When the New England Patriots last traveled to Orchard Park to take on the Buffalo Bills, the stakes were high—and so were the winds. With gusts upwards of 50 miles per hour throughout the night, the Patriots turned to a ground-and-pound approach, grinding out a 14-10 win to catapult the team into first place in the AFC East Division.
That was a mere 40 days ago. In the interim, the Bills reeled off four straight wins, including a 33-21 triumph over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, winning their second straight AFC East crown and relegating the Patriots to second place. While the wind isn’t expected to be a factor for this Saturday’s Wild Card matchup, the temperature certainly is, with game-time temps expected to hover around zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Any time we write about players to watch for multiple games with the same team, there are bound to be repeats. When it’s the third time in the same season, it’s a guarantee. With that in mind, here are our five players to watch for the Patriots in this playoff game.
QB Mac Jones
The game plan for Buffalo is pretty easy in theory: score enough points so that New England has to throw the ball to win. That’s it. Is Mac Jones good enough to put the Patriots on his back and carry them to victory against the league’s No. 1 defense? I don’t think he is at this point. Is he good enough to make quality throws off of play-action in a tight game where the Bills have to sell out to stop the run? Yes, he absolutely is. Jones is much better throwing inside the numbers than he is attacking the outsides, so the Bills will have to communicate on crossing routes, flood the middle with lurkers, robbers, droppers, and all other sorts of defenders, and force the Patriots’ rookie quarterback to throw the ball to the perimeter against Levi Wallace and Dane Jackson. If that happens, it’s a big advantage for Buffalo. If the game stays close, though, and Jones can freely operate by targeting his tight ends in the middle of the field on some play-action passes in short-yardage situations (think 2nd & 3 or 3rd & 4), then he could keep the score close enough where Buffalo’s offense will feel the pressure against a tough New England defense. Force Jones to throw it 30 times and it’s probably a Buffalo victory.
RB Damien Harris
The top dog in New England’s two-headed monster in the backfield had the best season of his career, rushing 202 times for 929 yards and 15(!!) touchdowns. In two games against the Bills, Harris carried 28 times for 214 yards and four touchdowns. One of those touchdowns was the longest run of his career—a 64-yard run in the first matchup that gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead in their win at Highmark Stadium. If the Bills can limit Harris to short gains, two and three yards a pop, then they will keep New England in some 3rd & LONG situations. Those are the kinds of scenarios Buffalo wants. For all the hemming and hawing about Buffalo’s run defense, the team finished No. 13 in rushing yards allowed and No. 11 in yards per attempt. If the team plays assignment-sound, physical football, they are more than capable of slowing Harris. That needs to happen in order to emerge with a victory on Saturday.
LB Dont’a Hightower
Buffalo has targeted Hightower eight times in the passing game this year, situations where the veteran linebacker was the closest man in coverage. The Bills have completed all eight of those passes for 72 yards. While New England’s pass rush is definitely a formidable group, their coverage unit has holes at all levels. Last time out, Buffalo exploited the Patriots’ willingness to play coverage, taking the easy money on short gains while marching up and down the field almost at will. I imagine that they’ll dial up the pressure a bit more this time around, meaning players like Hightower will find themselves blitzing plenty. Hightower pressured quarterback Josh Allen twice in the teams’ first meeting, but he was unable to pressure Buffalo’s quarterback in six blitz tries in the second go-round. Buffalo’s offensive line has played much better with Ryan Bates in the lineup, and if they can hit on some big plays when New England blitzes, it will force them back into playing coverage, which will give Josh time to cook.
LB Kyle Van Noy
While Matthew Judon receives more of the accolades, Van Noy is the “glue” holding everything together. Van Noy can drop into short zones, he can spy Allen, he can blitz—really, he can do it all. Van Noy has seven pressures, five hurries, and two knockdowns of Allen this year, and his long frame allows him to alter passing lanes at the line of scrimmage. Knowing where he is and preventing him from jumping up to block passes is going to be a big part of what Buffalo needs to do to come out on top this week. It will be up to Josh, too, to recognize where he is when dropping into quick sets and quick passes. While Allen may be a taller quarterback, he sometimes drops his arm slot, making it easier for his passes to be deflected at the line. Staying on top and keeping aware of his surroundings will help to neutralize the effect of a player like Van Noy.
CB Myles Bryant
Buffalo has gone at the second-year man this season. He was the player covering Gabriel Davis when Buffalo failed to convert the final fourth down in the red zone in the fourth quarter at Highmark Stadium. He was also the player charged with covering Isaiah McKenzie at Gillette, so he had a big moment in the win and was beaten soundly throughout the loss. The Bills have targeted Bryant 14 times this year, and Josh Allen has completed ten of those passes for 115 yards. Bill Belichick left him on an island last time, choosing to take away Allen’s outside weapons instead. It didn’t work. If Bryant is one-on-one again, whether with McKenzie or Cole Beasley, expect Allen to exploit that matchup repeatedly. If they need to add help for Bryant, that will only open the field for players like Dawson Knox, Gabriel Davis, and Stefon Diggs. With Jalen Mills expected to miss the game with COVID-19, Bryant very well may be the linchpin for the entire New England defense. Buffalo would be wise to test him early.