Prediction, Preview, and Odds
#3143 New England Patriots vs.
#3144 Buffalo Bills
Saturday, January 15, 2022 at 8:15pm EST
New Era Field, Orchard Park
Written by Mark Ruelle

It will be an AFC East battle in the wildcard round of the AFC playoffs when the New England Patriots, 10-7, travel to the 2-time AFC East champion Buffalo Bills, 11-6, on Saturday night. The Patriots stumbled a bit down the stretch, including a loss at Miami to close the season. The Bills, meanwhile, come into this game on a roll after closing the season with four straight wins to take the division. Game time is set for 8:15pm EST.

Back Where They Belong

It has been strange journey for the 2021 Patriots in their return to the NFL playoffs after a 1-year absence. First, the team cut loose veteran Cam Newton in training camp and decided to go with untested first round pick Mac Jones at quarterback. The team suffered through some growing pains early, going 2-4 through the first six games including a game against old friend Tom Brady. Then, through the middle portion of the season, New England caught fire going 7-0 leading into its bye week. The streak included a 14-10 road win over Buffalo. After the bye, however, New England struggled, finishing 1-3 down the stretch and losing out on the division crown.

New England now travels to Buffalo in the rubber match of a 3-game set. In Buffalo, the Patriots were able to pound the ball and run right at the Bills in windy, wintry conditions to pull out a 14-10 win. The Patriots ran for 223 yards on 46 carries and Mac Jones threw the ball just 3 times. In the second matchup, in much more mild conditions at home, the Patriots ran the ball 26 times for 149 yards with three touchdowns. In the second game, Jones threw the ball 32 times and threw 2 interceptions as the Bills won 33-21.

For the season, Jones threw for 3,801 yards with 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and completed 68% of his throws. I'll dive into Jones' numbers during the 3 different stages I discussed in the opening. During the 2-4 start, Jones completed 72% of his throws with 7 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. With the team winning 7 straight games, Jones completed 70% of his passes with 8 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. In this final four game stretch before the playoffs, Jones accuracy was down to 60% and he threw 6 touchdowns with 5 interceptions. As with many rookies, Jones appears to have hit a wall over the team's final four games. Can Bill Belichick and his staff get Jones right for the playoffs? Jones will need to rely on his two-headed monster at running back of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson to set up the play action pass. He will also need to utilize his two favorite targets, WR Jakobi Meyers and TE Hunter Henry in the middle of the field in order to be effective. The Bills will likely force Jones to beat them down the field and bunch the field on short throws.

Defensively, the Patriots had one of the best defenses in the NFL this season. In those first six games, the defense gave up 21.6 points per game, had 13 sacks, 6 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles. In the 7 game win streak, they allowed 10.4 points per game and accumulated 19 sacks, 13 interceptions and 9 forced fumbles. Finally, in the closing four games, the Patriots defense gave up an average of 25.8 points per game and had 4 sacks, 4 interceptions and zero forced fumbles. In those four games, they've played without a few key pieces at different times. Starting linebacker Dont'a Hightower missed a game due to injury as has starting safety Kyle Dugger. Matthew Judon missed time due to COVID as well and the Patriots were missing two nickel defensive backs against the Dolphins. This week, the Patriots had to place starting cornerback Jalen Mills on the COVID list so his status for the game is in question. Like Jones, can the Patriots defense get back the mojo they had in the middle of the season in time for the playoffs?

The biggest intangible in all coming into this game is Bill Belichick. He has coached (42) and won (31) the most playoff games in NFL history. He has also done it before with a young quarterback. Belichick will have to devise a game plan that protects his young QB but also takes enough chances to keep the Bills' aggressive defense honest.

Bills Peaking at the Right Time

The Buffalo Bills come into Saturday night's contest on a 4-game winning streak and seem to be peaking at the right time as they hope to return to the AFC Championship game and beyond this season. The Bills also appear to be as healthy as they've been all season with Emmanuel Sanders returning to practice this week giving the team its full complement of wide receivers. The only major injury is star CB Tre'Davious White, who was lost for the season a few weeks back to an ACL tear. White's loss is less impactful against a more conservative team like the Patriots.

