The New England Patriots play host to the Buffalo Bills this week in a game that could determine the outcome of the AFC East division race. If New England wins on Saturday, they’ll clinch the division title for the 11th straight season (and the 17th time in Tom Brady’s career). If Buffalo wins, it sets up a situation where each team’s Week 17 game could determine the division winner.
The Patriots have already beaten Buffalo once, winning 16-10 at New Era Field in Week 4. New England forced four turnovers, stopped the Bills on a fourth-down in scoring position, and blocked a punt that they returned for a touchdown. They also sacked Josh Allen five times before knocking him out of the game early in the fourth quarter.
New England has plenty of talented players, but here are five that we’ll be watching this weekend.
QB Tom Brady
The man at the helm of the New England offense for 31 wins over Buffalo since 2001 has struggled against the Bills over his last two starts against the team. In those two games, Brady was a combined 31-of-63 passes for 276 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. The Patriots won both games, but that was due to Buffalo’s inability to score points. If they want to put themselves in position to score this weekend, they’ll have to continue the success they’ve had against Brady recently. The future Hall of Famer is in the midst of a pretty rough stretch statistically, as he’s only completed 51% of his passes for 1,029 yards, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions over his last five games. For most people, that’s not a terrible stretch. For the man who many view as the greatest of all time? That’s a marked downturn in performance. Perhaps the Bills will be able to take advantage this week.
RB James White
White played on 33 offensive snaps against the Bills in September. He was the target of a pass on ten of those snaps, catching eight balls for 57 yards and setting up New England’s lone offensive touchdown with a 26-yard catch. As the primary “receiving back” in New England's backfield-by-committee, White is the one who presents the biggest challenge to Buffalo’s defense. They’ve done a much better job against the run as the year has progressed, but they still can be beaten a bit by running backs coming out of the backfield. A threat like White needs to be neutralized, especially with a receiving corps in New England that’s under-performing.
WR N’Keal Harry
Rather than focus on the obvious, like Julian Edelman (who is dealing with chest and knee injuries this week), I think the big-bodied Harry is someone who poses a potential problem for the Bills. At 6’4” and 225 lbs, Harry is much bigger than any of Buffalo’s defensive backs, and while he may not be an explosive speedster, he’s a threat in the red zone—especially in jump-ball situations. New England’s beloved pick plays help him,as well, because he can serve both the picker and the grinner role (when he plays his music in the sun...or scores in the red zone). How Buffalo chooses to help on Harry in those goal-to-go situations will be interesting to watch, and the success or failure of head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s decision very well may decide the game.
LB Jamie Collins
Collins was an integral part of what the Pats did to Josh Allen in the teams’ first meeting, as his athleticism and smarts kept Allen from beating New England with his legs. Collins didn’t light up the stats sheet, but he definitely had a solid all-around game: four tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass breakup, one sack, one quarterback hit, and one interception. Collins did a great job in contain, and he was often used in spy concepts to mirror Allen a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Trying to move him and put some chaos in front of him could help the Bills to free Allen from Collins’s grasp, something Buffalo struggled to do in September.
CB Joejuan Williams
With New England’s primary slot corner, Jonathan Jones (he of the helmet-to-helmet shot that knocked Josh Allen out of the first meeting) nursing a groin injury, and New England’s other top slot-corner option, veteran Jason McCourty, nursing a groin injury of his own, it’s possible that the Pats will have to turn to a rookie to be the primary cover guy on Cole Beasley. Even if Jones or McCourty can play, a groin injury is the type that lingers and hampers a player for plenty of time, often weeks after the initial injury. If Beasley is manned by a rookie, look for Bill Belichick to add help in the slot on Beasley, freeing up Buffalo’s other options in the process.