The MVP talk in September, the dark horse Super Bowl talk after Week 4 — those were media and fan creations. The Bills’ goal is winning the AFC East for the first time since 1995.
Since their arrival in Buffalo in 2017, general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott have helped change the course of the Bills’ franchise, snapping a 17-year playoff drought with two postseason appearances over the past three seasons. Their success in building and developing this roster led to some preseason hype rarely seen in western New York, with some football pundits labeling the Bills the team to beat in the AFC East and even as a team to watch come playoff time.
Internally, the Bills (5-2) believe neither happens unless they do one thing — beat their Week 8 opponent, the New England Patriots (2-4), on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
“We haven’t won the division and to me, that’s the goal we have to do because we need to host playoff games here in Orchard Park,” Beane said in September. “We haven’t been able to take down the Patriots, yet — nobody has since we’ve been here. That’s still the name we’re chasing.”
It has been an ugly chase. Buffalo has lost seven straight to the Patriots, last beating them in Week 4 of the 2016 season. But even with their self-imposed standards, the Bills aren’t looking at their next game as anything other than what it is — their next game.
Quarterback Josh Allen, whose three-interception game against New England in Week 4 of the 2019 season (a 16-10 loss) provided motivation for his improved play since, said the Bills absolutely want to win a division game, but the team is taking the same approach in Week 8 as it would any other game.
“It’s the most important game because it’s the next one,” Allen said. “We’re not trying to make it a bigger deal or a smaller deal than it needs to be.”
It’s not quite your average game, though.
Sunday represents the Bills’ first opportunity to knock off a team that’s held them at arm’s length for two decades. This game is their first real litmus test, even after sweeping the winless Jets and beating a rebuilding Dolphins team in Week 2.
“You’re playing a division rival, a team that’s had control of the division for decades,” ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen said, “and you’re in position to add another game on top of them for the division lead. So there should be a lot of energy on that football field — and the practice environment should change a little bit. It should be more up-tempo, and that’s just a natural reaction from the players when you get into a big-time game like this.
“Beating the Patriots is important — but winning the division is more important. … In the AFC East, we know that to win that division, you’ve got to knock off New England. There’s different personnel than they’ve seen in the past, but it’s still New England and it’s still [coach] Bill Belichick.”
Buffalo holds a 1.5-game lead over the second-place Dolphins (3-3) and a 2.5-game lead over the Patriots. New England, despite winning the division 11 straight times and 17 of the past 19 seasons, looks nothing like its former dominant self.
New England’s pass defense ranks 11th in the NFL after allowing the second-fewest passing yards in the league last season. The Patriots also led the league in points allowed and total yards allowed per game in 2019; those figures have dropped to 17th and 12th, respectively, in 2020.
Those are the least-dramatic differences from last season to this one.
The Patriots are also 27th in rushing yards allowed in 2020, compared to sixth in 2019. Offensively, their eighth-ranked passing attack has dropped to 28th after the departure of quarterback Tom Brady. They’re 2-4 for the first time since Belichick’s first season with the team in 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and have the third-worst touchdown-to-interception ratio through six games of any team over the past 20 seasons.
Patriots QB Cam Newton, who was a crucial part of New England’s 2-1 start to the season, has been abysmal over his past two games, throwing five interceptions. His QBR of 3.5 in Sunday’s 33-6 loss to San Francisco was the worst single-game QBR by a Patriots starting QB since the metric was introduced in 2006, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Bills have also been far from perfect over their past three games, needing six field goals from Tyler Bass to beat the Jets last week after losing consecutive games to the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs. But the Patriots have failed to crack 300 yards of offense in either of their past two games and are in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
Buffalo is a 3.5-point favorite Sunday, the first time the Patriots have been an underdog in a division game since Week 2 of the 2015 season, but don’t tell McDermott.
Though Buffalo’s brass has made it clear the Bills can’t take the next step until they beat the AFC East’s reigning champion, it’s also clear they don’t want to discuss it this week.
“It’s another game on our schedule, all games are important,” McDermott said. “You guys know how I feel about that.”