Last year, in the same week and place, New England locked up yet another AFC East title with a thrilling win over the visiting Bills — the last victory in a Patriots uniform for quarterback Tom Brady. Fast forward a year and Buffalo already has the division wrapped up, while the former champions are eliminated from playoff contention and are looking to play spoiler for the first time in two decades.
The Patriots and Bills already met this season, just over two months ago when New England was seemingly driving for either a game-tying field goal or a game-winning touchdown late in the game before a Cam Newton fumble ended the series. And although their records don’t necessarily show it, these teams know each other too well which means that we could see another close, hard-fought game from both sides.
Monday also presents an opportunity for head coach Bill Belichick and his staff to continue building towards 2021 and beyond. Getting younger, less-experienced players more snaps and action can help pave the way for a quick transition into next season and send some guys into the offseason with some much-needed confidence.
With that said, here’s the keys to the game.
10+ targets for N’Keal Harry
To my earlier point, tonight is a great chance for rookies and second-year players to really break out and get as much playing time as possible. One player that really sticks out to me is N’Keal Harry as we have really yet to see him have a monster, breakout game in his brief two-year career. Harry has just 51 targets this season with 12 of those coming in Week 2 versus the Seattle Seahawks (when he posted a career-high in both receptions and yards).
Listen, anyone who follows me on social media knows I am not a huge N’Keal Harry stan. However, I do think we should cut him a bit of slack. He missed 10 games last year and was deemed the savior to the Patriots’ wide receiver position. This year, he hasn’t been given the best opportunity to succeed considering Cam Newton’s limitations throwing the ball.
Monday therefore presents an opportunity to get him in areas to succeed like we saw a few weeks back in Los Angeles, and to have him head into the offseason with some momentum on his side.
Pressuring Josh Allen
The Bills’ rise in the AFC this season is mainly because of the elite play from quarterback Josh Allen. A first-time Pro Bowl selection, Allen has completed 68.7 percent of his throws so far this season for 4,000 yards as well as 30 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He has been very good.
However, he also has struggled in his career versus the Patriots and mainly because they do a great job getting pressure in his face and forcing him to feel uncomfortable. Without the Patriots’ top corner — Stephon Gilmore, whose season ended because of a partially torn quad muscle — J.C. Jackson will have his hands full likely manning up with one of the league's top wideouts, Stefon Diggs.
Getting pressure in Allen’s face will force him to make the occasional erratic throws that he is still accustomed to, and could help keep the Patriots in a possible low-scoring affair. That is exactly what happened in Week 8, and New England came oh so close to winning that one.
Special teams being special
If there is one consistently bright spot for the Patriots this season it is their special teams unit led by Pro Bowlers Matthew Slater and Jake Bailey. With the offense struggling mightily over the last month (and before that at times as well), the kicking game unit has kept New England in games by repeatedly winning the field position battle and scoring much-needed points — either via Nick Folk’s right leg or the punt return game led by Gunner Olszewski.
Given that the Patriots’ offensive struggles are still apparent, special teams could be key against Buffalo. Having Bailey pin the team deep and Olszewski setting the offense up with short fields to work with is needed if New England wants to score enough points to compete with a high-powered Bills offense.