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Patriots' Defense Can't Afford To Blink Vs. Bills

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Cincinnati Bengals, in just about every way imaginable, stink. They stink on offense. They stink on defense. Their coach might stink.

Any way you slice it, the Bengals are not good. There's a lot of stink to go around. I know it, you know it, and everyone who has watched even five minutes of football this year knows it.

The problem was, when the Patriots' defense took the field on Sunday in Cincinnati, they played like they knew it, too. And that caused some issues.

Much to the world's surprise, the Bengals mounted a 75-yard touchdown drive on their first possession, and they followed it up with a 54-yard field goal drive to take a 10-7 lead over New England. Schematically, the Bengals were not doing anything complicated. The Patriots were simply missing tackles and failing to make plays, allowing Joe Mixon to lay the groundwork for what ended up being the second-best game of his career.

From there, though, the Patriots' defense played like the Patriots' defense, allowing just three points over the final three quarters while making four interceptions and coming up with a turnover on downs. It provided the foundation for a 34-13 win.

Against the Bengals, the Patriots were able to overcome an uninspired start from the defense. This weekend against the Bills, though, they will have no such luxury.

No, the AFC East crown is not really up for grabs on Saturday afternoon, because the Patriots simply will not lose at home to the Dolphins in Week 17. But, there's a lot on the line for the home team on Saturday, as a loss to Buffalo will very likely force the Patriots to lose out on a first-round playoff bye, thus forcing them to play in the wild-card game since 2009. The relatively long odds of winning a Super Bowl will turn further against the Patriots if they're forced to play that extra game and forego a much-needed week of rest and recovery.

So with the Bills visiting Foxboro on Saturday, and with Sunday's performance in Cincinnati still fresh in the memory bank, it's become clear that it's rather imperative for the Patriots to not enter the game believing that they'll easily shut down Josh Allen and the Bills' offense.

That may be difficult, considering that by all logical means, the Patriots' defense absolutely should shut down Allen and Co. with ease.

Josh Allen has played seven quarters against the Patriots over two years. And he's put up some downright grisly numbers.

Allen has completed just 47.8 percent of his passes vs. the Patriots for 5.4 yards per attempt. He's thrown one touchdown and five interceptions. That touchdown came in the fourth quarter of a game which the Patriots led 24-6 with a minute left to play.

This year, in the comfort of home, with perfect weather conditions, Allen completed just 13 of his 28 passes against the Patriots while throwing three interceptions. He also took four sacks. The first two of those interceptions -- both of which came in the first quarter, sandwiched around a blocked punt and a clean punt -- showed dreadful decision-making on the quarterback's part.

Last year in Gillette, prior to the aforementioned garbage time touchdown drive, Allen was 14-for-33 (42.4 percent) for 148 yards with no touchdowns and two picks. He struggled to keep his passes in the field of play, even when throwing to completely uncovered receivers.

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Allen will enter Saturday's game coming off a three-week stretch where he's completed under 56 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and an interception, averaging 172 passing yards per game.

Frank Gore had himself a day against the Patriots in Week 4, rushing for 109 yards on 17 carries. The Bills have moved the ball on the ground decently but far from exceptionally in those three games, averaging 119 rushing yards per game. On the season, their 20.8 points per game ranks 22nd in the NFL.

On the road against the NFL's best defense, there's very little reason to believe the Bills present any real threat offensively.

Yet it's important for the Patriots to try to pretend as though that is not the case, so as to avoid a repeat of their start in Cincinnati.

That's particularly true because, for all of Allen's and the Bills' offensive ineptitude vs. New England, it's a similar tale for Brady and the Patriots offense.

In their meeting in Buffalo this year, the Patriots scored their first touchdown after gaining possession at midfield, following an interception. They got their second touchdown on a blocked punt. They scored just three more points, generating a field goal after once again gaining possession near midfield following an interception.

All told, the Patriots' offense gained just 224 yards that day. The results last year were better overall, but they didn't come easily. In their Monday night trip to Buffalo, the Patriots had just nine points at halftime and 12 points through three quarters, before a touchdown by both the offense and the defense turned it into a 25-6 victory. When the Bills visited Gillette later in the year, the Patriots had just 14 points at halftime and 21 points through three quarters, ultimately winning 24-12.

The significant difference from last year to this year, though, is the run game. Last year, with Dwayne Allen and Rob Gronkowski at tight end, with Trent Brown at left tackle, with David Andrews at center and with James Develin at fullback, the Patriots were as powerful a running team as they've ever been. This year, without all of those players, it's been a different story.

And last year, in those two games against the Bills, the Patriots rushed for 349 yards and three touchdowns. They won't have that boost this season, given their obvious struggles in the run game.

The passing game hasn't been exactly functioning at a high level either, and Brady's history against McDemott-coached defenses is downright bad.

Put it all together, and a repeat of last week's start for the defense could easily prove to be too much to overcome, even for a team helmed by Brady and Bill Belichick.

When it comes to late-season games with a lot on the line for both teams, we tend to get obsessed with the fourth quarter. To be sure, the fourth quarter is always important. But Saturday, the way both defenses play in the first quarter could be where the game is won or lost. And from a Patriots perspective, it could be where the entire season pivots.

If the Patriots are to make a championship run this year, they'll need their defense to carry them. And they'll need to be in championship form from the opening kick come Saturday, because they wont' have the luxury of facing the Bengals.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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