When the Buffalo Bills left London a couple of weeks ago with a sub-.500 record and sole possession of last place in the AFC East, their season appeared to be teetering on the brink of disaster. But all hope was not lost for the Bills, who knew that their upcoming schedule -- with three straight games against divisional foes -- gave them a prime chance to get back into the playoff race.
After consecutive victories over the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, they've aced the first two parts of this season-defining test and now hold the sixth seed in the AFC playoff picture. While they have inched closer to ending their 15-year postseason drought and are playing their best football of the season, the task is far from complete. Up next is their biggest challenge of the season: a road trip to Foxborough for a primetime battle on Monday Night Football against the unbeaten New England Patriots.
The projections at Football Outsiders give the Bills a 38.4 percent chance to reach the playoffs, behind the Jets (44.8 percent), Chiefs (40.0) and Steelers (60.6) among wild card contenders. While Buffalo has already banked important head-to-head wins over several teams vying for a playoff spot (Jets, Dolphins, Colts), it also faces the league's sixth-hardest remaining schedule based on Football Outsiders' ratings.
With a 9-0 record, the Patriots don't have to worry about their playoff prospects, and as the only undefeated team left in the AFC, they have the inside track for the conference's top seed. However, thanks to a rash of injuries that has depleted their roster, the Patriots' margin for error is thinner than ever. Their offensive line has been decimated by injuries, and in consecutive weeks they've lost dynamic running back Dion Lewis (torn ACL) and No. 1 receiver Julian Edelman (broken foot).
If there is any club that can overcome the critical loss of two hugely important offensive weapons, though, it is this Patriots squad. Not only do they boast one of the deepest rosters in the league, but they also have a built-in advantage against any opponent with Tom Brady under center and Bill Belichick on the sidelines. Although their pursuit of perfection just got a little tougher, the Patriots still remain an early Super Bowl favorite and the team to beat in the NFL.
Not even the injection of Rex Ryan's swagger or a revamped offense has changed the narrative in this AFC East rivalry -- the Bills have been the Patriots' punching bag for more than a decade. The Patriots are 26-3 against the Bills over the past 15 seasons, a stretch that dates back to Tom Brady's first season as a starter in 2001. In that span, Buffalo has managed to win just one game in New England -- a meaningless Week 17 contest last season during which the Pats rested several starters.
Brady has feasted on the Bills during this 15-year run of dominance, including a record-breaking performance earlier this season in which he threw for 466 yards, the most passing yards ever against the Bills. His 24 career wins against Buffalo are the second-most by any quarterback against a single team since the 1970 merger. It's not just the Bills that Brady has torched at home, either. Since 2007, he is 22-1 in the regular season against divisional opponents at Gillette Stadium, with 45 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions in those 23 games.
Things went horribly wrong in Ryan's first attempt to take down the Patriots this season, a 40-32 loss that was much worse than the final score suggests. If the Bills are going to pull off the upset on Monday night, they'll need to control the tempo of the game and ride their signature ground-and-pound offense, keeping Brady off the field as much as possible.
Buffalo brings one of the league's most prolific and balanced rushing attacks to New England. The Bills rank in the top five in rushing yards (second), yards per carry (fifth) and rushing attempts (third), and are the top-ranked rushing offense according to Football Outsiders efficiency ratings. The Patriots counter with the NFL's second-ranked rushing defense (88.2 yards per game), but surrendered 160 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 27 carries to these same Bills in their Week 2 matchup.
Who to Watch
No one player is going to be able to replace the production of Edelman, who leads the team in targets and receptions, but a guy who needs to step up now is Brandon LaFell. He is still shaking off the early-season rust after missing the first month-plus with a foot injury, and in four games has totaled 13 catches for 240 yards. LaFell's big-play potential -- he's averaging 18.5 yards per reception -- makes him a dangerous and valuable part of the Patriots offense going forward.
Bills rookie running back Karlos Williams, a fifth-round pick out of Florida State, has proven to be one of the best late-round steals of the 2015 Draft. His explosiveness and efficiency this season have been really impressive, and he leads all NFL players in yards per rush (6.2). But it is his nose for the end zone that could put his name in the record books. Williams has scored a touchdown in each of his first six career games, and if he extends that to seven in a row, he'll surpass Robert Edwards (1998) for the most consecutive games with a touchdown to start a career in NFL history.
How to Watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
Announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
The Patriots are 7.5-point favorites and the over/under is 48, according to OddsShark.com.
The experts at CBS Sports are unanimous in picking the Patriots to get to 10-0, and the majority of ESPN's panel is also going with the Pats. Our crew here at SB Nation agrees, with all seven writers and the OddsShark computer choosing New England to beat Buffalo on Monday night.
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