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Patriots-Bills preview: How Bill Belichick can upset Josh Allen and Buffalo

For the third time in 30 years, the Patriots are two-score underdogs at home.

The Bills (4-2) enter Foxboro as one of the NFL’s best teams, while the Pats (1-5) continue to flounder in a way few expected. Offensively, the Patriots snapped their games-long touchdown drought last week at Las Vegas, but again fell into an early hole. Staying competitive through the first half will be non-negotiable versus Buffalo, which has averaged more than 30 points per game against Bill Belichick’s defense the last three seasons.

If the Pats fall behind by two scores, they’re done. But if they can create a couple turnovers, and win on the margins, they could find life at an unexpected time in an unforeseen season.

Here’s what else to watch for Sunday:

When the Patriots run

Feed Zeke?

Ezekiel Elliott ended the aforementioned touchdown drought by punching in a 2-yard score at Las Vegas last weekend. On that drive, the Patriots powered their way downfield with four first-down runs that picked up 36 yards. It seems unlikely the Pats will find similar success versus an above-average Buffalo run defense, but Elliott and Rhamondre Stevenson must kill clock for them to have a chance.

New England Patriots running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) runs with the ball as Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Amik Robertson defends during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

And there is one weak spot in Buffalo’s front: the middle. The Bills are allowing a league-worst 5.7 yards per carry inside the tackles, per Sports Info. Solutions. Look for the Pats to pound away at the middle, especially with the return of right guard Mike Onwenu, who’s been recovering from an ankle injury.

If Onwenu can move well enough, the Patriots might also return to the one run scheme — counter — that’s yielded consistent gains. On just six carries, the offense has averaged 5.7 yards per counter run, more than any other base run in the playbook. If the Pats call counter, watch for Onwenu or the starting left guard to pull in the direction of the play and block an unblocked defender at the end of the line of scrimmage.

When the Patriots pass

Step one: block. Step two: pray.

The Bills boast the NFL’s best pass rush, according to both Mac Jones and Bill Belichick. They’re deep on the edge and the interior, where defensive tackle Ed Oliver is “as good as anybody we’ll play,” per Belichick. Last week, Jones averaged 2.2 seconds from snap to throw at Las Vegas, the fastest-time for any quarterback in the NFL.

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It reasons the Patriots will draw up another game plan that emphasizes their quick passing game and forces Buffalo to tackle in space (the Bills’ tackling ranks 29th, per Pro Football Focus). Returning rookie receiver Demario Douglas should help there, as would a few downfield run-pass-options (RPOs). Buffalo is highly inexperienced at linebacker, where they should be vulnerable to those plays that force a defender to pick between defending a run or pass.

Their inconsistent linebacker play should also invite targets for tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki. Then again, the same could be said of the Raiders last week, and Henry and Gesicki combined for just four catches.

Meanwhile, Kendrick Bourne is coming off his best game of the season (10 catches for 89 yards), and figures to be a focal point so long as fellow receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and DeVante Parker continue to underwhelm.

When the Bills run

In the offseason, Buffalo’s front office emphasized building out its running game to better prepare themselves for playoff football. Among other moves, the Bills signed ex-Patriots running back Damien Harris and bolstered their offensive line.

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While Harris will miss Sunday’s game with a neck sprain, Buffalo shouldn’t lose too much steam on the ground. The Bills rank among the NFL’s 10 best rushing offenses by most metrics, thanks to second-year back James Cook making a leap and quarterback Josh Allen powering through defenders at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Cook leads the team with 363 rushing yards at a 4.8 yards per carry average.

Defensively, the Patriots will need linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai to reinforce a banged-up front. Last week, Tavai replaced rookie defensive lineman Keion White (concussion) on one edge, while Bentley manned the middle with defensive tackles Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy. Winning the line of scrimmage is a must for a Patriots defense down several defensive backs.

When the Bills pass

J.C. Jackson’s return has helped stabilize a secondary that briefly lost its top four cornerbacks this season. Last week, Jackson made his first start for the Patriots since being traded and played 96% of the team’s snaps.

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