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)