New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 21: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots shakes hands with head coach Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills after the Patriots defeated the Bills 24-17 in the game at Gillette Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

Let’s try this again.

Postseason stakes aside, the Patriots and Bills facing off provides one of the most interesting X’s and O’s matchups in the NFL in the NFL this season. On one side is a team that is calculated and controlled, eschewing some new-age tendencies in the game to play to the strengths of its roster. On the other side is a boom-or-bust team that lives and dies by the big play, formatted as a textbook example of the league’s pass-heavy era.

That matchup – as it existed on paper – was more or less wiped out in the teams’ first meeting, when both sides had to make major adjustments to account for significant winds. Conditions won’t be perfect for their rematch in Foxborough, with near freezing temperatures and rain in the forecast, but neither team should be handcuffed quite as much as they were in Week 13.

Now getting ready for their second meeting on Sunday, it’s time to dive back into the key matchups between the teams. What is still true from three weeks ago, and what has changed since that noteworthy game?

Dec 6, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots running back Damien Harris (37) runs to the end zone for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills during the first half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 6, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots running back Damien Harris (37) runs to the end zone for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills during the first half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

While the weather won’t provide as much of a speed bump this week, each team is dealing with personnel issues that could force both offensive coordinators to call more runs than usual. The Bills will be without slot receiver Cole Beasley, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. Beasley is unvaccinated, meaning he must miss 10 days under the NFL’s COVID protocols. The 32-year-old has been a safety outlet for quarterback Josh Allen this year, catching 76 passes for 640 yards. The Bills could look to replace Beasley’s underneath route running with more runs, specifically from Allen.

As for the Patriots, they could be down as many as three receivers, including the team’s yardage leader Kendrick Bourne. Bourne missed his second practice of the week on Thursday as he remains in COVID protocol. He can’t return to the team until he has a negative PCR test. Nelson Agholor and N’Keal Harry also remain in question due to injuries suffered on Saturday against the Colts. Agholor missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a concussion, while Harry has been limited as he works through a hip injury.

Without those three, the Patriots are left with just Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski as active wide receivers. They also have Kristian Wilkerson and rookie Tre Nixon on the practice squad, but the lack of experience at the position could lead to the Patriots being run heavy once again.

Speaking of the Patriots being run-heavy – that leads perfectly into the first key matchup of the week…

  • When New England has the ball: Patriots offensive line vs. Bills defensive front

    Nov 7, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New England Patriots center David Andrews (60) blocks Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Bravvion Roy (93) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots’ offensive line was a key part of the team’s turnaround from 2-4 to 9-4. After Ted Karras was inserted into the lineup the unit started to click, especially as pass blockers. They only got better once Trent Brown returned from IR in Week 10.

    Last week, the unit took a step back both run and pass blocking. The Colts were able to dominate the line of scrimmage, and the offense as a whole never gained any rhythm. Even as the Patriots began to come back in the second half, Mac Jones was often throwing with rushers in his face.

    This week is a bounce-back chance for the group to prove last week was a fluke. Isaiah WynnTed KarrasDavid AndrewsShaq Mason, and Trent Brown had their way with the Bills’ defensive front in the first matchup in Buffalo. It will take a similar effort to beat the Bills this time around, both in opening rushing lanes for the backs and protecting Mac Jones.

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

    Nov 28, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) reacts after intercepting a pass in the Tennessee Titans end zone in the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    This was also a matchup heading into the Week 13 meeting, although it was never really fulfilled. J.C. Jackson lined up opposite Stefon Diggs just 14 times in man coverage, with Diggs catching two passes for 26 yards on four targets.

    Both players should be more heavily featured in Round 2. Diggs in particular could get more attention than usual from Allen this week. He’s led the team in targets to this point with 128 on the year and Beasley, the second-most targeted receiver (101) is out. Emmanuel Sanders is third on the Bills in targets with 68, and he’s been on the injury report all week.

    As for Jackson, the recently-named Pro Bowler had one of the worst games of his career last season against Diggs. That Week 16 meeting saw Diggs catch nine passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns. Sunday will be somewhat of a redemption game for him. It’s also an opportunity against an elite wide receiver to put together some tape he can bring to the negotiating table this spring as a free agent.

  • Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Sean McDermott

    Dec 21, 2019; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick shakes hands with Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott after their game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s not hard to imagine that this game cuts deep for both coaches. Bills head coach Sean McDermott has reacted strongly to the last two matchups, saying he was ‘humbled‘ speaking with Bill Belichick after his team’s Week 16 win last year and refering to Belichick as a ‘legend.’ That was followed by telling reporters, unprompted, “Let’s not give more credit than we need to give credit to Bill Belichick in this one,” after the legendary 48-run game plan earlier this year. “Whether it was Bill or anybody else, they beat us, right?”

    The irony in that second statement is that the Patriots win was entirely tied to Belichick’s specialty, situational football. First and foremost, the Patriots handled the situation of the weather better than the Bills. But they were better in-game situationally as well. Buffalo was 1-of-4 in the red zone, a combined 4-of-14 on third and fourth downs, and managed just 10 points despite having significantly better average starting field position – Buffalo’s average starting position was its own 40 yard line, the Patriots on average started from their own 23.

    McDermott also made a number of poor situational decisions. He elected to kick an extra point early on after the Patriots had successfully converted a two-point conversion, which left his team chasing points the rest of the game. Had he matched the Patriots’ try and the rest of the game played out the same, the Bills would have needed just a field goal on the final drive. Speaking of field goals, he attempted two late in the game from inside the Patriots 20-yard line. One of those kicks ended up missing. Finally, there was the ill-advised challenge of the late-game Mac Jones QB sneak.

    Was all of this a sign that Belichick is in McDermott’s head? Will that continue to be an issue for the Bills’ head coach with emotions riding high on Sunday? And how did Belichick receive McDermott’s postgame comments three weeks ago? Will we get any indication of that? All in all, the chess match between the two coaches is one of the most fascinating elements of Sunday’s game.

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