New England Patriots

L-R: Patriots CB J.C. Jackson, Bills WR Stefon Diggs

When the Patriots’ schedule first came out, Monday night’s game in Buffalo was perfectly placed as a checkpoint for the progress of the season. How competitive would that game be? Would it hold any playoff or division implications? Or would the Patriots be out of contention by the time they faced the Bills?

Those questions have been answered resoundingly. The Patriots enter Monday night with a .5 game lead in the division, and a chance to really put some heat on the Bills with a win. This will arguably be the biggest game of the 120-game history between the two teams.

It could also signal a complete shift in momentum, or return to the normal in the series. Last year, the Bills swept the Patriots and won the division for the first time since 1999. Even though there is another meeting in a few weeks, Monday night’s winner will have a decisive edge in the division race.

What do the Patriots need to do to swing things back in their favor? Here’s a look at what to watch for in this week’s key matchups…

  • When New England has the ball: David Andrews vs. Star Lotulelei

    Don’t let the Colts’ 264-yard rushing performance against the Bills two weeks ago distract you, Buffalo can stop the run when fully healthy. In that game, they were missing their two starting interior run defenders in linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.

    Lotulelei is the focus here, as it’s the second week the Patriots will face an elite interior defensive lineman. Last week, Tennessee’s defense anchored by Jeffery Simmons held the Patriots to just 105 rushing yards, their fewest of their current win streak. Until late in the fourth quarter when the game was already decided, the New England struggled to move the ball on the ground.

    Like Simmons, Lotulelei is an undisputed difference maker against the run. In the seven games he’s played this year, the Bills are 5-2 while allowing just 87.1 rushing yards per game. In four games without him, Buffalo is 2-2 as allows 113.3 yards per game on the ground.

    The Patriots will need to run the ball if they want to beat the Bills, especially given the inclement forecast. If center David Andrews and the rest of the Patriots’ interior offensive line can’t move Lotulelei at the point of attack, it could force them to become one-dimensional on offense.

  • When Buffalo has the ball: Stefon Diggs vs. J.C. Jackson

    Stephon Gilmore was injured for both of the Patriots’ games against the Bills last season, leaving J.C. Jackson to cover Bills All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs. Diggs got the better of Jackson in both matchups, with a six-catch, 92-yard performance in Week 8 and a nine-catch, 145-yard, three touchdown game at Gillette Stadium in Week 16.

    The Patriots can’t afford to let Diggs have a similar performance on Monday. However, there are some key differences between this year and last year.

    Last year, Gilmore got hurt in each of the two games before facing the Bills. That meant Jackson had to adjust that week from his rotational second corner role to the team’s primary cornerback. This year, Jackson is the Patriots’ established No. 1 corner – and he’s playing like it. He allowed as many catches (4) as he’s had interceptions in the last four games, and was just named NFL Defensive Player of the Month.

    In addition, the Patriots have been playing more zone in recent weeks. Bills quarterback Josh Allen has struggled against zone this year, as evidenced by his two interceptions last week against the Colts. Overall, while Diggs comes in playing well (25 receptions for 344 yards and 4 TDs in the last four games), Allen has been struggling (8 touchdowns, 7 interceptions).

    Of course, zone makes the coverage assignments more fluid. Still, expect to see Diggs and Jackson lined up across from each other on a regular basis, which will be a matchup to watch throughout the game.

  • Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Josh Allen

    Early on in his career, it looked like Bill Belichick had Josh Allen’s number. Through his first four starts against Belichick – from his rookie year in 2018 to the first of two meetings in 2021 – Allen completed just 50 percent of his passes, averaged 183 passing yards per game, and threw six interceptions with just three touchdowns. In the first start of his MVP-caliber season alone, Allen was 11-of-18 for 154 yards with no touchdowns and a pick.

    That all changed in the second meeting last season. Allen torched Bill Belichick’s defense for 320 yards and three touchdowns, completing 75 percent of his passes and not turning the ball over.

    Such a jump in production in jarring, although not entirely surprising given how banged up the Patriots were by late December last season. So was that game an aberration? Or has Allen really cracked the Belichick code? We should find out on Monday night.