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NFL playoff schedule: Quick-hit thoughts on the Patriots’ upcoming wild card game against the Bills

Related: Patriots to play Bills in the wild card playoff round

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are back in the playoffs, and they will open up against a familiar opponent. The team of head coach Bill Belichick, which ended the regular season at 10-7 and as the sixth overall seed in the AFC, will travel to Buffalo to take on the division champion Bills.

Buffalo enters the tournament as the third seed in the conference, and with an 11-6 record under its belt. Needless to say that advancing to the divisional round will be a challenge for a Patriots squad that has proven it can hang with the top teams in the league but has been far too inconsistent over the last month.

With that being said, here are some early thoughts on the upcoming matchup.

Will third time be the charm for New England? Being division rivals, the Patriots and Bills have already met twice so far this season. The first game took place in Buffalo in Week 13 and saw New England adapt well to the windy conditions; the team ended up winning with a final score of 14-10. The rematch at Gillette Stadium, meanwhile, was won by the Bills 33-21.

Now, the two teams meet again in a do-or-die situation. It is only the second playoff meeting between the two rivals after a 1963 encounter in the AFL postseason; it is also the second time in the Bill Belichick era that the Patriots meet a division rival at this point in the season. They beat the New York Jets in the wild card round in 2006 before losing to them in the divisional playoffs in 2011.

Weather could again play a role in this one. While a lot can change over the next few days, the early weather forecast projects a cold game. Temperatures at kickoff are expected in the high 10s, with 30-40 percent chance of snow. As opposed to the Week 13 meeting, however, wind is not expected to be a factor: it is not expected to exceed 9 mph.

Mac Jones will try to do what few rookie QBs have ever done. Even though he has had some struggles over the last few games, Patriots first-round rookie quarterback Mac Jones will soon be breathing some rarefied air: he will become only the 24th rookie quarterback to ever start a playoff game.

Of those 24 only 10 have led their respective teams to victory. The last to do so was John Wolford for the Los Angeles Rams last year, filling in for an injured Jared Goff. Wolford suffered an injury himself on his 15th snap, however, forcing the team to reinsert the more experienced Goff into the lineup.

The last rookie quarterback to win a playoff game as a regular starter was the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson back the 2012-13 postseason.

New England can’t afford to keep making the same mistakes. The Patriots have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot over the last month of the regular season. Whether it was slow starts, mental errors or simple bad execution, the team has shown that its margin for error is small. It will become even smaller in the postseason, going against one of the more talented teams in football.

The Patriots playing a similarly sloppy game as the one versus the Bills in Week 16 would likely lead to an early postseason exit.

The Patriots will attempt to recapture their road-game magic. Highmark Stadium is one of the toughest venues in the NFL for an opposing team, but the Patriots were able to steal a W in early December. That win, in fact, was their sixth road victory in a row.

Since then, however, New England went 0-for-2 when traveling: the team lost in Indianapolis and Miami, to end with a 6-2 road record. The Patriots better hope that they return to their winning ways away from Foxborough again.

The two teams will look different yet again. The last time New England and Buffalo met both teams were without some key players. While the Patriots were missing wide receiver Nelson Agholor, running back Rhamondre Stevenson and defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr, the Bills were without wideouts Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis, offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Cody Ford, and defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa.

All of them should be available on Saturday, while others — including the Patriots’ Isaiah Wynn and Christian Barmore — are in question.

The Patriots’ game against the Bills is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 15. It will be the second game of wild card weekend, immediately following the matchup between the fifth-seeded Las Vegas Raiders at the fourth-seeded Cincinnati Bengals — a game New England would have appeared in if not for a loss in Miami in Week 18.