Here’s an initial glance through what went into the 1 p.m. ET kickoff as both sides turn the calendar to January with 9-6 records.
But with the visitors holding the tiebreaker.
Jones goes 14-of-32 with two interceptions in rematch with Bills
The afternoon would not be one of three pass attempts for Patriots quarterback Mac Jones.
Twenty days removed from his introduction to the Bills in the wind gusts of Orchard Park, the rookie went 14-of-32 for 145 yards and two interceptions in friendlier Foxborough elements.
The opening drive set the tone. It featured a batted pass by defensive end Gregory Rousseau and a sack by defensive tackle Ed Oliver. After the three-and-out, Jones hit fullback Jakob Johnson for his first completion of the game. A speed option followed. But in the second quarter, the Alabama product was picked off on a throw that went airborne again off of linebacker Matt Milano and landed in safety Micah Hyde’s hands. A near-pick deep downfield into double coverage followed in the third quarter. And in the closing seconds, Hyde closed it out for Buffalo with a second pick.
New England’s receiver room tests its depth without Agholor
New England’s receiving corps went without Nelson Agholor after the starter had been ruled out on the final injury report due to a concussion. But Kendrick Bourne cleared the Covid-19 list after being sidelined for three consecutive practices. And N’Keal Harry, who was limited throughout the week with a hip ailment, would also be available alongside Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski and Covid-19 replacement Kristian Wilkerson.
All of whom took offensive snaps in the first quarter. The play calls ranged from a jet sweep to a flea-flicker to a bubble screen. But the Buffalo defense entered Sunday having allowed a league-low 57.8 percent of passes to be completed and for 5.8 yards per attempt.
Bourne caught two passes in the fourth quarter. Harry also finished with two, but had a drop on a comeback route and was the intended target on an interception. And Meyers, who drew a holding call, paced the wideouts with six receptions for 59 yards. Those included a fourth-and-3 that brought New England to the doorstep of the end zone as well as an over-the-shoulder gain of 21.
Back in the backfield, Harris rushes for career-high three touchdowns
Damien Harris missed Week 15 versus the Indianapolis Colts due to a hamstring injury that surfaced before the bye at Highmark Stadium. His return brought 18 carries for 103 yards and three touchdowns against a Buffalo front without the services of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
It began with no gain with offensive lineman Mike Onwenu reporting as eligible. It continued on the next series with a pair of fourth-and-1 conversions and a sweeping toss for points from 16 yards away. Harris got the football once more before halftime, yet broke free for a 31-yarder as well as a pair of scores after it. The last effort gave him his first career hat trick as the deficit trimmed to 26-21.
With rookie Rhamondre Stevenson placed on the Covid-19 reserve list Friday, New England’s starting running back was joined by veteran Brandon Bolden and sophomore J.J. Taylor, who cleared the league’s protocols after being sidelined since November.
All-Pro Allen blends patience with aggressiveness for Buffalo
Josh Allen entered Sunday with 3,734 passing yards, 555 rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns. And with the ability to extend plays on his own.
Two deep safeties and a dose of zone coverage would be the early approach for New England’s defense. Allen had led Buffalo on the ground during the previous meeting and then eclipsed the century mark midway through December. He would be patient as well as aggressive from there. And that began by taking the checkdowns that were afforded on the initial possession before delivering a fourth-and-2 touchdown to receiver Isaiah McKenzie, who provided problems of his own on the way to a career game in the slot.
Another touchdown became a turnover on downs through the hands of veteran Emmanuel Sanders. But Allen found room. He finished Sunday 30-of-47 for 314 yards and three scores through the air without Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis available. Lapses in the rush lanes arrived along the way for the Patriots. The 6-foot-5, 237-pound quarterback added 64 yards on the ground, including a long of 25 up through the pocket. His side did not punt.
Member of 2019 Patriots undrafted class makes debut at cornerback
Ninety minutes prior to kickoff Sunday, D’Angelo Ross found himself among the actives for the first time in the regular season. The 2019 undrafted free agent out of New Mexico had spent his rookie season on injured reserve and was elevated but a healthy scratch for last year’s finale against the New York Jets.
Fellow cornerbacks Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade were both scratched against Buffalo. And Ross, wearing No. 39, rounded out the depth chart behind starters J.C. Jackson and Jalen Mills on the outside and Myles Bryant in the slot.
Ross rotated into the secondary with six minutes remaining before halftime after Jackson, holding his right arm, exited for the blue medical tent. The Pro Bowler returned on the next defensive series and saw an interception slip out of his grasp in the fourth quarter.
Costly fourth-down encroachment
Patriots rookie defensive lineman Christian Barmore was flagged for encroachment on fourth-and-7 prior to the first half’s two-minute warning. Lined up over the center, the jump by the second-round pick lessened the risk for the Bills. And a pickup of 23 yards by Stefon Diggs was the reward instead of a field goal.
Allen went back to the reigning NFL leader in receptions and receiving yards three plays later. The post pattern netted a dozen yards and gave Buffalo a 17-7 advantage.
The Patriots couldn’t counter before heading into the locker room. Instead, unsportsmanlike conduct against right tackle Trent Brown turned a second-and-3 into a second-and-18. Those moments made a difference on a Sunday that tied for the latest in a season since 1970 that NFL leaders in point differential met, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.