Making the postseason last year was almost a given from Halloween on, winning the AFC East was pretty much in the bag by Thanksgiving, and the only thing on the line after that was trying to procure the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage, which ultimately, the Bills did not accomplish.
When 2021 began, that blueprint seemed entirely possible for the Bills, but given what has happened in the past month, Sean McDermott’s team has to craft a new plan and it starts in a big-time prime-time spot on Thanksgiving Night when Buffalo takes on the equally desperate-for-a-victory New Orleans Saints.
“Adversity always tests your character,” McDermott said. “I would hope that we’ve got the right character people on this team. You get tested, and to me inside the challenge, there’s an opportunity to show who you really are individually and as a team. So I think this is an opportunity for us to step to the forefront and for people to take charge and improve in the areas that we need to improve.”
McDermott said One Bills Drive was a “somber” place to be on Monday as the players had to sit through film review of the Colts’ domination of them, but he also added that it was an “angry” place as well. What happened to the Bills was embarrassing, and when you start hearing fans and media calling your team “soft” that’s about as bad as it gets for NFL players.
The good news for the Bills is they still have their goals within reach. They may now trail the Patriots in the AFC East, but they play them twice in a four-week period in December. Before any of that, though, they have to get back on track and take care of business against the Saints, a team that has lost three in a row and was down 33-7 to the Eagles in the fourth quarter Sunday.
Here’s my keys to the game:
1. The Buffalo Bills have to stop the New Orleans Saints run game
As Sean Payton’s offense watched film of the Bills’ defensive debacle against the Colts, you know they had to be nodding their heads and saying, ‘OK, we got this.’ With QB Jameis Winston out, the Saints are trotting out career backup Trevor Siemian with a group of receivers you’d be hard-pressed to name.
Because star WR Michael Thomas is out for the season, their leading wideout through 10 games is Deonte Harris who has all of 26 catches for 418 yards, followed by speedy Marquez Callaway who has 25 for 372.
However, the Saints can pound the ball on the ground with newly re-acquired Mark Ingram, and if they are able to get dual threat Alvin Kamara back from injury, the Saints could certainly give the Buffalo defense trouble. You may also see jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill inserted as the QB for some designed runs.
You would think probably (hopefully?), the Bills will fare better than they did against Jonathan Taylor last week, but if the Saints find success and take some of the burden off Siemian, that could be troubling for Buffalo. Since his return to the Saints a few weeks ago in a trade, Ingram is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt.
It does not seem like Star Lotulelei will be back, but Tremaine Edmunds will be, and you would think his return should help a little in run defense, and will certainly help the pass defense, especially with all the short throws Siemian prefers. With Edmunds back, the Bills might actually use a bit more three-linebacker alignments with A.J. Klein to combat the run attack.
2. Josh Allen needs another big-stage moment
Remember Thanksgiving Day two years ago when the Bills went down to Dallas and won 26-15? That was in many ways a coming out party for the team as a whole, but particularly for Allen who was just starting to develop the traits that have led to him becoming one of the top QBs in the league.
Now, he needs to have another big turkey day. Allen has not been sharp for about a month now, especially when you take out the game against the woeful Jets who were defenseless against anything the Bills did. Allen is struggling to get WRs Stefon Diggs and Emmanuel Sanders involved, he’s making poor decisions in his reads, and he has been sloppy with the ball as he has five interceptions in the last three games and could have had a few more.
If he’s going to turn things around, it won’t be easy against a stout New Orleans defense led by a secondary that features outstanding CB Marshon Lattimore, CBs Paulson Adebo and P.J. Williams, and safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams. That starting fivesome has combined for nine interceptions, two of which were returned for TDs.
3. The Buffalo Bills offensive line needs to step up
It looks like Spencer Brown will be out again, and even though Jon Feliciano is eligible to come off injured reserve, it appears he may not be ready to play. This means another game with an alignment that features, from left to right, Dion Dawkins, Ike Boettger, Mitch Morse, Cody Ford and Daryl Williams, this time in a very hostile and loud dome environment. Not ideal.
According to Pro Football Focus, not that we really needed help figuring this out, Ford, Morse and Dawkins were terrible in the run game against Indy. However, to be fair, the entire group was adequate in pass protection, though here’s the caveat: The Colts hardly blitzed at all. They let their front four rush, covered with seven, and that’s the scheme that has been giving Allen trouble. Look for the Saints to do the same.
They can get after the QB with their front four rotation which includes Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, David Onyemata, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Shy Tuttle, Carl Granderson, Josiah Bronson and Christian Ringo. That D-line is responsible for a combined 15 sacks led by Davenport’s 5.5.
And then they can cover across the field with a back seven that features superb all-around LB Demario Davis who leads the team in tackles and also has allowed just a 64.9 completion percentage into his coverage area.
4. Other key points to consider in Buffalo Bills vs. New Orleans Saints matchup
► This is the ninth Bills’ Thanksgiving Day game and they have a record of 4-4-1. They went to Dallas two years ago and beat the Cowboys 26-15.
► These teams have played only 11 times previously, and the Bills have dropped five in a row in the series. Their last victory came in the 1998 season finale, in New Orleans, 45-33 with Rob Johnson throwing for 216 yards and three TDs playing in place of Doug Flutie who was being rested for the playoff game the following week.