Josh Allen had a near MVP season in 2020, passing for 4,500 yards and throwing 37 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions and a career-high 69% completion rate for a QB rating of 107. He has been slightly less effective this season. Allen has thrown for 4,400 yards with 36 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and was down to 63% completion rate for a QB rating of 92. Four times this season, Allen has thrown two or more interceptions with a high of 3 vs. the Panthers. It is the most interceptions he has thrown in a season for his career. Allen has also rushed for a team-leading 763 yards with six touchdowns and a 6.3 yards per carry average. Excluding touchdowns, those numbers are all significantly higher than last season.

Despite losing the services of White, the Buffalo defense has been extremely stingy over these final four games. The team is allowing just 15 points per game over this win streak and has had 19 sacks, 3 interceptions and 3 fumbles forced in that time span. Since White's injury, the Bills defense has relied more on blitzing to relieve the pressure on their secondary. With White, the team had 19 interceptions and were among the league leaders. In the five games he's missed, they've had just 3 interceptions, 2 in one game. The Bills will undoubtedly stack the line on first and second downs and force Mac Jones into obvious passing situations. This will allow the Bills to blitz and confuse the young quarterback.

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Full-Game Side Bet

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The Patriots have almost played three different seasons this year. They started out trying to get used to a rookie quarterback, then got rolling mid-year before stumbling to the finish line. We are now in Bill Belichick's favorite season; playoff time. There is not a coach in sports that gets his team better prepared and focused for one game. Belichick also has the benefit of playing a division rival that he's had two looks at this year. I think the Bills are a more talented offensive team and the Patriots are a more talented defensive team.  Health will certainly play a factor as the Patriots are nursing some key injuries and may miss starting CB Mills if he doesn't pass COVID protocols by week's end.  Still, something tells me that the Patriots will have a game plan that causes Buffalo problems. One factor worth mentioning is the weather. Early reports are for sub-zero temperatures in Buffalo on Saturday night. In their run to the Super Bowl in 2004, the Patriots beat the Titans at home in similar conditions. That team relied on a ground and pound style and a ferocious defense. Does that remind you of anyone? The crazy thing about this team from Buffalo, is that they are not really a cold-weather team.

The Bills have almost zero ground game outside of Josh Allen, who the Patriots will almost certainly spy with hybrid LB/Safety Adrian Phillips. Phillips was banged up in the second game against Buffalo but should be at full strength on Saturday. Allen certainly has the arm strength to cut through the cold but even he will be challenged in those types of conditions. I think New England does what Belichick-coached teams always do, play strong situational football and keep it close going into the fourth quarter.  Buffalo may eke out a win but 4.5 points is too much to give away.

Take the points (+4.5) and go with the Pats.

Prediction: New England +4.5

Full-Game Total Pick

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If you can grab this line now, at 44, jump all over it! This line makes perfect sense in perfect conditions. In a mild game at Foxboro late in the season, the two teams combined for over 50 points. In a frigid game on Saturday night, this one feels like 17-14 all the way. Did I mention that that was the final score the last time the Patriots played a playoff game in these conditions? 17-14 over the Titans in 2004. Titans had a strong-armed, mobile quarterback that had trouble completing long balls down the field against the Patriots well schemed and physical defense. Again, does that sound familiar to anyone?  This line is definitely going to go down. The weather will be a major factor in this total and I can't see this game getting to 40 points even.

Take the UNDER...as fast as you can, 44.

Prediction: Under 44
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Written By Mark Ruelle , "Mark Ruelle"

Mark has been a sports fanatic since childhood. He is also an avid follower of sports analytics and has used it in his own betting analysis for over two decades. Now we have Mark on our team here at Stat Salt. He holds degrees in marketing, broadcasting, and English and uses this vast array of assets to dissect and analyze game matchups. Mark will provide you with a wide variety of statistics to consider and a strong opinion in each matchup that he covers. Please follow him daily for an up-to-the-minute analysis of all the important games.