After missing out on the playoffs in 2020, the New England Patriots are back this year. Ending the regular season with a 10-7 record and qualifying for the tournament as the sixth seed in the AFC, they are set to play their first postseason game in two years on Saturday night.
Their opponent is a familiar one: the Buffalo Bills, owners of an 11-6 record and two-time reigning AFC East champions.
The Patriots besting their division rivals a second time in three games this season will not be easy. Not only are the Bills are one of the most complete teams in football and entering the tournament coming off four straight wins, New England has also lost three of its last four games and is struggling with a long injury list.
If the team wants to come away victoriously and advance to the divisional round it therefore needs to bring its A-game from top to bottom. The following players in particular will be worth keeping a close eye on.
CB Myles Bryant
The Patriots’ inability to stop Buffalo wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie in Week 16 was not entirely Myles Bryant’s fault; the Bills cleverly out-leveraged New England’s defensive backs to put him in a tough situation. Still, the top slot cornerback with Jonathan Jones out will see a lot of action yet again on wild card weekend.
Whether he will go up against McKenzie or Buffalo’s regular starting slot cornerback Cole Beasley remains to be seen. The Bills targeting him early and often would not be a surprise, though.
Bryant successfully standing his ground would be big for a Patriots defense that likely will again run its fair share of man coverage shells.
CB Jalen Mills/CB Joejuan Williams
The status of Patriots CB2 Jalen Mills remains uncertain heading into the weekend. The first-year Patriot, who has started 16 games during the regular season, remains on the Coronavirus reserve list and has missed the entire week in quarantine.
Mills is eligible to be activated ahead of the Saturday game, but if he is unable to go — or unable to play close to his usual 100 percent of defensive snaps — New England will have to look elsewhere for a starter opposite J.C. Jackson. That starter might be former second-round draft pick Joejuan Williams.
Williams has had a disappointing season so far, playing only 23 percent of New England’s defensive snaps and just 16 over the last four weeks of the season. He was a healthy scratch against Buffalo in Week 16, and on the field for merely four snaps in Week 13. The third-year man does offer decent size, but he would be a clear downgrade if Mills remains sidelined and he has to take over as a starter.
If Mills is able to play he too will be a player to watch just a few days removed from testing positive for Covid-19. Him being limited would force New England into adaptations even if he is cleared for return.
WR Kendrick Bourne
The Patriots would probably love to run a similar game script as in Week 13, when they were able to rely on their running game to control the tempo of the game. New England ended up winning 14-10, with quarterback Mac Jones attempting only three passes all day.
Realistically, however, no such thing will happen. The Patriots will have to throw the ball more than three times on Saturday, and if they do so Kendrick Bourne will be a player to watch.
Severely limited in Week 16 after a bout with Covid-19, the first-year Patriot is a starter-level player and one of Jones’ most trusted weapons. If he is fully available and performing at his usual high level, New England’s passing game should be more productive then it was back during the team’s 33-21 loss.
OL Michael Onwenu
Onwenu’s role heading into the game will largely depend on the availability of starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn. The former first-round draft pick missed both practices this week due to hip and ankle injuries and was listed as questionable to play on Thursday’s final injury report of the week.
If Wynn should not be able to participate or at the very least go wire-to-wire, Onwenu might see considerable action. Moving Trent Brown to the left side and inserting Onwenu into his usual spot at right tackle would give the Patriots their best starting five without Wynn.
But even if the regular starter is ready, Onwenu might see his fair share of snaps despite his backup status. The second-year man, after all, was on the field for 48 of a combined 115 snaps in Weeks 13 and 16 as a sixth lineman. A similar role should be expected again on Saturday. Either way, Onwenu will play a valuable role.
LB Kyle Van Noy
One way or another, the Patriots defense has to find a way to keep Bills quarterback Josh Allen in check — something it did not do in Week 16. Back then, Allen completed 30 of 47 pass attempts for 314 yards and three touchdowns while also gaining 65 yards on 10 non-kneel-down carries.
New England had no answers for the former first-round pick. Allen delivering a repeat performance in the wild card round would be bad news for the Patriots, which is exactly why a player such as Kyle Van Noy will be so important.
The linebacker had a quality season thus far while regularly moving between an off-ball alignment and the defensive edge. Wherever he lines up on Saturday, he will likely be asked to keep a close eye on Allen: he can’t allow escape lanes to open up as a pass rusher and might be asked to play the spy role to keep him from getting to the second level on designed runs.