Bills can show they’re for real by beating Patriots on Sunday

Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills, 3-0 on the season, host the New England Patriots on Sunday in a game that will show whether they’re a team ready to contend.

The undefeated Buffalo Bills face the biggest test of their young season at home on Sunday against their AFC East rival, the New England Patriots.

It can’t really be called a rivalry, though, because this series has been overwhelmingly one-sided. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is 30-3 in his career against the Bills. In the past decade, Buffalo is 2-17 against New England when Brady plays. Their last win came in the final week of the 2014 season, when Brady didn’t even play the second half (Buffalo did beat the Patriots in 2016, but Jacoby Brissett started as Brady was serving a four-game suspension for Deflategate). They haven’t beaten New England at home since 2011. During this time, the Patriots are averaging 31 points a game against the Bills defense.

Something is different about this Bills team, however. They’re 3-0 for the first time since 2011, and while those three wins have come against the lowly Jets, Giants and Bengals — combined record: 1-8 — the Bills have shown strength in areas that they will need on Sunday.

Chief among them is the defense. Since Sean McDermott took over as head coach in 2017, the Bills have constructed their roster largely to match up against Brady and the Patriots. In came defensive backs Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. Poyer has 10 interceptions over his three seasons in Buffalo. He and Hyde are holding opponents to just a 50 percent completion percentage when targeted so far this season. TreDavious White, the first draft choice McDermott made in 2017, has emerged as one of the leading shutdown corners in the league and is allowing 53 percent of passes toward him to be complete. Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, drafted in the first round in 2018, has a 43 percent completion percentage against him, ideal in countering the Patriots’ short passing game.

The Bills defense has allowed only five pass completions of 20 or more yards in their three wins in 2019. They’ve held their opponents, albeit against quarterbacks not at the level of Brady, to 212 yards per game (eighth in the league) and have given up only three touchdown passes to go with four interceptions.

It’s a formula McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have employed before against the Patriots. In four games against New England under McDermott, the Bills defense has held Brady to a completion percentage of 66 percent, 233 yards per game and picked him off four times. The Patriots have been held to 25 points or less in three of those games. Stopping Brady and New England’s passing attack becomes even more important now that fullback James Develin is out for the season, a blow to New England’s ground game. The status of wide receiver Julian Edelman, who left last week’s game against the Jets with an injury, is also uncertain for Sunday.

In the 2018 NFL Draft, nine picks before they drafted Edmunds, the Bills picked their franchise quarterback out of Wyoming, Josh Allen. Allen, now in his second year as the Bills’ signal caller, has led a Buffalo offense that ranks 10th in the NFL this season in yards gained. They’re one of only four teams inside the top 10 in both total offense and total defense.

Allen is a weapon both in the air and with his legs, but the Bills offense has been too prone to turnovers this season. Allen has thrown three interceptions, and the Bills have the fifth-most turnovers in the NFL through three games (six). The offensive line has been a work in progress. Allen has been hurried 13 times and hit 16 times to go with five sacks, only his ability to escape the pocket keeping that number down. In order to beat New England on Sunday, he recognizes they’re going to have to play a near-flawless game.

“Watching them on film, they’re always sound fundamentally. They understand what type of coverage that they’re in. They are very well-disciplined, you know, by one of the greatest coaches of all-time, too. So we understand it’s no small task to go up against these guys no matter who you are,” Allen said after practice on Wednesday.

“We got to make sure that we’re good on our end of the ball as far as taking care of the football, with our blocking schemes, making sure that we’re going to the right guys. And then, running routes, their DBs have been really great. So we got to do a good job winning one-on-one matchups and go out there and try to execute the best we can.”

Allen and the Bills haven’t played a defense like New England’s yet, and that’s because there is no other defense quite like Bill Belichick’s unit. The Patriots have given up just three points through three games. They are the first team in modern NFL history to not allow an offensive touchdown through the first three weeks. The Pats lead the league with 25 quarterback hits and 13 sacks, tied with Jacksonville. They’re also first with six interceptions.

The Patriots, though, like the Bills, have done this against inferior competition. Their three wins have come against the Steelers, Dolphins and Jets, three teams with a combined record of 0-9. They also haven’t encountered a team quite like the Bills yet, either.

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New England is a seven-point favorite to beat the Bills in Orchard Park on Sunday, but Allen and company believe they’ve found the formula to beating their long-time nemesis. Wins against New England have been few and far between for Buffalo in the Brady-Belichick era, but with the team off to their best start in eight years, why can’t now be the time?

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