The biggest challenge for the Patriots on Monday night will be to take the hapless Bills seriously and not succumb to the dreaded "trap game."
Far from flawless on the team’s current four-game winning streak, New England has nevertheless reclaimed control of the AFC East at 5-2 – likely for the duration – and is right back in the thick of things for home-field advantage in the AFC playoff structure.
A loss to the Bills would undermine all of that.
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Fortunately, the Patriots likely won’t lose. Buffalo, despite already having won two games, is as bad or worse than any of the other NFL teams with only one or two wins.
Rookie quarterback Josh Allen was playing mediocre at best prior to suffering an elbow injury – his ghastly 54 percent completion rate is last in the league among qualified passers – but he might as well be Tom Brady compared to the two men left standing on the depth chart for the Bills under center.
Making the switch from Nathan Peterman to Derek Anderson was actually an upgrade for Buffalo. All you need to know about Anderson is that he’s the second-winningest quarterback in the 21st century…for the Cleveland Browns.
No, the Patriots can’t lose to these guys, last in the league in passing offense and scoring offense. Even if it has all the makings of a classic “trap game,” one in which New England is currently a 14-point favorite.
One team already fell directly into the Bills’ ambush this season, the Minnesota Vikings. Buffalo went into Minneapolis in Week 3 and beat Minnesota, 27-6, as 16.5-point underdogs.
Hey, the Bills and Vikings play once every four seasons. Teams can sneak up on one another.
Devin McCourty did raise a valid point, in that Ralph Wilson Stadium is one of the destinations where the Patriots fans aren’t able to take over the stadium, so to speak.
“I’ve said it before, it’s one of those away games where we have no fans there,” McCourty said. “Even the couple of fans that come, they won’t take over that stadium. The Buffalo fans will be there. They’ll be giving us the middle fingers as soon as we get in town. Most teams, it’s when you pull in the stadium. There, it’s as soon as you get within a couple miles of the stadium, they’ll be ready to go.”
McCourty also said it would be easy to put the records of the Bills and Patriots aside heading into Monday night’s game, given the familiarity the teams have with one another.
“I don’t think that’s a problem at all this game because we know their team,” he said. “We play them often. We know they’re going to come out and fight and give us a good game.”
But New England is 28-3 vs. Buffalo with Brady at quarterback, including a 14-2 mark on the road. This isn’t some house of horrors in the altitude of Denver or the heat of Miami. This is a stadium where the only time someone wearing the home jersey touches down is when a folding table meets its untimely demise in the parking lot.
If the fans are the biggest obstacle standing in the Patriots’ way, get ready for a blowout.
Bill Belichick did his best to put lipstick on the pig anyways.
“Defensively, this has been a really impressive group,” he said of the Bills. “They don’t give up many yards, turn the ball over, really good up front, make a lot of negative plays, sack the quarterback, tackles for loss, turnovers.”
Believe it or not, Buffalo currently has the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL in terms of yards per game (320.9) and passing yards (210.1). Technically, he wasn’t speaking in hyperbole.
Of course, the Bills have a 47-3 loss to the not-so-elite-anymore Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens on their résumé this season, as well as a shredding courtesy of Andrew Luck’s bum shoulder and the Indianapolis Colts, 37-5, just last week.
There’s a reason Buffalo’s offense was the third phase of the game Belichick got to on Wednesday when praising what the team did well. There’s an even bigger reason he waxed poetic for more than 2,000 words on punt coverage in his media availability on Friday.
When Belichick starts rambling on about special teams, you know it’s over.
“This guy is a weapon,” he said of Los Angeles Rams punter Johnny Hekker in 2016. “I mean, he’s not a good player. He’s a weapon.”
Hekker needed to punt eight times as the Patriots beat up on the Rams that day, 26-10.
New England has fallen victim to trap games before. There’s a Monday Night Football game in Miami in 2004, there’s even a loss to the Cleveland Browns with Brady at quarterback in 2010 that easily come to mind. Every dog has his day.
Just not these Bills. The big picture stakes are still too high for the Patriots, who’ll get out of Buffalo unscathed and back to Foxboro in preparation for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Night Football on Nov. 4.
Fret not, these Patriots have righted the ship. Buffalo may be a wild place, but it’s unlikely for New England to get trapped there.