In the offseason, the Buffalo Bills felt like the easy pick to win the AFC East. They were coming off an AFC Championship appearance; the Jets and Patriots had just taken a new QB. The Dolphins had upside, but the Bills felt like the complete team.
In my projections system, ZLO had the Bills finishing with a record of 12-5, the Patriots 9-8. 538 had the division finishing similarly, their ELO model like the Bills to finish 11-6, and the Patriots 8-9.
And that felt accurate in Week 5; the Bills went on the road and beat the Chiefs 38-20. The Patriots survived the Texans 25-22.
538 gave the Bills a 93% chance to win the division with a 13-4 record. The Patriots had a 30% chance to make the playoffs and a record of 8-9.
However, every weekend, we learn more and more about how much we do not know in a chaotic NFL season. Since Week 5, the Patriots have gone 4-1 while the Bills have gone 2-2.
Right now, the Bills have the better record of the two teams; they are 6-3 while the Patriots are 6-4 (the Patriots have yet to have their bye).
My ZLO model currently has the two teams sitting at 11-6, so this one will, without question, be a photo finish. But, who is better?
According to Lineups.com, these two defenses rank first and second in the NFL, which makes a lot of sense considering they have allowed the least and second-least points.
The two teams are also 1st and 2nd in interceptions, but the Bills have a slight edge in overall turnovers with 24 to the Patriots 17.
However, the two teams have quite a difference in terms of their sacks, the Patriots are 8th (24), and the Bills are 23rd (18).
Now, the Patriots have allowed 3,280 yards which rank 16th in the NFL, but in all fairness to they have had the 27th most plays against. Similarly, they have had the 7th most passing attempts against them but rank 13th in passing yards. The Patriots have had the 8th most rushing attempts, but their defense ranks 16th.
The Bills rank much better in yards against; they rank 3rd in play against and 12th in pass attempts. As a result, they gave up the fewest total yards and the third-fewest passing yards. Their rushing defense functions similarly, third in attempts against and third in rushing yards against.
In red zone statistics, we find a similar trend. The Bills rank fourth in attempts against, have allowed the fewest red zone touchdowns, and rank second in red zone touchdown percentage against.
The Patriots rank 10th in attempts allowed and have allowed the sixth-most red zone touchdowns.
So, it would feel safe to say that while the Patriots are an excellent defense, the Bills have the better defense and arguably the best defense in the NFL.
However, there is one last point I want to bring up: Strength of Schedule.
According to Football Reference, the Bills rank last in the AFC and the NFL in strength of schedule at -4.7 (where 0 is average, negative is easy, and positive is more difficult).
The Patriots still have a below-strength schedule of -1.7, so while still easier than average, it is much more difficult than the Bills schedule.
Overall, Bills opponents are a combined 33-51 (.393%). Their wins come against opponents who are a joint 18-39 (.316). Their losses come against three opponents who are a combined 15-12. The Bills are 1-2 vs. .500+ teams.
The average Bills opponent ranks 18th in offense, according to Lineups.com.
Overall, Patriots opponents are a combined 41-52 (.441%). Their wins come against opponents who are a combined 20-36 (.357). Their losses come against four opponents who are a combined 21-16 (.568). The Patriots are 3-3 against .500+ teams.
The average Bills opponent ranks 16th in offense, according to Lineups.com.
It is fair to say that the two teams perform incredibly similarly from a defensive statistical perspective.
But considering that the Patriots have now played more challenging teams and performed on an equal level, I think it is also fair to say that the Patriots’ defense is arguably the better defense.
Offensively these two teams would seem to be incredibly similar. The Bills rank third in points, while the Patriots rank sixth, however, in almost an inverse of last time, the Patriots have done so while running more plays (5th) to the Bills (13th).
I think that is likely the most significant reason that Bills rank fourth while the Patriots rank 25th: the Bills are just that much more efficient than the Patriots.
But, I think there is a straightforward explanation for that difference.
The Bills are very much an explosive passing offense. Why wouldn’t you be with an arm like Josh Allens and weapons like Diggs Sanders, Beasley, and Knox?
That is reflected as the bills are 7th in pass attempts and 5th in passing yards. However, the pass comes at the expense of the run; the Bills rank 16th in their rushing attempts and, as a result, are 13th in rushing yards.
The Patriots’ offensive style really could not be all that different. With Mac Jones and his limited arm talent, and an offense that boasts more dangerous tight ends than wide receivers, it makes sense that the Patriots will go for short completions and use 12 personnel to run the ball.
This shows by the Patriots ranking 10th in rushing yards and 7th in rushing attempts. They are only 14th in passing attempts and 9th in passing yards.
But data is only as good as the context it exists within. A 10-0 team should, without question, beat an 0-10 by a wider margin, and you do not learn a whole lot from that result.
The Bills opponents rank on average, 21st defensively, according to Lineups.com.
The Patriots’ average opponent also ranks 21st defensively.
What does that tell me? While these two teams are excellent on offense, their statistics are also incredibly inflated because they have played the Dolphins or Jets twice.
In reality, as the Bills play higher caliber opponents, you should expect their offensive performance to dip. Same with the Patriots, although less so because analytically, they are already undervalued.
So, because the offense is essentially a wash, and I hopefully demonstrated that the Patriots are the better defensive squad (albeit only slightly), I am predicting that the Patriots overtake the Bills to win AFC East.
But then again, the Kansas City Chiefs had a mere 18% chance to win their division after Week 7. Today, it’s 41%, which is the highest probability in the AFC West. So who knows.