New England Patriots

L-R: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, Bills QB Josh Allen

The Patriots and Bills spent the last month and a half jockeying for position atop the AFC East. New England went to Buffalo in early December and took control, with the Bills coming to Foxborough three weeks later and putting themselves back in the drivers seat. This Saturday, the stakes are raised even higher with the two teams meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 1963.

Since the NFL added a 32nd team and realigned in 2002, there have only been 15 instances of teams facing each other three times in a season after splitting the season series. Generally, they result in close games with 14 of those 15 playoff matchups being decided by 14 points or less.

The results have also been relatively evenly spit based on a couple of key qualifiers. The road team is 9-6 in these games (with five straight wins), while the team that lost the latter of the two regular season matchups – in this case the Patriots – actually have the slight edge in wins at 8-7.

Of course, this is a new game with new teams. Stats such as those above are more contextual, not predictive. But what do the Patriots need to do to stay in line with that pattern? Let’s take a look in this week’s key matchups…

  • When New England has the ball: Nelson Agholor vs. Micah Hyde/Jordan Poyer

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 18: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots and Nelson Agholor #15 of the New England Patriots react after a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons in the second quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    Although he hasn’t put up the box score production some may have expected, Nelson Agholor has played a crucial role in the Patriots’ offense all season long. His speed forces defenses to respect the deep part of the field even when Agholor isn’t being targeted. That often leaves one less safety in the box or crashing into the intermediate part of the field in coverage.

    Agholor’s absence could be seen clearly during that Week 16 loss to Buffalo. With N’Keal Harry filling in as the ‘X’ receiver, the Bills played him man-to-man on the outside, then stacked the box against the Patriots’ condensed formations. There didn’t seem to be much urgency to leave a safety over the top, allowing safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, as well as some of the Bills’ faster linebackers, to patrol the middle of the field. That gave Buffalo more numbers in the running game, and eliminated the intermediate between-the-numbers passes that are crucial to the Patriots’ offensive system.

    With Agholor back in the lineup, the middle of the field shouldn’t be as congested for the Patriots. As long as Agholor continues to test Buffalo’s defense vertically, it should stay that way throughout the game. Then, it will be on Mac Jones and his intermediary targets – namely Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, and Hunter Henry – to move the ball in the 8-12 yard range over the middle of the field.

  • When Buffalo has the ball: Bills slot receivers vs. Patriots slot corners

    Dec 26, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie (19) makes a catch against New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) in the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    This was the deciding matchup in the Patriots’ Week 16 loss, but also might be the most uncertain of any heading into this game. The Bills have options at the slot receiver position, while the Patriots have choices to make.

    Buffalo’s primary slot receiver Cole Beasley missed that Week 16 game after testing positive for COVID. In his place the Bills went with return specialist Isaiah McKenzie. McKenzie, who had played a then-season high 20 snaps in the game the week prior, and had caught multiple passes in a game just once, tore up the Patriots’ defense with 11 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.

    Beasley returned to the role for the final two games of the season, playing 79 combined snaps. Still, McKenzie has been more involved since his breakout performance playing 46 snaps in that same span. Will the Bills continue to lean on Beasley, or turn back to McKenzie after what he did to the Patriots last time out?

    That question is only half of the equation in this matchup. Who the Patriots use as their primary slot cornerback is also up in the air. Last time out is was Myles Bryant, who struggled in that matchup with McKenzie. Bryant also missed the Patriots’ last game on the reserve/COVID list.

    Behind Bryant though, the Patriots are thin. The only other true slot cornerback on the active roster in Shaun Wade, who has been on the reserve/COVID list since Monday.

    On the practice squad, the team has D’Angelo Ross as a second option. Ross played well after being recalled late in the season. There’s also De’Vante Bausby, who hasn’t played in a game yet this season, and Cre’Von LeBlanc, who was signed on Tuesday.

  • Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Sean McDermott

    Dec 6, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures to quarterback Mac Jones (not pictured) against the Buffalo Bills during the second half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    This is the third time we’re putting the Bill BelichickSean McDermott matchup on this list – and rightfully so. Both coaching staffs have had their highs and lows in this series so far.

    In the Week 13 game, Bill Belichick was given universal praise for his offensive game plan. The Patriots famously ran the ball 46 times and threw just three in severe winds. Meanwhile the Bills failed to adjust to what the Patriots were doing, and McDermott made a number of key in-game decisions that hurt the team including kicking an extra point after the Patriots went for two on their opening touchdown, and a late-game challenge on a spot on a Mac Jones QB sneak.

    Come Week 16, it was the Patriots’ coaching staff that failed to adjust to the Bills’ more disciplined offense, and Isaiah McKenzie’s repeated success on crossing routes. They also struggled situationally, especially on third downs.

    As is the case with many football games between divisional opponents, the margin for error is thinner than usual. Every coaching decision – both pre-game game planning and in-game choices and adjustments – will loom large.