Sometimes, like tonight, the National Football League puts on center stage the perfect matchup. Two teams with talent, history and the chance for the winner to move into sole possession of first place in their division.
The participants in this epic battle are the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots. The Bills were expected to be in the hunt for the top spot in the American Football Conference playoffs, the Patriots are here as much of a surprise as another testament to their legendary head coach, Bill Belichick.
Buffalo arrives at tonight’s showdown having checked all the boxes on the way to this Monday Night Football feature. They cracked the playoff field in 2019 behind second-year quarterback Josh Allen, who was their first pick, seventh overall selection, in the 2018 draft.
Two years ago the Bills absorbed a stinging defeat during Wild Card weekend in Houston, where they had built a big first half lead over the Texans only to fail late and lose the game. The following year, Allen led the Bills to the AFC East Division title, a spot nearly exclusively reserved for the Tom Brady led Patriots for nearly two decades. But, in 2020, Brady was no longer leading the Patriots offense, off to his new team in Tampa.
Last year, the Patriots compiled their first losing season since, not coincidentally, the year before Brady became their starting quarterback in 2001. In 2020, the Bills won two playoff games, their first postseason victories since 1993. Their campaign ended last year in the AFC Championship Game with a loss in Kansas City to the Chiefs. Two weeks later, Kansas City lost to Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV.
This year, with the Patriots under the direction of the fifth quarterback chosen in 2021 NFL draft, Mac Jones, it appeared to be another season of development for Belichick in the wake of his 20 seasons with Brady.
On opening day this year, it was not surprising that the Patriots lost, they were defeated by the Miami Dolphins in Foxboro, but it was a shock that the highly regarded Bills lost their home opener to the Pittsburgh Steelers. After four weeks, the Bills had reestablished themselves as a dominant power in the East, winning three straight games which included two shutout victories.
During the same period, the Patriots had lost two more times and in fifth week action just barely squeaked out a win over the lowly Houston Texans, 25-22. The same day the Patriots clipped the Texans, the Bills got revenge for the AFC Championship Game loss in Kansas City, with a dominating win at Arrowhead Stadium, 38-20.
Since those results, the Bills have been hit-and-miss, losing to the Tennessee Titans in a sixth week Monday Night Football matchup and dropping two more decisions in November to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts.
At the same time, Jones has led the resurgent Patriots to six straight wins both straight-up and against the point spread since a narrow overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys in mid-October. Jones has shown the steadiness of a veteran franchise quarterback, and has combined with a stout Patriots defense that has allowed a total of 26 points combined in their four most recent wins.
So, what do we have here?
Because the Bills have played one more game than New England, the Patriots have their bye next week, they come into this contest a half game back in the AFC East standings. Both teams have lost four games, the Patriots have one more win, 8 to 7. That means, whichever team wins tonight will be alone atop their division standings and if New England comes out on top in this one, they will lengthen their division lead to 1½ games.
Is that likely to happen? The Patriots pulling more than a game ahead?
The fact that the Patriots have won a string of games is both a credit to Belichick and his rookie quarterback, but they have also played two months while wearing the mantle of an underdog and overachieving.
Tonight, they are an underdog on the point spread, but it is the Bills who have the underdog motivation in two important ways; they need the game to avoid falling more than a game back in the standings and the Patriots excellent recent play has Buffalo on full alert.
The Bills have had the swagger of a dominant team most of this season, and it has not served them well motivationally. Tonight, they have the fear of failure pushing them to their best effort of the year … and a likely blowout victory over a rookie quarterback that is about to get schooled.
Qoxhi Picks: Buffalo Bills (-3) over New England Patriots