New England Patriots

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)

The Patriots took a severe ass-whipping at the hands of the Bills the last time the two teams met. But that 38-9 blowout in Week 16 of 2020 has no real impact on what happens in Week 13 of 2021.

Mainly because the Pats’ roster is significantly improved on both sides of the ball over what they trotted out last December. Compared to that 2020 laugher, they’ve gone from borderline NFL players to elite-level talents in a handful of key areas. Bill Belichick got himself some legit players in the offseason, and many of said players are playing well. And so, stunningly, the Patriots have returned to racking up wins, while practically effing with opposing quarterbacks in the process. Give Belichick players and this is what happens.

Can Bills quarterback Josh Allen keep Belichick out of his head? He kept the Patriots head coach at bay for at least one game, throwing for 320 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in that 38-9 victory for Buffalo. But he did it against, and this cannot be stressed enough, half of a real NFL defense at best.

Nothing personal against the likes of Anfernee Jennings, Terrence Brooks, and others. But the Patriots’ defensive front-seven is just so vastly improved over 2020, there’s admittedly not much to discuss. Just print out the two rosters and compare names. On top of that, the offense is better than a year ago and the team as a whole is building toward a playoff run rather than playing out a down year.

There are several areas of note on the Patriots’ roster that warrant much more confidence this time around.

  • Linebacker

    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 31: Matt Judon #9 of the New England Patriots celebrates after recording a sack in the second quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 31: Matt Judon #9 of the New England Patriots celebrates after recording a sack in the second quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

    Without question, linebacker is the Patriots’ most improved positional group from 2020 to 2021. No. 1 with a bullet. In that Week 16 game last year, the Patriots started Josh Uche and Terez Hall at linebacker, with Jennings and John Simon getting heavy rotation as well. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t sack Allen once.

    Now, the Bills have to deal with Matthew Judon on the edge, a surging Kyle Van Noy, and the return of Dont’a Hightower. Not to mention, Ja’Whaun Bentley is having the best season of his career in a reduced-but-optimized role. Shocker, Belichick has a real stable of linebackers and has mostly put them in position to succeed. It’s also caused something of a domino effect in other areas.

    What are the odds this linebacking corps doesn’t sack Allen a single time? Wouldn’t bet on it.

  • Defensive Line

    Sep 26, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) is sacked by New England Patriots defensive tackle Christian Barmore (90) during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Sep 26, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) is sacked by New England Patriots defensive tackle Christian Barmore (90) during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    That’s a photo of Office Linebacker Terry Tate above, just kidding it’s Christian Barmore. The rookie defensive tackle has truly been a menace, disrupting things at a shockingly high level for someone whose career is so young. He had the Titans sometimes putting four blockers in his face last Sunday. Judon got a kick out of that.

    Barmore hasn’t just replaced Adam Butler as the Patriots’ primary interior pass-rusher. He’s blown right by. The rookie out of Alabama may only have 0.5 sacks on the season, but it’s evident on the tape how often he’s collapsed pockets and made quarterbacks uncomfortable. His six QB hits already have him close to Butler’s career-best nine hits in 2019. Barmore also has 30 tackles, too. He’s poised to shatter Butler’s career-high mark of 34.

    The Patriots are also better-equipped to handle the Bills’ run game up front, with the addition of Davon Godchaux and another solid season for Lawrence Guy. Buffalo is seventh in the NFL with 4.6 yards per carry as a team so far in 2021, but have also fumbled the third-most times (18) and have rushed for under 100 yards in two of their last four games.

  • Secondary

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 28: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown as J.C. Jackson #27 of the New England Patriots gives chase during the first half at Gillette Stadium on December 28, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 28: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown as J.C. Jackson #27 of the New England Patriots gives chase during the first half at Gillette Stadium on December 28, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

    This is the one area where the personnel is very similar to the 2020 game. The one big matchup that will take center stage is Bills wideout Stefon Diggs against Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson. If there’s any Patriot who is harboring any leftover anger from the last game, it’s Jackson, who Diggs torched for nine catches, 145 yards, and three touchdowns.

    The Patriots are, frankly, accustomed to playing the Bills without Stephon Gilmore at this point. Jackson was the No. 1 corner in both 2020 games. It’s at safety where a difference should be felt.

    Unfortunately for the Patriots, Kyle Dugger isn’t likely to play after going on the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier in the week, according to Jeff Howe. Dugger had been emerging as a playmaker in recent weeks. But there’s still a big difference at safety from a year ago: Adrian Phillips is playing actual safety. The Pats often had to use Phillips as a hybrid linebacker for a depleted 2020 roster.

    Another big difference between the Patriots over this recent winning streak and the Patriots of past seasons: they’ve been playing a lot of zone coverage. The swerve in defensive approach has worked wonders against a string of young quarterbacks and head coaches that proved to be no match for Belichick’s scheming and the looks the Patriots secondary are giving them.

    It’s likely to be the same approach on Monday night against Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who most certainly wants to push the ball down the field instead of sustaining long drives with shorter passes. Belichick will try to make him do the latter. Whether Allen can take what the Pats give him and protect the ball, particularly if the clock is ticking and the game is tight, is arguably the No. 1 question of the game.

    A stat that bodes well for the Patriots: over the course of their six-game winning streak, Allen has thrown the fourth-most interceptions in the league (7) in the same span. His seven picks have all come in the last four weeks and are tied for most in the league with Lamar Jackson.

  • Offense

    Oct 3, 2021; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots offensive guard Mike Onwenu (71) and quarterback Mac Jones (10) and tight end Hunter Henry (85) celebrate a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    Belichick drastically improved the Patriots’ roster on both sides of the ball in 2021, but it’s unlikely that the offense shows as much of a difference as the defense.

    They’re on the road against the league’s No. 2 scoring defense (FYI, the Patriots are No. 1). Intense winds are also expected, so it would be surprising if the Patriots let loose through the air with Mac Jones. Through 12 weeks, the Bills have allowed the second-fewest yards per carry (3.91), so running the ball will be a challenge in itself.

    Tight end is arguably the position group that’s the most improved for the Patriots compared to 2020, but the Bills have allowed the second-fewest catches to tight ends (37), and are tied for the fourth-fewest touchdowns. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde remain among the best safety duos in the league, so expect a big challenge for Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, as well.

    Mac Jones’ production has clearly been an improvement over Cam Newton, despite him being a rookie. He has the league’s best passer rating (106.4) over the Patriots’ winning streak, among quarterbacks who started at least four games. He has a great chance to produce more through the air than Newton did in the 38-9 game … 5-of-10 for 39 passing yards, a 57.9 rating.

    But we are talking about a rookie who’s entering the most hostile environment of his young career and will be playing in winds expected to be around 50 mph. So while Jones may look different than Newton, there’s a chance the stats are lacking due to all the aforementioned factors.

    If the Bills win, it’s likely because their defense stepped up and shut the Patriots down, and Allen made just enough plays on offense. But considering the Patriots’ vastly improved defense, they have a great chance to put Allen in position to have to make just enough plays in the first place.

    However it plays out, don’t expect the embarrassment of last season’s blowout for either team. This should be a tightly contested game, and the Patriots will probably have to win on defense. Fortunately, they seem equipped to do so.