Rubber Match!: Previewing the Wild Card Matchup between the Patriots and Bills

After 18 wild weeks of football, it is finally time for the NFL playoffs to begin! The Patriots will make their return to the postseason after last year’s 7-9 finish, and will open against the hated Buffalo Bills (11-6) on Saturday. Interestingly, this will be the third matchup between the two teams in the last 40 days. After splitting the season series, it is time for the rubber match!

Here’s what to expect during this Wild Card matchup.

1. Can the Patriots protect Mac Jones?

The two regular season matchups against Buffalo were wildly different experiences for Mac Jones. In the first matchup, he was only asked to throw the ball 3 times, and he competed 2 of them during the 14-10 victory. In the second matchup, Buffalo got after him early and often, as the rookie struggled during the 33-21 loss. The Bills have a stingy and savvy defense, led by stalwarts such as Matt Milano, Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde, who can make life incredibly difficult for a quarterback. If the Patriots want to have any semblance of success, they need to be able to give Jones a clean pocket, and hope that their pass-catchers can get separation downfield. Hence, it is imperative that they attempt to establish the run, which they were able to do during the two earlier matchups. Doing so can help with play-action, and could result in lighter coverages in the secondary. If Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson can get going, it would definitely serve as a catalyst to the rest of the offense. In that vein, the Patriots need to hope that the return of Nelson Agholor will help boost their vertical passing game, as opposing defensive backs will need to respect his speed down the field. Agholor missed the second matchup against Buffalo, when the Patriots clearly struggled to gain downfield separation. All in all, establishing the run could boost New England’s passing game, and also help keep Josh Allen and the Bills’ offense on the sideline.

Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

2. Can the defense contain Josh Allen?

Just like Mac Jones, Josh Allen had two different experiences when these teams squared off. He missed a few key throws during Buffalo’s loss, but dominated the Patriots in Foxborough a couple weeks later. Allen’s dynamic abilities were on full display in Week 16, as he diced the Patriots up using his arm and legs. It is imperative that the Patriots keep Allen in the pocket if they want to ensure success. If he is able to break contain, that could prove fatal for New England, as it would enable his receivers to get open down the field. Buffalo does not have the most physically-imposing run game, but Allen’s presence means that a mere scramble could result in a 25-yard carry. Stefon Diggs has had his fair share of success against the Patriots in recent memory, and will likely draw the attention of JC Jackson throughout the game. Even if Diggs does not break free, the Patriots should be wary, as proven by Isaiah McKenzie’s brilliant performance in Week 16. With Cole Beasley back in the lineup, along with Emmanuel Sanders, the Patriots defense will likely have its hands full on Saturday.

The Patriots will need to ensure that the Bills do not get off to a hot start, as a comeback victory is likely not feasible with their style of offense.

Omar Rawlings / Getty Images

3. Injury Report

Patriots

  • Jamie Collins (ankle) – Questionable
  • Cody Davis, Wrist – Questionable
  • Kyle Dugger, Hand – Questionable
  • Nick Folk, Left Knee – Questionable
  • Lawrence Guy, Shoulder – Questionable
  • Damien Harris, Hamstring – Questionable
  • Dont’a Hightower, Knee – Questionable
  • Brandon King, Toe – Questionable
  • Jakobi Meyers, Thigh – Questionable
  • Adrian Phillips, Knee – Questionable
  • Christian Barmore, Knee – Questionable
  • Isaiah Wynn, Hip/Ankle – Questionable
  • David Andrews, Shoulder – Questionable

Bills

  • No players listed

4. What’re they wearing?

Courtesy of the Gridiron Uniform Database

5. Prediction

The Patriots have matched up well against Buffalo this season, but this trip may feature too much for them to handle against a very talented Bills team.

Bills 28, Patriots 17

(Top photo: Courtesy of the New England Patriots)

Cam & the Pats rush past Miami!

TEAM

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MIA 0 3 0 8 11

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The Patriots started off the post-Brady era with a win, as they knocked off the Miami Dolphins (0-1) with a 21-11 victory in an empty Gillette Stadium. Cam Newton made his heavily anticipated debut as the team’s quarterback, and was efficient as both a rusher and a passer. In addition, Bill Belichick’s defense came to play, as they were able to mostly shut down Miami’s offense throughout the game.

Here are some takeaways from this Week 1 contest.

