Quarterback Kyle Orton will lead the Bills against the Patriots Sunday in Foxboro. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Here are five things you have to know about the Bills, who face the Patriots in the regular-season finale for both teams Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
(A disclaimer: Look, in the grand scheme of things, this game doesn’t mean anything. The Patriots have wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and the Bills are out of the playoffs after last week’s loss to the Raiders. As a result, no one is really sure how this game is going to play out, at least from a personnel perspective. At the same time, there are some statistical patterns that have taken place over the course of the season that might give us some insight on how Sunday’s contest might turn out. As a result, the following is our best guess as to what is going to happen on Sunday.)
They have one of the better pass defenses in the league.
The Bills have established one of the better pass-rushing groups in the AFC. As a team, Buffalo leads the league in sacks with 50, with those impressive numbers coming off a 2013 season where the Bills finished second in the league in sacks with 49. Mario Williams has 13.5 sacks, while Marcell Dareus has 10 (although as of Monday, Dareus is a question mark because of a knee injury he sustained in Sunday’s loss to the Raiders in Oakland). Jerry Hughes (9.5 sacks) and Kyle Williams (5.5 sacks) round out the group, which is an an impressive collection of pass rushing talent as their is in the league. Overall, their pressure is a big reason why the Bills are third in the league when it comes to pass defense (209.9 passing yards per game allowed). All that being said, quarterback Tom Brady was able to throw for a season-high 361 yards in a 37-22 win over the Bills on Oct. 12 in Buffalo. And that was after starting running back Stevan Ridley went down with a season-ending knee injury during the game. (In addition, Brady’s 73 percent completion percentage and 139.6 quarterback rating for the afternoon were both his second-best of the season.)
They are, however, vulnerable against the run.
The Buffalo run defense isn’t necessarily bad — its 13th in the league in traditional metrics (105.8 rushing yards per game allowed) and 11th in advanced metrics (Football Outsiders has them 11th in run defense entering this past weekend). But it’s clear that when faced with running or passing the ball, many opposing offenses have chosen to go with the former. The Bills have yielded more than 100 rushing yards in seven of the last nine games, and while some of that is situational yardage that didn’t necessarily come back to hurt them (including the 158 rushing yards they gave up in a win over the Packers earlier this month), the numbers suggest you can beat them on the ground. Dareus, Hughes, Mario Williams and old friend Brandon Spikes are considered the best run stoppers Buffalo has to offer. In the October contest against the Patriots, New England struggled at times to maintain consistency on the ground, finishing with just 50 rushing yards — however, part of that was due likely to the fact that Ridley went down with a knee injury, forcing the Patriots to make some adjustments on the afternoon.
Their running game has really struggled as of late.
The Bills are coming off their worst single-game rushing performance since 1997, a 13-yard effort in a surprising loss to the Raiders in Oakland. In his first action since fracturing his collarbone in Week 7, C.J. Spiller ran four times for minus-four yards. Veteran Fred Jackson wasn’t much better (six carries, 10 yards), while Boobie Dixon had three carries for seven yards. For a team considered to have one of the deepest and most diverse running games in the league, it was a sad performance. Overall, the Bills are 25th in the league in running the ball (91.9 rushing yards per game) and 26th in the NFL in yards per carry (3.7). Jackson is still their No. 1 back, at least statistically (123 carries, 467 yards, 2 TDs), while Dixon (98 carries, 405 yards, 1 TD) and Spiller (73 carries, 283 yards, 0 TDs) round out the backfield. As a team, they’ve failed to hit 100 yards on the ground as a team in eight of their 15 games this season.
They have enough pass catchers to really test the New England secondary.
Led by Kyle Orton (64 percent completion rate, 2,842 yards, 17 TDs, 10 INTs), the Bills have developed a relatively well-rounded passing game. Rookie receiver Sammy Watkins (62 catches on 123 targets, team-high 925 yards, 6 TDs) has emerged as one of the better young pass catchers in the league, while running back Fred Jackson (65 catches, 87 targets, 497 yards, 1 TD), receiver Robert Woods (61 catches, 100 targets, 660 yards, 4 TDs) and tight end Scott Chandler (46 catches, 69 targets, 477 yards, 3 TDs). One of the ways that opposing teams have been able to really test the Patriots is with a deep passing game, going after third and fourth options as they try and stress young corners like Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. Chandler has always been a handful for New England — while he isn’t an overwhelming presence a la Rob Gronkowski, his consistency against the Patriots has always been impressive. (He had six catches on nine targets for 105 yards in the October contest against the Patriots in Buffalo.)
They are one of the few teams in the league that feature a special teams unit that’s comparable to the Patriots.
The Bills are pretty good across the board when it comes to special teams. Kicker Dan Carpenter has made a league-high 33 field goals, and his 89.2 success rate is sixth in the league. (He’s had one field goal attempt blocked this year.) 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. Former Patriots practice squadder Marcus Thigpen has taken over punt return duties from Leodis McKelvin, and broke a 75-yarder for a touchdown against the Packers earlier this month. He doesn’t have enough returns to qualify for a spot among the league leaders, but his 14.8 average is best among all returners with at least nine opportunities. Thigpen also averaged 21.7 in his three return chances last Sunday against the Raiders. He’s relatively young, but has distinguished himself as a dangerous special teams threat with the Bills in a very short time. And 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).