The Bills were the feel-good story of the NFL’s first two weeks of 2014, winning at Chicago and grabbing victory over Miami in an emotional home opener. Since then, Buffalo lost to San Diego and Houston but took down the Lions. Their 3-2 record at this point in the season is still a surprise, but the general feeling towards the Bills through more than one quarter of the season is that they’re headed in the wrong direction. A rare win over the Pats — New England is an unreal 25-3 against Buffalo since 2000 — would go a long way in terms of legitimacy.
Three storylines to watch for:
Dashing Buffalo dreams
The Patriots catch some flak around here for hanging a 16-0 regular season banner at Gillette Stadium. The idea of hanging division banners, given the team’s success over the past 12 years, is not even broached. The Buffalo Bills, meanwhile, are seemingly selling out in order to contend for a division title. Actually, that might be too tall an order with the Pats in the division. But the Bills are going all in on the 2014 season when it comes to making the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season. It doesn’t matter if a berth comes from a 9-7 or 8-8 record, making the postseason is an ultimate goal in Orchard Park, New York.
“We haven’t been in the playoffs in a long time and we owe it to the fans, our late Hall of Fame owner and everybody in this business to show that we’re not the Bills anymore,” Bills GM Doug Whaley told NBC prior to the start of the season. “We want to be a playoff team. We’re planning to be a playoff team and that’s our goal.”
After losses to San Diego and Houston this season, Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone gave up on second year quarterback E.J. Manuel just 14 games into his pro career. Kyle Orton, who signed a two-year deal with the Bills in late August, was given the starting job and the early returns have been strong in relation to Buffalo’s goal of a game in January 2015. Orton completed 30-of-43 passes for 308 yards, throwing a touchdown and interception in Buffalo’s 17-14 road win over the Lions last Sunday.
For the second straight week, the Patriots face a top-notch defense. The Buffalo defense is allowing just 17.8 points per game this season, good for fifth in the NFL, and it is tops in all of pro football on third down. Opponents have converted just 21-of-66 third down opportunities into first downs this season – a 32 percent rate. The Patriots offense is 24th in the league on third down, registering a first down or score just 36 percent of the time. The Bills defense is led by cornerback Leodis McKelvin (team-high 28 tackles), safety Aaron Williams, defensive end Mario Williams (3.5 sacks) and former Patriot linebacker Brandon Spikes (11 tackles).
Lonely island boy
There were rumblings last week that Darrelle Revis was going to match-up with Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. A rarity in the Bill Belichick era, what was discussed in the days prior actually played out on game day with Revis making a huge impact for the first time in a Patriots uniform. Green finished the night with just four catches for 64 yards when No. 24 was in man-to-man coverage with him, and Cincy quarterback Andy Dalton was often hesitant to throw to Revis’ side of the field. Even when Dalton and Green did connect on a 19-yard gain late in the second quarter, Revis wrestled Green to the ground and wound up causing a fumble that was recovered by Pats linebacker Jamie Collins.
Bills rookie receiver Sammy Watkins is not yet on the level of Green, but is already a go-to-guy in Buffalo’s offensive scheme. Watkins was targeted a career-high 12 times last week and caught seven balls for 87 yards. The Clemson product also ripped off a 117-yard receiving day in Buffalo’s Week 2 win over the Dolphins.
There’s a chance that the Pats could go back to some zone, but if they stick with the man coverage, certainly expect Revis to be lined up with the rookie.
Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter: @BurkeMetroBOS