By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots have a chance to snag some more hats and t-shirts this weekend, hats and t-shirts that they'll inevitably not wear ever again after leaving the field. The Pats can clinch the AFC East for the 11th straight season and 17th time under Bill Belichick's watch with a victory on Saturday.
But the Buffalo Bills are standing in their way, and it's not just because the Buffalo Bills are next on the schedule. These are not the Bills of yesteryear, the ones that the Patriots have absolutely owned for the better part of two decades. These Bills are actually pretty good.
These Bills are already a playoff team, and they have an extremely outside shot at dethroning the Patriots atop the division. The Bills would have to win their next two games, and hope the Patriots lose to the Dolphins in Week 17, but that outside shot is there for the first time in a long time.
Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium will have a playoff feel to it. Even if the Bills can't overtake the Patriots in the division, they can spoil New England's quest for a first-round bye with a win this weekend. With Kansas City closing the season with a trip to Chicago and a home game against the L.A. Chargers, the Patriots can't afford any missteps over these next two weekends.
So, yes, the Patriots will very much play a meaningful game against the Buffalo Bills in December. Here's what we'll be watching for when the two teams take the field at Gillette Stadium:
Singletary did not play the first time the Pats and the Bills matched up, as the running back was sidelined with a bad hammy. That will not the case this weekend, and Singletary has been making life tough on opposing defenses over the last few months. That could be a problem for a defense that struggles against the run, especially in what should be a close game.
The rookie back leads Buffalo with 729 rushing yards, averaging a team-best 5.4 yards per carry. He's averaging 84 yards per contest over his last six games, and now gets to set his sights on a defense that just got torched for 164 rushing yards by the Bengals, with Joe Mixon accounting for 136 of those yards. The Pats have surrendered an average of 115 rushing yards in their last six games, and four rushing touchdowns over that span.
If there is one knock on Singletary, it's that he lets the ball hit the turf a little too much. The rookie has fumbled four times in 12 games, losing one of those.
But Buffalo has a dynamic offensive weapon that they did not have the last time these two teams met. How the Patriots contain Singletary is going to be a major factor in Saturday's game on a number of levels.
Having Singletary back should make life easier for Allen this time around, because boy did he stink back in Week 4. He threw three interceptions, all of which were costly in a 16-10 defeat. He didn't show much awareness either as he was knocked out of the game when he tried to take on Jonathan Jones at the end of a third-down run, resulting in a bone-rattling hit from the New England corner and Allen coming up one yard short of a first down.
Allen is at his best when he's not forced to do too much, and when he can fall back on his running ability. If the Patriots can force Allen to make throws downfield, they're going to come away with a few more picks. But if Allen is allowed to pick them apart with short passes, and occasionally with his legs, we're in for another rock fight on Saturday.
Establish The Run
Buffalo has a good defense. A really good defense that has led them to their 10-4 record. They've been on the rise for the last few seasons, and we saw how good they were back in Week 4. They've only gotten better as the season has progressed. Sean McDermott deserves a lot of credit for establishing a solid system that has the Bills in the playoffs, and right there in the divisional race.
New England's passing attack has been lackluster all season, and there really isn't any reason to believe they'll burst out of this slump. Chances are they're going to need a trick play or two come Saturday. But they're going to have to set those up by establishing the run, which they were finally able to do last weekend with 175 yards on the ground and a robust 5.5 yards per carry average. Yes, those numbers came against the Bengals, the worst run defense in the league, and now they face the Bills, who are a really good defense. But the Bills also struggle against the run, allowing an average of 4.3 yards per carry -- the same as the Patriots. New England should try to take advantage of that early and often.
In his post-game speech last Sunday, Bill Belichick highlighted New England's rush attack as a "must do" going forward if they want to have any success. Getting that ground attack firing early will be imperative for the Patriots this weekend.
Julian Edelman is clearly hobbled, with New England's best offensive weapon battling knee and shoulder injuries. He had just two receptions last weekend against the Bengals, his low for the season, and Brady went his way just five times, Edelman's lowest number of targets since Week 2 in Miami. It broke up a string of eight straight games with double-digit targets for Edelman, who had the football fly his way 94 times during that span.
Now he has to face a physical Bills defense on a shortish week. That's no fun. The Patriots can't really afford to rest their best offensive weapon, because Tom Brady really needs him on the field. But maybe Edelman gets a bit of a lighter workload and more time as a decoy, which would require the likes of James White, Rex Burkhead, Mohamed Sanu and N'Keal Harry to take things up a notch.
Tune in to Patriots-Bills on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins at 3:30pm with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is slated for 4:30pm, and after the game, stay tuned for all the reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!
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