The New England Patriots head into their first meeting with the Buffalo Bills as the first-place team in the AFC East. Saying that at any time from 2001 to 2019 wouldn’t have been a surprise, but after a year where the Bills went 13-3 and won the AFC East in what seemed like a changing of the guard, it’s definitely disconcerting to Bills’ fans that they find themselves looking up at their tormentors in the standings.
The good news, of course, is that it’s only the first week of December, and just half a game separates the two teams. Buffalo holds an advantage over the Pats in terms of divisional record, as the Bills have yet to lose an interdivisional contest while the Patriots have dropped one such game. The teams play twice this month, and the results of those games will almost certainly decide who wins the division. It could also decide whether one of the two teams makes the playoffs or not.
If Buffalo wants to reclaim first place in the division this week, they’ll need to shut down New England’s key players. Here’s who we’ll be watching for our opponents this week.
QB Mac Jones
The rookie quarterback has some pundits fitting him for a gold jacket after a solid stretch showcasing what many thought he was coming into the 2021 NFL Draft, which is the most pro-ready of all the rookie quarterbacks. Jones thrives in a play action, quick passing attack, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has developed an attack that suits Jones’s strengths. He isn’t mobile, but he has great pocket awareness, and he has shown the ability to slide out of harm’s way while keeping his eyes downfield to hurt opponents. What he hasn’t shown the ability to do, though, is drive the ball downfield consistently. If the Bills sit on short routes and make him beat them over the top, it should be to their advantage on Monday, especially if the weather is as poor as it’s expected to be. Forcing Jones to throw the ball beyond ten yards will help Buffalo’s defense to keep him from doing what he does best. Perhaps if they can confuse him with different coverages, they can force him to hold the ball a little longer, too, which could lead to some sacks for Buffalo’s front four.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson
I really like both of New England’s top runners, as Damien Harris is another stout, smart runner (and he actually leads the Patriots in attempts and yards). However, I’m going with the hot hand in Stevenson, who has 277 yards and two touchdowns on just 51 carries over the last four weeks, good for 5.4 yards per tote. Over that same stretch, Harris has 206 yards on 59 carries, just 3.5 yards per attempt, with three touchdowns. Stevenson is a physical back who has the body type that has given Buffalo issues, but the Bills have been good against the run for the majority of the 2021 season. Coming into Monday, Buffalo is the No. 6 rushing defense in the league in terms of total yards allowed, and No. 2 in terms of yards allowed per rush. Buffalo needs to keep that up, forcing Jones to beat them through the air, if they want to emerge victorious on Monday.
WR Kendrick Bourne
This is another scenario where the Pats have multiple weapons to fear, but I’m going with the guy who caught two touchdowns last weekend as the one Buffalo needs to limit. Who knows which corner will guard whom, and actually, I expect that defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier will have Dane Jackson play the left side and Levi Wallace play the right side with neither player shadowing. Bourne has 42 grabs for 623 yards and five receiving touchdowns this year, and he’s caught 13 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns in New England’s last three games. Limiting him will be a huge deal in this one.
EDGE Matthew Judon
New England’s defense is loaded. Other than Judon, who has been one of the league’s top pass rushers dating back to his days with the Baltimore Ravens, New England also boasts Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Deatrich Wise Jr., and a host of other talented players in their front seven. If Buffalo’s offensive line doesn’t figure out some of the issues they’ve had throughout this year, then they’re in for a world of trouble against a top-flight pass rush. Judon himself has 11.5 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss this year, as well as 24 quarterback hits. If he’s lined up against Spencer Brown, I’ll feel a lot better than I would if he’s lined up against Daryl Williams given the way the two have played this year. Expect the Bills to use tight end Dawson Knox as a helper regardless of who plays at right tackle.
CB J.C. Jackson
Jackson has seven interceptions this year. In five career games against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills, Jackson has four interceptions. This year, he’s leading the league in pass breakups with 16. We could assume that Jackson will man-up on Stefon Diggs, but the Belichick plan often involves a bracket on a team’s top wideout using CB2 and another player, which leaves his top corner to remove WR2. In any case, Allen will need to know where Jackson is at all times. Similar to last week’s matchup with Marshon Lattimore, however, he can’t shy away from throwing the ball to Stefon Diggs just because Jackson is on him, so if he finds a one-on-one, Diggs vs. Jackson matchup, he can’t shy away from it. He just needs to make sure that he places the ball well; otherwise, Jackson is a prime candidate to force a turnover this week. Avoiding that will help the Bills to win the turnover battle, which in turn gives them a great chance at winning the game.