1. Cam and the offense had their way

As I mentioned in my preview for this game, the biggest question mark for the Patriots was definitely Cam Newton’s health and effectiveness, as we hadn’t seen him in action for almost a year. Newton didn’t disappoint, as he had 230 total yards, including 2 rushing touchdowns. He was a decisive rusher, and most surprisingly, he didn’t shy away from contact, with a clear highlight being his second touchdown, where he got hit hard by a Dolphins’ defender as he crossed the goal line. After two decades with a immobile quarterback, it was fascinating to see the designed runs cooked up by Josh McDaniels, which varied from option runs to simple draws.

Furthermore, Newton’s passing was crisp, and apart from a couple of drops and pass breakups, he was accurate with the football. It was encouraging to see him build a rapport with Julian Edelman (5 receptions for 57 yards), N’Keal Harry (5 receptions for 39 yards), and James White (3 receptions for 30 yards). The trio will need to step up throughout the season for the team to have success getting the ball down the field. Unfortunately for Harry, he had a crucial fumble into the end zone which ended a great drive in second half, and breathed new life into Miami’s comeback attempt. More than anything else, Bill Belichick values protecting the football, so I’m sure that he let the second-year receiver know that mistakes like that won’t be tolerated in the future.

I believe that the offensive line had a great game, as they were able to protect Newton (he was only sacked 2 times), and clear lanes for the team’s running backs. It was encouraging to see David Andrews return to action after missing last season, and it was clear that having him back helped anchor the offensive line. The team’s running backs (along with Newton) collaborated for 217 yards on the ground, setting a record for a Patriots’ season opener. After struggling for most of last season, Sony Michel showed some burst, although he only netted 37 yards, to go along with a touchdown. The biggest surprise from the running back room had to be undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor, who showed his ability to be a power runner despite his shorter stature, as he totaled 28 yards off of 4 carries.

All in all, having a versatile quarterback such as Newton helped change the pace of the Patriots offense, as they’re definitely more versatile than they’ve been in the past. However, it’s important to note that they will probably switch things up as they get through the season, as it’s not sustainable to have Newton rush 15 times per game.

cam & pats w120
(Steven Senne/AP)

 

2. The secondary led the defense once again

The last time these two teams met, Miami had their way against the previously impervious Patriots’ secondary, as they were able to drive down the field at will to win the game. Yesterday was a different story, as the Patriots were able to force Ryan Fitzpatrick into throwing three interceptions, with Stephon Gilmore, Adrian Phillips, and JC Jackson responsible for the turnovers. Apart from some mental errors that extended drives due to penalties in the second half, it’s hard to be mad at how the Patriots’ secondary played yesterday. However, they’ll have to be better as their competition becomes tougher.

The Patriots’ defense was much better against the run, as they held Miami to 87 yards as a team, with crafty veterans Matt Breida (5 carries for 22 yards) & Jordan Howard (8 yards for 7 yards) accounting for less than 30 yards combined. My only complaint is that that they struggled to contain Fitzpatrick coming out of the pocket, as he picked up a few first downs, and even scored on a two-point conversion.

To sum up their defensive performance, I was impressed by the way they locked up a sneaky good Miami offense, but there are definitely kinks to be worked up as the season progresses.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots
Sep 13, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver Preston Williams (18) runs the ball against New England Patriots linebacker Anfernee Jennings (58) and defensive back Jonathan Jones (31) at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

 

Statistical Leaders:

Patriots

  • Passing: Cam Newton – 15/19 for 155 yards
  • Rushing: Cam Newton – 15 carries for 75 yards, & 2 touchdowns
  • Receiving: Julian Edelman – 5 receptions for 57 yards
  • Defensive: Adrian Phillips – 9 total tackles

Dolphins

  • Passing: Ryan Fitzpatrick – 20/30 for 191 yards, & 3 interceptions
  • Rushing: Myles Gaskin – 9 carries for 40 yards
  • Receiving: Devante Parker – 4 receptions for 47 yards
  • Defensive: Jerome Baker – 16 total tackles (including 1 sack)

Bonus:

1. New uniforms!

It was great seeing the Patriots debut their new uniforms, which looked great under the September sun, although it wouldn’t be a bad idea to introduce silver or white pants.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots
Sep 13, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) runs with the ball during the second half of a game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

2. Artificial crowd

The artificial crowd noise concocted by the NFL left a bit to be desired, as it definitely didn’t sound like a real crowd was in attendance, but I’m guessing that it will be improved as the season goes on. 

3. Post game tussle

Cam Newton and some Miami defenders got into it after the game ended, with Newton insisting that they tried to yank one of the chains around his neck. Newton mocked them after the game on his Instagram, although two Dolphins chimed in to say that they didn’t want his “weak” chain.

What’s next?: The Patriots head out west to Seattle to take on Russell Wilson & the Seahawks (1-0) on Sunday Night Football.