Boy, do I love being a Patriots fan.
After years of being spoiled with the Tom Brady era and literally never seeing the Patriots finish a season below .500 in my life until last year, New England has once again reclaimed its rightful place near the top of the AFC. However, this Pats squad seems different than teams of the past, and they have been way easier to cheer for. Perhaps that is because New England has stormed back from a 7-9 finish last year to eclipse that win total through only 12 weeks this season, or because rookie quarterback Mac Jones has been doing a great Brady impression, playing turnover-free football and positioning his team to win games.
Despite their notable success this season, especially in the wake of average expectations, New England still has a daunting road ahead if they wish to finish the year as AFC East champions once again. Over the next four weeks, they must face the Buffalo Bills twice and the Indianapolis Colts in addition to their bye week. All three games will have a drastic impact on the AFC playoff bracket, as all three teams find themselves in the midst of the playoff hunt. However, there is reason to believe that New England’s matchup against the Bills is their most important matchup of the season. Here is why the Patriots’ season will depend on the outcome of their primetime Week 13 matchup.
Mac Jones must navigate Buffalo’s defense
Despite the Bills losing All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL earlier this month, Buffalo still boasts a defense that is first in the NFL in least points allowed. They lead the NFL in opponent completion percentage and yards per attempt, and have allowed only eight touchdown passes this season. In addition, Buffalo has allowed the fewest receiving yards to opponents and are sixth in total rushing yards allowed to opponents. They will without question be Mac Jones’ toughest task in what has been an impressive rookie campaign thus far.
In last Sunday’s game against the then-AFC-leading Tennessee Titans and their middling defense, Jones was able to throw for a solid 310-yards and two touchdowns. However, Jones was heavily aided in those passing numbers by his receiver’s ability to create yards after the catch, notably Kendrick Bourne ripping off a 41-yard touchdown on a slant route where the receiver should have been pushed out of bounds after the first 10-yards.
The busted tackle allowed Bourne to find the endzone on a play that NFL’s Next Gen Stats predicted to have a 0.3% touchdown probability. Jones also hit Jakobi Meyers for a 39-yard gain in the second quarter on a play where Titans’ safety Kevin Byard should have knocked the ball out of the air, but instead mistimed his jump which allowed Meyers to make the grab. Along the way, Jones also missed tight end Hunter Henry for what should have been an easy 26-yard touchdown in the back of the endzone, but Jones missed his target by a good three or four yards. He also threw what should have been an easy interception in the direction of Tennessee linebacker Monte Rice, but the ball fell innocently out of Rice’s hands to the ground. Buffalo’s defense will come into Monday’s matchup with more poise than any defense than Jones has faced this season, and he won’t get away with as many plays going the Patriots way.
Welcome to Bills Mafia
New England is the only team that has yet to record a loss on the road this season, winning all five of their away games. In those games they’ve visited New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Carolina and Atlanta, but I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that none of those teams have the same firepower as the Bills do when it comes to their fans. The Bills’ Mafia will be ready for the Patriots when they come to town on Monday, but whether or not this new-look New England team can handle the intensity at Highmark Stadium is yet to be seen.
Yes, I understand the Patriots are a professional football team with a roster of professional football players, but outside of the Patriots’ veterans, not many of New England’s players have been exposed to the playoff-esque environment that is sure to be present in Buffalo on Monday night. Additionally, the weather conditions may be an influence come game time, when we’ll see if Mac Jones can really protect the football at an elite level. It is possible that Jones’ misfire to Henry against Tennessee was a result of the brisk environment, as he also spiked a few throws that should have been easy completions. All in all, I feel that if New England can visit the winter wonderland that is Buffalo and deal with a playoff-like environment, they will be firmly set to make a playoff run and deal with similar conditions.
Limit the superstars
Over the last month, the Patriots have beaten the Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones-less Titans, the Cordarrelle Patterson-less Falcons, the Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt-less Browns and the Sam Darnold-led Panthers. The last I checked, the Bills still have Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley and Dawson Knox all healthy. I understand that in the past, Bill Belichick has been phenomenal at limiting his opponent’s best playmakers, but when it comes to the Bills, they simply have so many guys that can make plays that it is difficult to imagine the Patriots possibly limiting every skill player.
Up to this point in the season, the Patriots have the second-best defense in terms of points allowed (behind only Buffalo), while standout cornerback J.C. Jackson is second in the NFL in interceptions and linebacker Matt Judon is third with 11.5 sacks. They have simply been outstanding, and have outpaced all expectations coming into the season. However, whether or not New England’s defense can prove that they can stay neck-and-neck with the likes of Buffalo’s offense will prove just how elite this defensive unit is or is not.
When it comes down to it, the Patriots away matchup with the Bills on Monday will determine just how prepared the team is for a playoff run, or if their recent six-game winning streak is just the result of good luck and conservative play. Either way, prepare for a hard fought battle to take place on Monday as the Patriots and the Bills clash in a game that could help decide who will be crowned this year’s AFC champion.