Curran: Patriots may need Buffalo breakdown to pull this one off originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Patriots aren’t as good as the Bills. No shame in that.
Despite a stubborn belief the Patriots are THE PATRIOTS just because the helmets, uniforms and coaching staff are pretty much the same, they aren’t. This is a team in the first upward season of a rebuild.
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On opening day, David Andrews and Shaq Mason were the only offensive starters who’d made more than 20 starts with the Patriots. The Patriots are leaning on a promising rookie quarterback who’s running out of gas in his first job out of college. Their overhauled wideout group still isn’t where it needs to be. For the first time since 2018, the tight end position isn’t a punch line.
Of their 11 defensive starters, six were either in their first or second season with the team; or, in the case of Dont'a Hightower, didn’t play last year.
The Bills? They aren’t in a rebuild. They’re built.
Their defense is loaded with prime-of-career secondary talent and first-rounders all over their front-seven (four of them). Their offense is led by a top-five quarterback who’s in his fourth season. Josh Allen threw for 4,407 and ran for another 763. He threw for 36 touchdowns and ran for another six. They have one of the best wide receivers in football, a good tight end, a very good slot and the wily and still-productive Emmanuel Sanders.
As the Patriots -- losers of three of four since beating Buffalo on Dec. 6 -- get ready to play the Bills for the third time in 40 days, their inferiority needs to be recognized. Which means we were wrrr-wrrr-wrong in early December.
The heady days of being 9-4 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC are long gone. The memory of that signature 2021 win when they ran over the Bills and left cleat marks on their sternum has been blown away.
We all tee-hee’d about the soft Bills being emasculated. We marveled at the Patriots 15-minute sabbatical from the top of the division. Same as it ever was. That was the vibe here and in Western New York.
Then the Patriots took a week off, came back and immediately folded like lounge chairs in Indianapolis. They haven’t been the same since. They’ve gone from being the most consistent, sharp and efficient team in the conference to a flat, undisciplined, low-energy team that’s capable of WTF?! mistakes more than any Patriots team I can remember. And it happened all at once.
The Bills stuffed them in a locker. They got another in a long line of feel-good wins over an overmatched Jaguars team. Then they got drilled by Miami in the season finale.
When the Bills finished off the Patriots at Gillette, Allen left the field hollering, “I don’t know who the f*** they thought I was?!?!?” Now, as the playoffs start, we can ask ourselves the same question about the Patriots.
The Patriots are underdogs Saturday night. The spread is 4, but that’s as much a nod to Bill Belichick and the PATRIOTS we’ve known for two decades as it is to reality. The Bills are better on both sides of the ball and are playing at home. As Andrew Callahan of The Boston Herald has pointed out, the Patriots have thrown four touchdowns and seven picks against the Bills in their last eight matchups.
The only way the Patriots are going to get out of Buffalo with their season intact is to play like underdogs.
What does that even mean? Well, first thing, that means dusting off the old Sun Tzu, Art of War and using some guidelines for battle.
He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.
He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.
If your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate him.
It is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for the purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results.
Actually, skip that last one.
But the others? Perfect. The Patriots cannot start flat. Period. 7-0 and a couple of three-and-outs or five plays and punt is going to have them thinking, “Here we go…”. Slowing the game down, playing ball control and waiting for Buffalo to blunder into a mistake is obviously the strategy.
Because the Bills -- for all their talent -- do run hot. Allen does. Head coach Sean McDermott does. Their players get mad and sad. This isn’t just a playoff game. It’s an opportunity -- a SECOND opportunity -- for the Bills to put the Patriots' head on a spike outside their dilapidated stadium and raise a finger to all of arrogant New England.
So wait for them to step on a rake. And when the opportunity -- like it’s fourth and 1 at the 50 or so -- as it was against the Cowboys, Bucs and Dolphins -- or there’s a perfect chance for a double-reverse pass by Jakobi Meyers, call it.
Because the Patriots really do have nothing to lose. They weren’t a good enough team to be 9-4 and the No. 1 seed. A lot of factors led to that. But the self-destructive skid they’re on doesn’t represent who they are, either.
They’re a team that’s come a long way from where they were last January when they weren’t even really on the road back. They’re on the road now for sure. But the Bills are taillights in the distance. To catch them Saturday night, the Patriots will need a breakdown.