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Patriots vs. Bills preview: 3 matchups that could decide Saturday’s wild card game

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New England Patriots Vs. Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

For the first time since the 1963 AFL Eastern Division playoff game, the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills will meet in the postseason.

A pair of hard-fought matchups in the regular season just wasn't enough to separate these two teams as the three seed Bills find themselves playing host to the six seed Patriots yet again. The first matchup in Buffalo was a rather windy affair, as wind gusts of up to 35mph whipped around the stadium throughout the night. New England deployed an old school game plan and slashed the Bills on the ground on their way to a 14-10 victory. Three weeks later the Bills traveled up to a comparatively balmy Gillette Stadium and got their revenge, out-dueling New England by way of a 33-21 final score.

Now, it’s the rubber match. Having seen so much of each other throughout the last six weeks these teams certainly will have had the chance to put together effective game plans for their playoff matchup. Focus on execution will be at an all time high. So what will separate them on Saturday in the frigid Buffalo night? Winning their individual matchups. (How did you not see that coming?) Here are the matchups between the Patriots and Bills that could help decide the outcome of their wild card game.

Joejuan Williams vs. Gabriel Davis

First and foremost, though it is unlikely, due to the NFL’s new Covid-19 protocols Jalen Mills could make a return prior to the game on Saturday.

It’s been a long road to get to the point where Joejuan Williams was a serious contender to become the Patriots number two corner. Former defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore was traded to Carolina in October, Jonathan Jones was lost for the season with a shoulder injury against the Dallas Cowboys, Shaun Wade and Jalen Mills landed on the Covid-19 list this week, and Myles Bryant has been thrust into a role as New England’s chess piece in the secondary. In all honesty, he’s the only guy left to play across from J.C. Jackson.

Williams has disappointed throughout his three seasons in New England. The often criticized N’Keal Harry — taken just 13 picks prior to Williams — has distracted from the fact that Williams has not looked like a capable NFL corner. The last time we saw hims play serious snaps on the outside was when he got beat off the line of scrimmage by Stefon Diggs for a surefire touchdown but was saved by the gusting winds of Buffalo. He just hasn’t been good enough. So, in this humble mans opinion, masking his deficiencies by matching him up with Gabriel Davis is the best way try and save him from being victimized by Josh Allen.

Of the receivers that Buffalo likes to play on the outside, Gabriel Davis’ skillset would be the easiest for Williams to handle. A bigger, more physical receiver than Stefon Diggs or Emmanuel Sander, Davis wins by using his body to create leverage and separating from that point. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Williams could scrap with Davis at the line and at the very least, make his life a little more difficult. That of course is if the Patriots choose to play man-to-man in the secondary, which all rides on this next matchup.

Josh Uche vs. Josh Allen

The Patriots pass rushers have shown an utter disdain for containing Josh Allen. They simply refuse to do it, that is why the Patriots best chance at doing so is by using a quarterback spy.

Josh Uche was a training camp darling this year; having some of the best pass rush reps we saw in all of camp, while displaying incredible athleticism that had many hopeful that he could find a consistent role on defense in 2021. Unfortunately that hasn’t cone to fruition. Uche’s inability to be an effective run player on the edge combined with the arrivals of Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins have left him in a sub-rush package role that he has looked just ok in. Due to the limited amount of in game reps he has gotten, it just seems like he doesn’t get enough opportunities to display his game changing talent. On Saturday, that could change.

Stopping Josh Allen is so difficult because you have to force him to get the ball out quickly, while also containing him and making him throw from the pocket. Any pass rusher will tell you, that is not a recipe for defensive success. So what the Patriots can try to do is unleash their rushers — Matthew Judon, Deatrich Wise Jr, Christian Barmore, and even Chase Winovich — in pass rushing situations, while the ultra athletic Josh Uche drops back out to mirror Allen and keep him from making them pay with his legs.

Mac Jones vs. Leslie Frazier and Sean McDermott

The secret is out folks, NFL teams know how to attack Mac Jones. Over the course of the last month, New England has lost 3 of 4 while their rookie quarterback seems to have hit some sort of wall. Despite looking serviceable in the Patriots multitude of failed comeback attempts, Jones’ slow starts have essentially dug holes that the Patriots just can’t get out of.

Against Indianapolis, it was a delay of game penalty that eventually led to a punt on their first drive, followed by two straight interceptions on either side of halftime. The Patriots went down 20-0 and couldn’t fight back. In the second matchup with Buffalo, Jones put forth a 14/32 day passing while watching the Bills open up a 20-7 lead. In Miami, his first pass attempt accounted for seven Dolphins points and set the Patriots back 14-0. The slow starts have been the problem, and they all started after New England bye week when NFL defenses found out that all they needed to do was blitz the rookie quarterback.

Since their bye week, Mac Jones and the Patriots offense have been the most blitzed unit in all of the NFL. So winning this matchup starts with protecting Jones, but it ends with Jones overcoming the pressure and finding ways to keep the Patriots offense ahead of the chains. In recent weeks we’ve seen him use his legs more. We’ve all seen some deep shots down the sidelines and quick throws to the flats to allow receivers to make some plays. The Patriots will not win this game with Mac Jones throwing the ball 40 times. They can, however, win by picking their spots against an (at times) overzealous defense and continuing to let Jones play the role of facilitator.