The New England Patriots host the Buffalo Bills this week in what should be a hard-fought AFC East matchup. The Bills are currently 0-2 in the division, and they can ill afford a third loss if they want to challenge for their third straight division title. The Patriots, meanwhile, are 2-1 in the division after sweeping the New York Jets and losing once to the Miami Dolphins. With a 6-5 overall record, they can’t afford to fall to 6-6 given just how tight the AFC playoff picture is.
With that in mind, this game is a huge one in terms of playoff positioning and playoff potential. According to the New York Times playoff simulator, Buffalo’s playoff chances jump to 99% with a win this week; their chances at the No. 1 seed in the conference goes to 40%. With a loss, their playoff hopes are still high — 91% — but their shot at that bye in the playoffs goes down to just 18%. That same simulator currently gives New England a 42% chance to make the playoffs. Their chances jump to 58% with a win, and drop to 29% with a loss.
In short, this is a huge game for both teams, and if Buffalo wants to make sure that they leave Foxborough with a win, then they’ll need to contain the Patriots’ top players. Here are our five Patriots to watch on Thursday Night Football.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson
Overall, the Bills have been very good at stopping the run this year. Some of that was due to early-season blowouts, but some of it has been because of a revamped defensive line. With defensive tackle Ed Oliver on an absolute tear, it’s been the interior guys leading the way for the Bills on defense. With lead back Damien Harris, who demolished the Bills last year, expected to miss this game, Stevenson should take the bulk of the carries in the backfield. He’s been fantastic this year both as a runner and a receiver. Stevenson has 680 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 151 carries. He’s caught 50 passes, which leads the team, for another 359 yards and a touchdown. Linebacker Matt Milano will probably spend much of his time marking Stevenson on screens and check-downs, but it will take all 11 Bills to force quarterback Mac Jones into obvious passing situations where he has to push the ball downfield.
WR DeVante Parker
I know that Jakobi Meyers is the most frequently-targeted Patriots wideout, with 62 targets in nine games, but it’s Parker who has a long history of beating up the Bills through the air. He’s caught at least five passes in each of his last six meetings against the Bills, and in three of those games, he gained at least 85 yards. Sure, all of those contests came as a member of the Dolphins, but Buffalo still needs to account for their old nemesis. If New England can run the ball, then it will open up space in the play-action game. If Jones has a clean pocket, he can place a sweet deep ball, and Parker is excellent in high-point situations. Without Micah Hyde, Buffalo has only Jordan Poyer in the elite-level deep safety game. Damar Hamlin has been strong, but he seems to be better in the box and as a blitzer. Parker has the potential to make some chunk plays for the Patriots, and the Bills have to be wary of that ability.
EDGE Matt Judon
The NFL’s leader in sacks with 13 may find himself lined up across from a reserve offensive tackle this week. If he’s not facing a backup, though, he’ll either be facing an inconsistent second-year right tackle or a left tackle dealing with an ankle injury. Those aren’t great matchups for Buffalo, and it will almost certainly cause them to keep players in on the edge to help, whether via chips or straight double-team blocks. Last week, the Bills went to an empty set when the Detroit Lions showed blitz with man coverage behind them. The Patriots love to play man, and they love to blitz, so I’d expect a lot of Dawson Knox and Devin Singletary slamming into Judon before they hit their routes. Quarterback Josh Allen needs to know Judon’s whereabouts at all times, and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey needs to work in some misdirection and quick-hitters in order to stifle the pass rush.
DL Deatrich Wise Jr.
New England’s second-leading sack master is no slouch, either. The 6’5”, 275-pound lineman has the size, strength, and length to move all around the defensive front in mastermind Bill Belichick’s defense. Given the health issues listed above for Buffalo along that front, it’s imperative that they work as a unit to keep Allen clean. Center Mitch Morse is also working back from an ankle injury, so the Patriots have a chance to put some real heat on Allen if the Bills don’t scheme it effectively. Wise Jr. has 5.5 sacks and six tackles for a loss this year. Both of those totals are second on the Patriots to Judon.
CB Jonathan Jones
Jones has intercepted three passes this year, which leads New England. He’s also broken up eight more passes, which also leads the team. Last week against the Minnesota Vikings, Jones had three pass breakups and an interception. He’s allowing just 44% of the passes thrown his way to be completed this year, and a minuscule 40.4 quarterback rating. The Bills have two options: they can either go away from Jones, who will probably be one-on-one with Gabe Davis, in favor of throwing to a bracketed Stefon Diggs, or they can go right after him. The latter strategy hasn’t worked much this year. Buffalo may have played a “perfect game” against the Patriots last year, but Jones was absent from that contest. His presence could be huge for New England this week.