BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Maybe it was after the loss to a one-win Jaguars team. Or the 41-15 blowout loss to the Colts at home.
At some point, the AFC East title race seemed like the least of the Buffalo Bills' worries as they fought inconsistency amid a roller-coaster season.
Now they're sitting at 8-6 with three games to play and the division is up for grabs. Sunday’s game (1 p.m. ET, CBS) against the Patriots (9-5) will decide which team takes the lead. The Bills have a chance to show they can come through in a big game after losses to the Steelers, Titans, Buccaneers and Patriots earlier this season.
This meeting with the Patriots should have a different feel than the last one three weeks ago played in 40 mph winds -- including better weather.
“I think that [first] game we had our chances and we didn't execute like we should have. But make no mistake, that's a really good team,” quarterback Josh Allen said of the Patriots. “Obviously they're leading the division for a reason. They're extremely well coached, and I'm sure they're gonna switch up some things too and show us some things we haven't seen from them this year.”
While the Patriots offense and Bills defense attracted much of the attention after the first meeting -- Patriots quarterback Mac Jones threw only three passes -- Allen and the Bills offense struggled to take advantage of opportunities and extend drives, going 1-for-4 in the red zone. Overall, the Bills rank 12th in red zone efficiency (60.7%).
In Week 13 against the Patriots, Allen had his lowest completion percentage of the season (50%). And despite the windy conditions, Allen -- the league’s leader in yards per carry among qualified players (6.17) -- ran the ball just six times.
It’s hard to put into context what Allen is doing this season by looking at his numbers alone. His numbers -- 65.2% completion percentage, 7.1 yards per attempt, 31 passing touchdowns, 12 interceptions and four rushing touchdowns -- aren’t as flashy as last season. But the offensive line has been shuffled several times due to various injuries and the running game has failed to support him through much of the season. The blitz has been a problem this season. Allen has completed 56.4% of passes when blitzed this year compared to 66.2% last year.
“Their offensive line has forced Josh to be somewhat non-dependent and/or skittish in the pocket,” ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “I think that Josh has had moments when the physical talent has been on display and then the frantic style, because of the poor protection, or it's here's another throw, has kind of forged that.”
The Bills rank 27th in designed runs as a percentage of plays (33.6%) but have been successful overall when they run the ball -- especially with Allen. The team averages 4.75 yards per rush (fourth most). In the Patriots' loss to the Colts this past week, they allowed 226 rushing yards, the second time this season New England has allowed over 200.
Despite the offense's issues, history will be on the line Sunday. Allen needs just two passing touchdowns to become the first player in Bills history and ninth all-time to throw 100 passing touchdowns in their first four seasons. He would also be the first player in NFL history with 100 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing touchdowns in their first four seasons.
Against the Patriots, the Bills may be without several offensive starters, including wide receiver Cole Beasley, who is out for the game due to testing positive for COVID-19. Offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Dion Dawkins also remain on the COVID-19 list.
Dawkins’ absence could be especially impactful for this offensive line as it could force rookie Spencer Brown to move from right to left tackle once again, a position he struggled to play against the Panthers. Brown was called for five penalties in the win.
Allen does have a chance of getting receiver Emmanuel Sanders (knee) back, while one of the key new weapons for the offense has been receiver Gabriel Davis, who is averaging 16.2 yards per reception and has scored four touchdowns in the last three games.
“I would spread New England out and go run game more, and I would put Josh under center for more bootleg,” Orlovsky said. “I think that gets him as an athlete on the edge more and protects the right side of their offensive line. Josh has had a good year. It hasn't been the year that he had last year, no, because no quarterback has had that because of the style of defense that is played against them.”
The fight for the AFC East is now front and center with the opportunity of the season on the line.
“What [an] opportunity to play the game we love in a meaningful game in December. You grow up watching these games,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “… We can't wait.”