The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots get Week 13 and the month of December started off right with a showdown on Thursday Night Football. A lot of time has passed since the last time the Bills and Patriots squared off. In the rearview mirror is last January’s lambasting at Highmark Stadium.
It’s wild to think that the Bills and Patriots haven’t played each other in 11 months. It’s not often that these two teams must wait until December to battle. As such, this game will have a decidedly playoff vibe to it—given the high stakes involved with only six weeks left in the regular season. For the Bills, a win will provide more distance from the Patriots, while for New England, a win is essential to their postseason hopes.
But is quarterback Mac Jones up for the task? Is running back Rhamondre Stevenson represents a massive challenge for the Bills. Is Stevenson set to dismantle Buffalo’s defense, or will the Bills force New England into one-dimensional football? Who are the Patriots’ unsung heroes on both sides of the ball? Will New England rebound after a difficult day on defense against the Minnesota Vikings? And just how should the Bills attack New England’s stout defense?
I was joined this week by Taylor Kyles of Pats Pulpit who answered these questions and more ahead of Thursday’s game.
1. Has Mac Jones taken enough steps this season toward becoming the Patriots’ long-term quarterback?
Mac Jones’ growth has been stunted by significant coaching and scheme changes before the season, but last week may have been his best performance as a Patriot. Since New England went back to their offensive roots following a blowout loss to the Bears in Week 7 (quick passes, play action, screens), Jones has cut down on the turnover-worthy plays that plagued him early in the season. He’s also managed to move the ball consistently despite a very shaky offensive line. The next step for Mac is consistently capitalizing on downfield opportunities and staying whelmed in the pocket, which we saw last week when protection held up.
2. Rhamondre Stevenson appears to be building toward something special. How do the Patriots manage to get Rhamondre Stevenson so involved as a runner and passer, given his unconventional size?
Damien Harris has battled injuries all season, which forced Rhamondre Stevenson into a literal every-down-back role with the Patriots’ inexperience at RB outside of their usual one-two punch. That said, Stevenson has earned his touches as a versatile back moves like someone half his size. Belichick has heaped praise on Stevenson all season for his growth in Year 2, and Stevenson acknowledged that he worked hard during the offseason to prep for a heavier workload. His efforts have paid off, as he seems to have infinite gas in the tank.
Stevenson is quick, powerful, has excellent vision, and is as likely to shake would-be tacklers as he is to run them over. He doesn’t quite have homerun speed, but he’ll hit some impressive triples if defenders don’t wrap up and rally to the ball. As a receiver, he’s had soft hands since college and his elusiveness as a runner translates after the catch. But the biggest improvement he’s shown this season is as a pass blocker, where Belichick likened the second-year back to Patriots legend James White.
3. Who are two players—one on offense, one defense—that Bills fans might not know well, but should learn more about ahead of Thursday’s game?
Offense: RG Mike Onwenu. Not only has “Big Mike” been the offense’s most consistent player, he’s putting together an Pro Bowl-caliber season. He’s allowed 3 pressures and zero sacks this season while being a people-mover in the ground game.
If you like physicality in the trenches, you’ll wanna keep an eye on #71.
Defense: DE Deatrich Wise. After being a rotational player in each season since being drafted in 2017, Wise was voted captain and been a staple of the Patriots’ defense in 2022. He’s a massive human being with rare length and power, which he uses to devastating effect as a pass rusher. Wise isn’t known for his work as a run defender, but he’s improved significantly after being a bit of a liability in the Patriots’ odd fronts, which often ask lineman to 2-gap and stand up to double teams.
If the Patriots make Josh Allen uncomfortable on Thursday, Wise will be a major reason why.
4. How would you attack New England’s defense, if you were in the shoes of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey?
The Patriots have been outstanding in man coverage this season, but struggle significantly in zone due to poor depth in their drops and occasional lack of awareness. Attacking these coverages on early downs could lead to opportunities downfield, though I’m hoping the Patriots break character and use more Cover 4 to force underneath throws.
In obvious passing situations when the Patriots do dial up man coverage, Buffalo attacking Myles Bryant like they did in Week 16 last season could prove fruitful. Bryant is a smart and tough slot corner, but he lacks sufficient athleticism for the role and has fallen prey to pick routes too often for New England’s scheme. Designed QB runs against these defenses could also give the Bills a numbers advantage in critical situations.
5. Consider this: The Patriots are losing 20-26—with 45 seconds left in regulation they begin their final drive at their 25-yard line against the Bills. What chance do you give Mac Jones and the offense at pulling out the win, and what best-positions Jones to get the ball in the end zone?
If Von Miller was playing, I’d say slim to none. But with the future Hall of Famer missing this matchup, I’d put the Patriots’ odds somewhere between “meh” and “decent.” Ed Oliver has been tremendous and I have no doubt we’ll hear his name called a few times on Thursday, but one elite rusher isn’t quite as scary as two.
Mac Jones has done a great job taking what the defense gives him and protecting the ball during end-of-half situations, but protection issues and minor-but-costly mistakes have made things difficult at times. The offense has also been dreadful in scoring territory all season, which obviously doesn’t inspire confidence.
If the Patriots need a touchdown, I’m dialing up a shot or two once they cross the 50-yard line to keep their Red Area offense from being a factor.
6. The current DraftKings line has the Patriots as five-point home underdogs. Do you agree with that line—or do you think the Patriots should beat those odds at home in Week 13?
I think that’s a pretty fair line. The Patriots shouldn’t win this game, but they looked like a completely different offense for most of last week’s game in Minnesota. If they can build on that while doing a better job against Stefon Diggs than they did against Justin Jefferson, they’ve got a real shot at pulling off an upset.
That said, if they continue making mental mistakes, drawing penalties, and failing to execute in the Red Area offensively, it might not be close.
My thanks to Taylor for taking the time to chat with me about this week’s epic divisional matchup. Be sure to head over to Pats Pulpit to read my responses to Taylor’s Bills questions!