The Buffalo Bills host the New England Patriots on Saturday night in what’s going to be a frigid evening for an NFL playoff game. This will also mark the third meeting between these teams in 41 days. Buffalo dropped the first game, a 14-10 defensive struggle in howling winds at Highmark Stadium. The Bills bested the Patriots in the rematch, though, winning 33-21 on the road.
With a win, head coach Sean McDermott would move into sole possession of second place in franchise history in playoff victories. Yes, it would only be his third playoff win. Buffalo will need big performances from its key players in order to come out on top.
Which players are we watching this week? Here is our list.
QB Josh Allen
All I’ve read about of late is how poorly Allen played in victories over the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Jets, where he combined to go 35-of-71 passing for 359 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He added 20 rushes for 144 yards and two scores on the ground. What most people aren’t writing of when they talk about those performances is how the conditions impacted the game. Allen played perhaps the most complete game of his career the last time Buffalo and New England met, throwing for 314 yards and three touchdowns while completing 64% of his passes. In seven games against Bill Belichick’s defense, Allen has 11 touchdowns to six interceptions, and he’s rushed for 260 yards and a pair of touchdowns. With winds expected to hover at five to ten miles per hour on Saturday, the biggest roadblock in a strong passing game is not there. The Patriots may be short in the secondary, as Jalen Mills was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list this week and Myles Bryant was just activated off the same list. Buffalo has the weapons to attack the outside of the New England defense, and Allen has shown the ability to do it. He needs to be himself on Saturday in order for the team to come out on top.
RB Devin Singletary
Someone who can help lessen Allen’s load is Singletary, who has motored his way to 323 yards rushing and five touchdowns over the course of Buffalo’s last four games. Singletary has not performed well against New England this year, carrying 22 times for just 75 yards and a score. If the Bills can establish some rhythm on the ground in addition to their explosive passing attack, then New England can be beaten soundly. If the Patriots make Buffalo one-dimensional, then it makes Belichick’s life much easier. This isn’t a plea to play ground and pound—that’s not who this Buffalo team is—but it is an acknowledgement that the Bills are a far more complete offense with Singletary humming.
WR Stefon Diggs
It would be easy to talk about Isaiah McKenzie given his otherworldly performance against New England the day after Christmas, as he caught 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown while filling in for Cole Beasley. However, it will be Diggs whose performance sets the tone for the rest of the receiving corps. I look at it this way: Diggs is to Allen what Davante Adams is to Aaron Rodgers. Everyone knows he’s looking for him. Everyone covers him as such. And yet, they still feed him the rock. A playoff game is no time to be cute. Buffalo’s best players need the ball, and whether Diggs is shadowed by J.C. Jackson or not, he needs targets. Diggs is Allen’s only receiver who appeared in all 17 games with him, and that connection has shown as some of the other players have been out of sync at times. Players like McKenzie, Beasley, Gabriel Davis, and Emmanuel Sanders will all play a big role in this one, but Diggs is the alpha in this group. He needs to keep playing that way, and he also needs to be treated as such.
DT Harrison Phillips
Earlier in the year, I was dogging Phillips a bit for being a great guy beloved by the fan base who just wasn’t a great player on Sundays. I’ll take full credit, then, for being a reverse-jinx that led to Phillips becoming the best run defender along Buffalo’s interior defensive line in the second half of the year. All sarcasm aside, Phillips has become an integral cog in the machine that is Buffalo’s No. 1-ranked defense. He has clearly eclipsed Star Lotulelei in terms of snaps and overall performance, and facing a New England squad that absolutely does not want its quarterback to have to throw the ball to win, Phillips will need to keep his linebackers clean in the run game. Being gap-sound in his assignments will go a long way towards helping the next player on our list to do his job.
LB Tremaine Edmunds
This is one of those big tests for Buffalo’s middle ‘backer. Mac Jones can’t run (or at least he isn’t a guy who you need to spy, for clarification purposes), so Edmunds will be reading two things: is it run or is it pass? The Patriots are going to try to establish the run and work quick throws off of play-action to the middle of the field to keep Jones in manageable situations. Most of the action for New England on offense is going to take place in Tremaine’s sphere of influence. If Phillips and company can do their job up front, that will help Edmunds to contain Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson in the running game. If Edmunds can keep his eyes focused and read his keys correctly, he will be in prime position to do what he does best, tightening passing windows over the middle thanks to his ridiculous length and speed. The best part about this Buffalo defense is that it’s better than the sum of its parts. The group itself is far more important than any one player. With that said, a big day from Edmunds where he hits the right gaps and limits New England's big runs would be a huge plus for Buffalo.