Monday Night Football Preview: A Step Towards Perfection?
It may not look like it on its face, but we've got ourselves a pretty sweet matchup on deck Monday night.
Sure, the New England Patriots are all fancy with their sparkly 9-0 record on the season. And, yes, talk of their potentially going undefeated is justified. But these Buffalo Bills are a feisty little squad, too.
The Bills entered Week 11 ranked eighth in numberFire's power rankings with the Patriots perched in second place. To me, that sounds like a recipe for some high-quality entertainment.
Does this mean the Bills can ruin the Patriots' run at 19-0? Let's try to answer that by looking at numberFire's game projections page. This shows a projected final score, a look at the spread and over/under, and a list of similar games throughout history that can give us an idea of what to expect. This is available for each game every week for premium subscribers.
We'll also be using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is our measure of efficiency for both teams and players with the team totals being adjusted for strength of schedule.
If you're new to the site, here's how NEP works. Before each play, there is an expected number of points that a team will score on its current drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 2) will increase that. A negative play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 4) will decrease that. The sum of the fluctuations in these expected points throughout the course of a season is NEP.
There are plenty of questions surrounding this game that will help decide its outcome. Let's go through four of them to get a firmer grasp on this matchup before kickoff.
How Do This Year's Patriots Compare to the 2007 Undefeated Team?
It didn't take long for the questions about whether or not the Patriots could finish the regular season undefeated started cropping up. And why wouldn't they? You've got the "Tom Brady is PO'ed" narrative cooking again, so obviously, the comparisons are going to come.
Unfortunately for New England, those discussions may be a bit premature. The 2015 Patriots have been great, but they don't hold a candle to the 2007 unit. Not yet, at least.
The table below shows how the two teams stack up head to head, based on numberFire's metrics. The columns all represent various NEP categories, so the label of "Pass Offense" is actually "Adjusted Passing NEP per play." The actual point-per-play metric is the first number with their ranking in the league in parentheses.
|Season||Pass Offense||Rush Offense||Pass Defense||Rush Defense|
|2007||0.41 (1st)||0.06 (5th)||-0.10 (2nd)||0.00 (23rd)|
|2015||0.31 (3rd)||0.11 (2nd)||0.06 (12th)||0.01 (18th)|
As you can see, for each individual raw metric, the 2007 team holds at least a slight advantage over this year. The offenses are pretty similar. They could beat you both ways back then, and they can still do it now. The main difference is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Pats haven't been as immortal.
So if they don't quite measure up to the 2007 Patriots, to whom do they compare favorably?
The answer here is a good one for the New England faithful. That would be the 2002 Oakland Raiders at a 95.65 percent match, per our team similarity measures. That Raiders team went on to win the AFC Championship before falling in the Super Bowl to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Our projections do have the Patriots at 22.7 percent odds to win it all, so that's not a bad comparison to draw, even if it's not the same as that team that went 16-0.
Will the Loss of Julian Edelman Hurt the Patriots' Offense?
I wouldn't be so quick to rule that as a certainty. Although Edelman was a huge portion of the offense, he isn't necessarily an irreplaceable piece.
Over Edelman's 88 targets this year, he had 0.73 Reception NEP per target. That was good enough to slot him 18th in the league in the category of the 46 receivers with at least 50 targets. So why isn't this a bigger issue?
Although it has been over a limited sample size, Danny Amendola has quietly been having a truly solid season. His 0.76 Reception NEP per target edges Edelman for the second best mark on the team. It falls short of Rob Gronkowski's monstrous 0.92 mark, but we can't all be Gronk.
Amendola's competence becomes even more apparent when we look at Target NEP, which takes into account the expected points lost on incompletions and interceptions of passes targeted at the player. While Edelman had 32.92 Target NEP on his 88 targets, Amendola was right behind him at 30.61 over his 48. In this stat, Amendola is third on the team behind only Gronkowski and Edelman. When Amendola has seen targets, he has rewarded the offense.
Part of this will be due to coverage. It's an apples-to-oranges comparison because Edelman was likely seeing better corners and more assistance from the rest of the secondary, naturally leading to some decreased efficiency. We can't automatically assume that Amendola will step in and fill Edelman's void. He can, however, be competent enough to keep the offense operating at an efficient clip.
Amendola and the Patriots' passing offense will get a good test on Monday. The Bills enter play ranked seventh in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. At the same time, that didn't stop Edelman from lighting them up for 11 receptions for 97 yards and 2 touchdowns in Week 2. Our projections don't see Amendola reaching those marks, but they do see a respectable output with 5 receptions for 69 yards and 0.32 touchdowns. That would certainly be a welcomed performance as the Pats try to deal with yet another tough loss on offense.
