ORCHARD PARK - The calendar has flipped to December, and in the NFL, that means it’s crunch time as the battle for division titles and wild-card berths really starts to heat up.
It wasn’t supposed to be a real challenge for the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East this year, at least that’s what the prognosis was back in September. But after a one-year hiatus, the New England Patriots are back with a vengeance and when they visit Highmark Stadium Monday night, Bill Belichick’s team is the one sitting in first place in the division, a half game ahead of Buffalo.
The Bills are back to full practice Thursday after enjoying a mini-bye following their one-sided victory over New Orleans on Thanksgiving night.
Here’s what has been going on over at One Bills Drive:
Dion Dawkins counseled Star Lotulelei on COVID
Dawkins endured a brutal case of the coronavirus back in the summer at the start of training camp and he said he was so sick, he was wondering about his mortality.
So when Lotulelei contracted COVID and missed the past three games, Dawkins said he tried to talk the defensive tackle through the experience when Lotulelei called him.
“Star had called me, and he asked a couple of questions because he was feeling chest pains and stuff like that,” Dawkins said Thursday. “I just told him that they give us these antibody infusion bags, and I took one and after that, I started to feel a lot better. So, I’m guessing Star took that and he's feeling a lot better. I don't really know, but I know that was one of his questions. I just helped them through it as much as I could because everyone's battle was a little bit different.”
Dawkins’ battle was certainly a difficult one and there has been speculation that some of his on-field struggles this season - he has not played at the same level that he has in years past - can be traced back to his COVID battle.
As for what Lotulelei might experience if he returns to action Monday night as expected, Dawkins said, “I hate to say this, but I really can't answer that question because everyone's battle was different. I'm telling you, mine was so drastically different than the average person, I don't really know.
“I know going into it, some guys were fully vaccinated, and some guys weren't. And it's a different battle for everybody. But anytime you miss time on the football field, the process is different of coming back. It's going to take a couple reps to get back into the flow of the things and to get your body right and actually feel a human body's presence. Everybody's process is different, but it takes time.”
Dome or no dome? Allen’s not saying, wink, wink
With the weather forecast for Monday night’s game looking pretty sketchy with rain and high winds, Allen was jokingly asked whether he prefers playing in a blizzard or beautiful weather.
He smiled like any quarterback would and said, “Beautiful. But you got to play in the elements when you play in Buffalo, too, and I said this a few weeks back, my college coach said, ‘If you want to win in the North Atlantic you better train in the North Atlantic.’ So it's good that we get to have it here and whatever the weather has in store for us, we'll have to adjust and find out, but so does the other team.”
I couldn’t resist asking if owners Terry and Kim Pegula came to him and said the decision was his regarding the new stadium, dome or not, what would he pick.
“No comment. I won't answer that one,” he said with a smile. “But I think you know.”
Yeah, of course he’d rather play in a dome like he did last week in New Orleans when he enjoyed a 23 of 28 passing night with 260 yards and four touchdowns.
Alas, all signs point to the new building being open air, so by the time it’s built, and assuming Allen is still with the Bills, he’ll have to continue dealing with December and January - and let’s face it, sometimes September, October and November - in the elements of western New York.
What do we make of the Bills’ run defense?
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier got a little defensive on Tuesday when he was asked about the viability of the Bills run defense.
When you look at the league rankings, they show that the Bills are sixth with an average yield of 96.6 yards per game. That’s pretty good, and Frazier said, “Well, those numbers don't lie.”
Well, I’m not so sure. Against two of the best running teams in the league, who have two of the best backs in the league in Tennessee’s Derrick Henry and Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor, the Bills got steamrolled. Henry gained 143 yards and scored three touchdowns and Taylor ran for 185 yards and had five touchdowns, four of them on the ground.
The Bills have had only three games this season where they allowed more than 100 rushing yards - Tennessee, Indianapolis and Kansas City. But in the majority of the other eight games - the exceptions being the Pittsburgh and Jacksonville games, and to an extent the second Miami game - the Bills were way ahead and the opposition essentially quit running which certainly skews the numbers in a positive direction.
“I think there has been some good moments and then some moments that we could have played better and coached better, start with me,” McDermott said. “So I think all together it's a work in progress.”
Monday when the Bills host the Patriots at Highmark Stadium, their run defense will get another stiff test. Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson aren’t in the same category as Henry or Taylor, but they’ve been a productive duo running behind a solid offensive line.
Those two have combined for 994 yards and a 4.32 average per carry with 11 touchdowns. If the weather forecast, which is calling for rain and high winds, holds true, the Patriots are going to be pounding the ball on the ground, and the Bills are going to need to prove that Frazier’s numbers mean what they read.
“At this point it's all about New England,” said Frazier. “So our being able to defend their run game is what's most important, not what we've done previously. We know we've done a good job at defending the run throughout the season. And we'll need to do a good job this week as well.”
Bills offensive line could be whole again
One of the big things to watch this week is whether the Bills will get guard Jon Feliciano back in time for the game.
We already know that right tackle Spencer Brown is off the reserve/COVID-19 list and will be back at practice. We’re not sure about Feliciano, at least not on Thursday morning. It may become clearer when practice starts at around 12:30.
Feliciano has not played since suffering a calf injury late in the Halloween day victory over Miami. He was placed on injured reserve and has spent the mandatory three weeks on the list.
Sean McDermott said Feliciano returned for the Bills’ light walk-through on Tuesday, and if he gets full reps Thursday, then it seems that all systems are go and he’ll be activated off IR and back on the 53-man roster.
"We'll see where he goes and how he trends today and the rest of this week, so I'm just gonna keep a close eye on that just like the COVID guys and get a better feel as we go through the week here," McDermott said.
Brown missed two of the games Feliciano did as he tested positive for the coronavirus and the Bills line struggled without the two players. Daryl Williams was forced to move outside to Brown’s spot, and Cody Ford took over at right guard for Williams.
With left tackle Dion Dawkins enduring a rough season, the Bills need to get their best five on the field, and that looks like it will happen Monday night, not a moment too soon against a Patriots defense that has been one of the best pressure teams in the league led by stud free agent signing Matthew Judon.
Bills add CB Greg Stroman to practice squad
The Bills officially signed the four-year veteran Thursday morning, two days after they also added CB Tim Harris to the practice squad.
Those moves are in direct relation to the loss of Tre’Davious White because the Bills need depth at the position in case more injuries occur.
Stroman was a 2018 seventh-round pick of Washington who saw minimal action in three seasons before being cut in training camp this year. He has been out of the league since then. Harris was with the Bills briefly in training camp but was cut after a week.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Bills vs. Patriots updates: Here's what McDermott, players are saying