New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 28: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball in the third quarter against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium on November 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

All in 18 seconds, with the game clock frozen at 0:12.

Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson fields the snap to a two-point try, hops forward and, with Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt lunging toward him, flicks a pass into the right flat. His target, tight end Mark Andrews, reaches out desperately with his left hand, flailing sideways at the one-yard line and, like the ball, falls to the earth.

The CBS director calls for the instant reaction of John Harbaugh, his black Ravens ball cap under the headset through which he communicated his decision to go for the win rather than kick for overtime, because his team was “out of [cornerbacks].”

One look at Harbaugh is followed by a quick cut to a Steeler before a short return to Harbaugh. Then, naturally, the screen fills with a sideline shot of Ben Roethlisberger, hands pressed up against his black Steelers hat, not ready after all to throw in the towel that’s draped over his shoulders.

By now, tweeters on the Patriots beat rapidly respond, reporting ramifications of Baltimore’s 20-19 loss. The channel changes to NBC, where “Football Night in America” spells it out on the side of the screen, left of Mike Tirico, Tony Dungy and Drew Brees.

When Sunday’s game at Heinz Field ended, the Patriots took over atop the AFC standings. So how do they hold onto first place beyond the end of a massive game against the Buffalo Bills on Monday night at Highmark Stadium?

They can start, obviously, by holding onto the football themselves. And taking it away from their foes, as they’ve done throughout the past month and a half.

  • Oct 17, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots running back Damien Harris (37) runs against Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Oct 17, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots running back Damien Harris (37) runs against Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Six weeks into the season, they were 2-4 overall and 0-4 at home. Their turnover margin was minus-3, thanks (or no thanks) to more giveaways (11) than all but two other teams and more lost fumbles (five) than everyone but Kansas City.

    At that same intersection of Weeks 6 and 7, the Buffalo Bills were 4-2 entering a bye. They had the NFL’s No. 1 turnover differential (plus-11) and a league-leading 16 takeaways.

    But since Oct. 24, the Pats have won six in a row, and the takeaways (17) have far outnumbered the giveaways (four). In the past three games, their plus-minus ratio is 9-to-1. Entering Week 13, only Indianapolis (plus-12) had a better overall turnover margin than New England (plus-10).

    In the Colts’ case, a third of the difference was due to their 41-15 blowout of the Bills on Nov. 21. Indy intercepted Buffalo’s Josh Allen three times, recovered an unforced Isaiah McKenzie fumble on a kickoff return and played turnover-free themselves.

    As Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News recently noted, the Bills have committed the most giveaways in the NFL (11) during the past four weeks. At the same time, the Pats have compiled the most takeaways (12). And while rookie Mac Jones has thrown one interception in three weeks and two over the last six, Buffalo’s Josh Allen has been picked off multiple times in three of his last four contests.

    For Allen, runner-up in the 2020 MVP balloting, the past month has been a reversion to the first month of 2019. Still a mistake-prone prospect at the time, Allen finished September of his second season with at home against the Patriots. He exited the 16-10 loss concussed by an open-field hit on a scramble, following four sacks and three interceptions.

    Through four games, Allen had thrown six picks. He threw his seventh a week later. But Allen didn’t throw another the next five games and was intercepted just twice in his final 11 contests of 2019.

  • FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 21: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills rushes the ball during the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Patriots defeat the Bills 24-17. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 21: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills rushes the ball during the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Patriots defeat the Bills 24-17. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Allen continued to protect the ball as a passer from the start of 2020 through the first seven games of this season, totaling 54 touchdowns vs. 13 interceptions. However, in November, Allen totaled seven interceptions (and a lost fumble) against eight TD passes, including four at New Orleans on Thanksgiving night.

    Recently, he spoke of a lesson he learned early in 2019 that’s again in need of heeding.

    “Being decisive with the football and just finding completions early on,” Allen told reporters in Buffalo. “I think that’s the most important thing, just trying to find completions and not forcing the ball down the field.”

    More than mindset, Allen could also be aided by changes in front of him.

    Right tackle Spencer Brown is activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list, while veteran guard Jon Feliciano is coming off a calf injury. If available Monday night, either one and certainly both would be expected to help the Bills’ line. Neither of their game-time statuses were known on Monday morning.

  • Princes of Thieves

    New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) celebrates an interception in the end zone during the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Mass. Titans Patriots 141

    New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) celebrates an interception in the end zone during the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Mass. (Credit: The Tennessean)

    In the Pats’ aforementioned win at Buffalo on Sept. 29, 2019, J.C. Jackson was responsible for two of Allen’s three interceptions. He also blocked a punt recovered for a touchdown by Matthew Slater. Overall, Jackson has four interceptions and six passes defensed in six career games against the Bills.

    Jackson, who was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month for November, is one of three players tied for ninth among New England’s all-time leaders with 24 career interceptions. He is six picks and six spots behind safety Devin McCourty, whose 30 regular-season thefts trail only Ty Law and Raymond Clayborn (36 apiece).

    Six of McCourty’s interceptions have occurred at Buffalo’s expense, including the first of his two career touchdown returns. That took place the last time the Pats played in Orchard Park on a Monday night, Oct. 29, 2018.

    Driving on a throw down the middle by Derek Anderson, McCourty accelerated up to 22.05 miles per hour, per NFL Next Gen Stats, while sprinting 84 yards down the left sideline.

    The Bills feature a pair of safeties, whose value to their defense is comparable to what McCourty means to the Pats. Both Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer signed with Buffalo as free agents in 2017. Each has 20 ca-reer interceptions. Between them, they’ve appeared in 18 games against the Patriots, producing four takeaways (three picks and a fumble recovery).

    Poyer returned an interception 19 yards for a score at Gillette Stadium in 2017. Through 12 weeks in 2021, his five interceptions are tied with Tennessee’s Kevin Byard for the most by a safety.

  • Front Running

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 28: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills readies for the snap during the second half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 28, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 28: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills readies for the snap during the second half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 28, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    In 2020, when the Bills took care of the front half of their first season sweep of the Patriots since 1999, the stands in Orchard Park were empty. Now, as they stage their first primetime home game since a Monday Night loss to the Pats in 2018, first place in the AFC East is on the line.

    No doubt, given those circumstances after enduring Bill Belichick’s teams winning 18 of their first 20 visits to the house formerly known as Ralph Wilson Stadium and New Era Field, Bills Mafia will be super-charged by kickoff at Highmark Stadium.

    Not that the Patriots could ever — pardon the announcer’s cliché — “take the crowd out of the game” in Western New York, nonetheless, getting off to a strong start is definitely desirable. It might also be foretelling vs. an opponent that so far — also, forgive the broadcaster’s fancy for alteration — has fit the form of a frontrunner.

    In seven victories, the Bills outscored opponents, 55-3, in the first quarter. They went on to win those games by an average margin of 26.7 points. The closest outcome was a 26-11 triumph over Miami in Week 8.

    In four losses, Buffalo was outscored, 17-9, in the opening period. The Bills also haven’t finished well in defeat, being outscoring, 33-14, in the fourth quarter.