The New England Patriots–Buffalo Bills NFL season trilogy concludes on Saturday with an AFC Wild Card matchup. The Patriots, the sixth seed in the conference, visit third-seeded Buffalo in their first playoff game since 1998 that doesn't involve Tom Brady at quarterback.
Instead, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year contender Mac Jones will make his postseason debut, leading an offense filled with young, up-and-coming talent at running back and wide receiver. But it's the Patriots' fourth-ranked defense, stocked with Pro Bowlers, who will look to rediscover the magic that held the Bills to just 10 points in a blustery, run-filled victory at Buffalo one month ago. Jones threw a season-low three passes in that one, including just one in the first half, the first time a team has done so and won in over 40 years.
Since then, the Bills and quarterback Josh Allen have rediscovered their mojo that made them a trendy preseason Super Bowl favorite. In the five games since that Patriots loss, they've scored an average of 29.4 points per game, going 4-1 during that stretch including a 33-21 thrashing of their AFC East rivals in mid-December. Allen was at his best during that road win, throwing for 314 yards and three touchdowns in a turnover-free performance.
Can Allen keep the momentum going in the first postseason matchup between these teams in almost 60 years? Much was expected of a Bills group that made it to last year's AFC title game before losing 38-24 to the Kansas City Chiefs. This unit may have finished 11-6 but enters the playoffs with that super-charged offense and a defense that finished even better than the Patriots (ranked No. 1 in the NFL for the first time in franchise history).
Who will retain their Super Bowl dreams after a Saturday night showdown in western New York?
AFC Wild Card: New England (10-7) at Buffalo (11-6)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 15 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Bills -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Mac Jones get back to his winning ways?
One of the NFL's best rookies found a bad time to enter into a first-year slump. Jones stumbled during a 1-3 stretch to finish the season, throwing five of his 13 interceptions in losses to the Colts, Bills and Dolphins. That included a pick-six last week in a game the Pats never led, a performance the quarterback called "super embarrassing" after a dominant victory against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars the week before.
But a look at Jones' season overall leaves him one of the best rookie quarterbacks in recent history. His 67.6 percent completion rate is the second in NFL history behind Dak Prescott. His 22 touchdown passes are a Patriots rookie record as Jones wound up throwing for 3,801 yards.
However, just 19 of them came against the Bills the first time around, a run-centric Bill Belichick game plan the Patriots played out to perfection. When the Bills forced Jones to pass three weeks later, he fell apart, throwing for just 145 yards and two interceptions in a 33-21 Week 16 home loss. The 31.4 quarterback rating he posted that day was the lowest of his career.
How will the rookie bounce back?
"I think we're very familiar with their players and they are very familiar with us," Jones said this week in a generic response reflective of his head coach. "We just have to go out there and trust the coaches and our game plan and just execute it a little better than we have in the past games."
OK, well that’s not too specific, a Patriots mantra. So let’s answer for him; a key for Jones will be top target Jakobi Meyers, nursing a thigh injury but expected to play Saturday night. Meyers has 24 catches in the last four games, including six for 59 yards against the Bills in the last meeting. They need someone to complement the run games the Pats have keyed in on, a 1-2 punch of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson we know will pile up yards.
It just won’t be easy to score against a Bills defense that allowed more than 15 points just twice in the season's last seven games. They allow just a league-leading 17 points per game and only 31 percent of third-down conversions. The Pats know the sting of their scheme all too well, going 3-for-22 on third downs in two games against the Bills thus far.
"They make you earn it in the red zone," said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "That's why they're one of the best red zone defenses for a long time, because they don't give up a bunch of easy touchdowns from the high red zone or the fringe. They make you drive the ball, convert first downs, get into the low red zone, and then try to keep you out when you get inside the 5. It's a big challenge."
2. Which Josh Allen will we see on Saturday night? How about the Bills' run game?
On the other side of the ball, Allen and the Bills got themselves together offensively in December. That said, their quarterback took a step back from a phenomenal 2020 that had him in the NFL MVP conversation. His QB rating of 92.2 is 15 points lower than a year ago, along with a 50 percent increase in interceptions (from 10 to 15) and a reduction from 7.9 to 6.9 yards per attempt. Allen's top receiving option, Stefon Diggs, had nearly 300 fewer receiving yards despite the scheduling increase to 17 games.
Just don't tell Belichick that Allen's regressed.
"Josh is one of the best players in the league," he said this week. "Dynamic player. The ball is in his hands a lot. He can do a lot of things with it, make all the throws at all levels of the field, obviously run with the ball, scramble, extend plays, and throw it… it's always a challenge to play against him."
The challenge for the Pats' secondary is stopping the Allen-to-Diggs connection; that more than anything else jumpstarts this offense. They exploded in Week 16, racking up 145 yards and three touchdowns as the Bills' offense found better balance against the Pats. Diggs also riled up the Foxborough crowd, pointing the finger in the stands after one of those TDs while making a fool of safety Devin McCourty.
Was that a breakthrough due to the quarterback or better options for the Bills on the ground? Their 114 rushing yards were actually the fewest in an offensive explosion that saw them rack up 809 over the final five games of the year.
That leaves the pressure on the Patriots' defensive front to handle a multi-pronged attack. No fewer than four defensive starters are nursing injuries heading into the game, from linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee) to defensive end Lawrence Guy (shoulder). Hightower tied a season high with seven tackles in their Week 13 victory in Buffalo; Phillips, also nursing a knee injury, had two of his nine passes defensed. All of them need to come out swinging on the road for their team to have a chance.
3. How will the weather, missing players and COVID-19 affect Saturday's game?
Even for two teams used to cold weather temps, Saturday night will be especially challenging. The forecast for Saturday in Buffalo calls for a high of 11 degrees; it’ll be under 10 at game time with a wind chill below zero. Those conditions favor running the football, tilting toward the Pats and their successful December matchup.
But the Bills will have a big advantage in the Pats' secondary. Starting cornerback Jalen Mills was added to the Reserve/COVID-19 list this week; he’s the only starter from either team guaranteed to be out due to health and safety protocols. Mills didn't play in the Week 13 win at Buffalo but tied a season high with six tackles in the Week 16 defeat.
That Patriots loss came with several Bills out due to COVID-19. All of them return for the playoffs, from wide receiver Cole Beasley to starting right guard Jon Feliciano. The team feels well prepared for a second chance at a game against the Patriots in adverse conditions.
"I'm not too much of a complainer," said Diggs, "And I played in one of the coldest games in history, like when we played in the playoffs vs. Seattle at the Minnesota [Golden] Gophers stadium. [It was Jan. 10, 2016 when Diggs was still with the Vikings, vs. Seattle in NFC Wild Card Game, which Seahawks won 10-9.] It was like negative something [-6 degrees, wind chill was -25]. So this ain't nothing. I'll be alright."
Both of these teams, with 30 takeaways during the regular season, know how to force turnovers and take over a game with their defense. Expect another low-scoring affair with temps low enough for fingers to freeze if left uncovered.
Belichick is bound to have another scheme capable of leaving the Bills on their toes. But Allen and the offense, putting themselves together at the right time, should have just enough firepower in a less windy game to get the job done. Looming next could be a second-round matchup with the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium; following a rocky year for both squads, we might get to see another round of their battle for AFC supremacy after all.
Prediction: Bills 17, Patriots 10
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.