New England Patriots (3-0) at Buffalo Bills (3-0)
This is a battle between a pair of 3-0 teams in the AFC East, but these two teams have had very different paths to 3-0. While the Patriots have dominated everyone they’ve faced, leading the league with a +21.55% first down rate differential and a +29.7 average point differential, the Bills trailed in the second half against the Jets and Bengals before coming back to narrowly win. Neither team has faced a tough schedule, with the Bills also facing the Giants and the Patriots facing the Steelers, Dolphins, and Jets, but the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger is the only thing close to a tough opponent that either of these teams have faced and the Patriots dominated them in a 30-point victory. They’ve had a much more impressive start despite these two teams having the same record.
The Patriots’ defense has been especially impressive, not allowing a single touchdown all season and allowing just 32 first downs on 169 snaps, an absurd 18.93% first down rate allowed. I don’t care who you play, these are all professional football players and having a 3-game stretch like that against anyone is worth taking note of. The Patriots’ defensive dominance goes back to the end of last season, when they held the Rams without a touchdown in the Super Bowl, blanked the Chiefs in the first half of the AFC Championship game before a second half offensive explosion, held the Chargers to just one touchdown in the first half of the AFC Divisional before allowing some garbage time points, and held the Jets, Steelers, Bills to a combined 32 points in the final 3 games of the regular season.
Dating back 9 games, the Patriots have allowed just 3 first half touchdowns and have allowed more than one offensive touchdown total in just 3 of 9 games, with 5 games in which they did not allow an offensive touchdown, including 4 straight. Going back to last year’s bye, they have allowed just 14.0 points per game in their past 12 games. At this point, this is not a fluke. Bill Belichick has somehow quietly built a very deep and versatile defense and has them firing on all cylinders as his own defensive coordinator. Off-season additions of Jamie Collins, Chase Winovich, and Michael Bennett have been key, as have the re-emergence of veteran stars Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty and the emergence of budding young shutdown cornerback Jonathan Jones. The Patriots’ probably are not going to allow a first down rate under 20% the rest of the way as their schedule gets tougher, but they should finish among the top few teams in the league in most defensive metrics.
There’s some concern that the Patriots weren’t a good road team last year, going just 3-5 on the road, with losses to teams like Jaguars, Lions, and Dolphins, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. Home/road splits tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, with rare exceptions. In fact, the Patriots recently had a stretch from 2016 to 2017 where they won 14 consecutive games away from Gillette, before their road struggles last year. The pendulum could easily swing back the other way this season.
Unfortunately, we aren’t really getting much line value with the Patriots as 7-point favorites on the road in Buffalo. The Bills haven’t been nearly as impressive as the Patriots, but they have a solid team that should still compete for a wild card spot in the AFC and they could easily bring their best effort at home in a huge divisional matchup. The Bills have had a legitimately good defense since the start of last season, finishing last season 7th in first down rate allowed at 34.30% in 2018 and now ranking 6th at 31.75% in first down rate allowed through 3 games. Their offense struggled for most of last year, but it improved significantly down the stretch, with a 37.14% first down rate in their final 7 games of the season, after a 25.85% first down rate in their first 9 games, and that seems to have carried over into this season, as they rank 9th in first down rate at 39.41% thus far. Their competition is about to get a whole lot harder and I have them calculated as 9-point underdogs, but there isn’t quite enough to bet the Patriots with confidence this week.
New England Patriots 23 Buffalo Bills 13
Pick against the spread: New England -7