTs), the Bills lean mostly on receiver Sammy Watkins (62 catches on 123 targets, team-high 925 yards, 6 TDs) who has emerged as one of the better young pass catchers in the league. Meanwhile, running back Fred Jackson (65 catches, 87 targets, 497 yards, 1 TD), receiver Robert Woods (61 catches, 100 targets, 660 yards, 4 TDs) and Chandler (46 catches, 69 targets, 477 yards, 3 TDs) round out an impressive passing game. Is Buffalo capable of taking that next step in 2015? Sunday could provide some answers.
10. Win the game: Ultimately, you want to be able to go into the postseason on a positive note. While the game doesn’t have any sort of impact on their overall playoff seeding, winning the regular-season finale allows the franchise to go into the playoffs on a positive note. It would be the first 13-3 season for the Patriots since 2011, and would allow New England to boast of the best regular-season record in the league. There’s no such thing as the President’s Trophy in the NFL, but it would be a nice accomplishment, considering where this team was at the end of September.