Can the Bills' Ground Game Carry Them?
In that table above, you can see two things. First, the Patriots are second in the league in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. Second, they have struggled to stop the run. Those two things could be what give the Bills a shot in this one.
The Patriots are only second in rushing this year because the Bills are firmly holding down the top spot. No matter who has been toting the rock, they've been successful doing it.
The most obvious boon in the backfield has been Karlos Williams. He hasn't had a huge sample size, but dude has been electric every time he has touched the ball. Over his 58 carries, he has 0.33 Rushing NEP per carry. numberFire's NEP data goes back to 2000. Since that time, there have been 1,057 running backs who have recorded at least 50 carries in a single season. None of them have had a better Rushing NEP per carry mark than Williams'. Bruh.
This isn't just because Williams has had a nose for the end zone, though that certainly hasn't hurt. He holds a 50 percent Rushing Success Rate on those 58 carries, compared to the league average of 40.1 percent for high-volume backs. When he touches the ball, good things are bound to happen.
This isn't to discredit LeSean McCoy, who has also had a solid campaign. McCoy enters action ranked eighth in Rushing NEP per carry of the 36 running backs with at least 80 rushes. His Rushing Success Rate isn't quite as lofty as Williams', but it's still above average at 43.4 percent. He has also been a plus addition for Rex Ryan's squad.
The big concern for the Bills is that the Patriots would build a big lead early and take the ground game out of the equation. That's a legitimate concern. Despite not being an overly efficient rush defense, the Patriots have still only allowed one rusher to top 100 yards against them. They've only let three players rush for more than 60 yards. One of those was McCoy with his 89 yards in Week 2, but game script could play a major factor in this one.
The volume may not be there, but our projections do expect efficiency out of both McCoy and Williams. The algorithms have McCoy slotted for 15 carries for 66 yards and 0.50 touchdowns while racking up 3 reception for 19 yards. For Williams, it's a bit more modest at 6 rushes for 27 yards and 0.46 touchdowns with 2 receptions for 19 yards. If the team can keep the game close and keep those two in the equation, this thing could play out far differently than what the Patriots are used to.
Can the Bills End the Patriots' Run?
The Bills enter this game as seven-point underdogs on the road to an undefeated team. It shouldn't shock you that the odds are stacked against them. But that doesn't mean this one is a sure thing.
Let's go back to the game projections page for a look at the most similar games throughout history. These are games that were set up in a fashion akin to this one before kickoff.
We might be able to glean something by looking at the fourth most similar game at an 87.99 percent match. That game featured the aforementioned 2002 Raiders (representing the Patriots, of course) hosting the San Diego Chargers. The game was being played in the Black Hole, and the Raiders were seven-point favorites. Sound familiar?
This one was a defensive struggle at the outset with neither team finding the end zone until midway through the second quarter. That's when Drew Brees hit Reche Caldwell to give the Chargers a 7-0 lead. They went on to notch another touchdown early in the third quarter, pushing the advantage to two scores.
The Raiders came back to tie things up early in the fourth quarter, but the Chargers answered back almost right away. Trailing by seven late in the fourth, the Raiders were able to march down the field and find the end zone with 1:21 left to force overtime.
They wouldn't see the ball again. The Chargers received the kick to start overtime and quickly maneuvered their way into the end zone on a 19-yard scamper by Ladainian Tomlinson. This gave the Chargers a 27-21 victory.
What can we learn from this? Most importantly, as with the section above, it is critical that the Bills keep themselves in positive game script. This accomplishes two things. First, it allows them to lean on those two horse backs. The Chargers ran the ball 42 times in the game for 172 yards and 2 touchdowns. We'd likely need to see the Bills somewhere in that territory, simply because it would indicate they were playing either with a lead or not far behind.
The other important factor here is that this negated Oakland's rushing offense. Charlie Garner had a nice season that year, but he finished that game with only 7 carries for 24 yards. The Bills' weakness this season has been rushing defense as they rank 27th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. If they can make the Patriots one dimensional, New England is good enough to make up for it, but it will lower the efficiency of the offense.
This game didn't require the Chargers to force a crazy number of turnovers or convert at an unsustainable pace on third down. They simply had to keep the game in a situation where they could feed Tomlinson and let him churn out yards. If the Bills can do the same, they could play spoiler to the Patriots' lofty aspirations.
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