► Emmanuel Sanders returns to New Orleans where he played in 2020 and totaled 726 receiving yards. And A.J. Klein is also having a pseudo homecoming as he played for the Saints from 2017-19.
► Road games have not been problematic for Allen. Since the start of 2020 he has thrown for 4,008 yards and 30 TDs in 13 road starts.
► By many measures, Allen isn’t having as good a season as 2020, but he has improved in deep passing. On throws of at least 20 air yards, he’s completing 51% which is second-best in the NFL, up from 43% a year ago. He already has 855 yards on those passes this season after totaling just 884 last year and there’s still seven games to play.
► The Buffalo defense still leads the league in fewest plays yielded of at least 20 yards with 23.
► The Bills haven’t lost back-to-back games since Week 5 and 6 of 2020 when they were beaten by the Chiefs and Titans.
Sal’s prediction: Buffalo Bills 23, New Orleans Saints 21
It’s hard to feel confident that the Bills are going to get it done on a short week, as the road team, against an opponent that is riding a three-game losing streak and just as desperate as Buffalo is for a victory.
But I have to believe the Bills are going to find a way to bounce back, similar to how they responded from the loss to the Jaguars with their drumming of the Jets. Obviously, the Saints are a much tougher test than the Jets, but New Orleans’ offense is not potent, and the Bills should be able to do enough to pull this out.
How to watch, listen to Buffalo Bills vs New Orleans Saints game
When: 8:20 p.m. Thursday
Where: Caesars Superdome
TV: NBC (Mike Tirico, Drew Brees, Michele Tafoya)
Satellite radio: Sirius 85, XM 228
Radio: 96.5 FM/950 AM
Series: Saints lead 7-4
Tipico betting line: Bills -7.5
► Saints coach Sean Payton on the Bills: “They’re coming off a tough loss just like we are, but I don’t see their style of play or what they want to do offensively or defensively changing. I think that Sean has done a great job there, they’ve had success and they’ve got a very talented quarterback that they’re going to put him in the best chances to be successful.”
► Saints QB Trevor Siemian on his team’s playoff chances: “The urgency’s at an all-time high right now – as it was before (Sunday’s loss to the Eagles). But it’s high for sure. I think one (positive about our mindset) is no one is saying, ‘Hey, we’re dinged up.’ You know, it’s the NFL. The train’s moving. We’ll be ready to play Thursday. I think a lot of us are looking forward to playing again quickly.”
► Saints RB Mark Ingram: “We know that if we play a game like we’re supposed to play, it’s hard for us to be beat. We believe in each other. We know we have the guys that are capable of going out there and making plays. But you can’t take turns making mistakes. You have to be collectively all-in together, and that’s what helps you turn this thing around.”
Total offense: 391.7 yards (5th); 321.3 (24th)
Rush offense: 118.8 yards (12th); 117.9 (13th)
Pass offense: 272.9 (7th); 203.4 (26th)
Points scored: 29.5 (2nd); 25.1 (14th)
Total defense: 283.7 yards (1st); 342.0 (10th)
Rush defense: 101.9 yards (9th); 89.8 (3rd)
Pass defense: 181.8 yards (2nd); 252.2 (22nd)
Points allowed: 17.6 (2nd); 21.8 (10th)
Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints individual leaders
Bills: Devin Singletary 83 carries, 415 yards; Josh Allen 61-340; Zack Moss 75-265; Matt Breida 12-83; Emmanuel Sanders 2-31; Mitchell Trubisky 10-27; Isaiah McKenzie 5-27.
Saints: Alvin Kamara 146-530; Mark Ingram 45-205; Jameis Winston 32-166; Taysom Hill 20-104; Tony Jones 22-79.
Bills: Josh Allen 251 of 382, 2,811 yards, 21 TDs, 8 interceptions.
Saints: Trevor Siemian 82 of 144, 920 yards, 8 TDs, 2 interceptions; Jameis Winston 95 of 161, 1,170 yards, 14 TDs, 3 interceptions.
Bills: Stefon Diggs 60 catches, 773 yards; Cole Beasley 57-484; Emmanuel Sanders 33-531; Dawson Knox 28-383; Devin Singletary 25-114; Zack Moss 18-166; Gabriel Davis 15-265; Tommy Sweeney 9-44.
Saints: Alvin Kamara 32-310; Deonte Harris 26-418; Marquez Callaway 25-372; Adam Trautman 25-241; Mark Ingram 17-132; Tre’Quan Smith 16-205; Juwan Johnson 9-108.
2021 Buffalo Bills schedule
9/12 vs. Steelers, L 16-23
9/19 at Dolphins, W 35-0
9/26 vs. Washington, W 43-21
10/3 vs. Texans, W 40-0
10/10 at Chiefs, W 38-20
10/18 at Titans, L 31-34
10/24 Bye week
10/31 vs. Dolphins, W 26-11
11/7 at Jaguars, L 6-9
11/14 at Jets, W 45-17
11/21 vs. Colts, L 15-41
11/25 at Saints, 8:20 p.m.
12/6 vs. Patriots, 8:15 p.m.
12/12 at Buccaneers, 4:25 p.m.
12/19 vs. Panthers, TBD
12/26 at Patriots, 1 p.m.
1/2 vs. Falcons, 1 p.m.
1/9 vs. Jets, 1 p.m.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Buffalo Bills vs New Orleans Saints: Predictions and keys to the game