Finally, after a long year without playoff football in New England, the Patriots are back in the dance.
Their wild card road game against the Buffalo Bills on Saturday has the makings of an old-fashioned rubber match that will be won in the trenches, especially with temperatures expected to be in the single digits. The Patriots will look to upset the Bills on their own turf for the second time in six weeks.
1. How will the Patriots replace Jalen Mills? When the Patriots elevated two cornerbacks from the practice squad on Friday afternoon, the writing was already on the wall for Jalen Mills and his availability for Saturday night. Mills spent the entire year as the team’s No. 2 cornerback across J.C. Jackson, but will be out on Saturday after bring sent to the Covid-19 list earlier this week.
The question now becomes who will take over Mills’ CB2 snaps against Buffalo perimeter receivers such as Emmanuel Sanders or Gabriel Davis. There are three options.
Joejuan Williams: Williams has been a guy that the Patriots have leaned on in situations like this in the past. After being inactive in three out of the four games this past month, however, it is uncertain how the coaching staff sees the former second-round draft pick.
D’Angelo Ross: The former rookie free agent has earned trust from the coaching staff over the last two years on the practice squad, but has mainly played in the slot or deep as a safety whenever he’s seen live NFL action. Inserting him into Mills’ spot would be an experiment.
De’Vante Bausby: The other cornerback elevated from the practice squad alongside Ross, Bausby has 26 career games on his résumé. Most importantly, the 6-foot-2 defender has experience playing on the outside.
Realistically, the Patriots might try to plug and play guys into that spot in different situations to match the Bills’ personnel. Nonetheless, this game will present a big opportunity for either Williams, Ross and Bausby to prove themselves on a big stage.
2. Jamie Collins could be the Patriots’ secret weapon. In the first matchup between the two teams, the Bills did not utilize quarterback Josh Allen’s legs enough and it ultimately led to them being upset on their home field 14-10. Three weeks later, however, Allen stole the show and played arguably the best game of his career as he was able to create more and extend plays outside the pocket.
With Allen being the Patriots’ number one concern due to his running ability and size, the Patriots might elect to insert Jamie Collins into the lineup. The veteran might be the team’s best option to spy Allen on a regular basis.
Collins is an impressive athlete even in his 30s. His range as an off-the-ball linebacker will be key for the Patriots to limit plays down the field and not let Allen run all over them again.
3. Starting fast and staying disciplined is the key for New England. Over the years, the Patriots have prided themselves on playing their best football down the stretch. However, that has not been the case this season. Costly penalties, special teams miscues and repeatedly playing from behind have hindered this team in the last month of the regular season.
When scoring first the Patriots are 9-1 on the year. They have just one win when they didn’t score first: versus the Houston Texans back in Week 5. Playing in a hostile environment like Buffalo, scoring early and dictating the pace will be imperative for the Patriots to be successful on Saturday night.
4. Mac Jones is no stranger to the spotlight. Although this will be Mac Jones’ first career playoff start, this is not his first rodeo when it comes to big games. We often see younger quarterbacks crumble when the stakes are higher due to their inexperience in high-pressure moments.
However, the benefit of going to a big-time school in college helps prepare players for the intensity of playoff football at the next level. Jones led Alabama to a perfect 13-0 record in 2020, capping off his legendary senior season with a National Championship win over Ohio State.
Although Josh McDaniels said this week that the conditions won’t tone back the Patriots offense, the situation does not favor a whole lot of throwing. When they do, however, Jones’ ability to lock in and take care of the football when his name is called upon will be deciding factors to the Patriots’ success in Buffalo.
Jones is looking to become the youngest quarterback in franchise history to win a playoff game on Saturday night.
5. Matthew Judon needs to return to his tone-setting form. After a monstrous start to his Patriots tenure, Judon has cooled off late in the regular season. He registered just one sack in his last five games and none in four straight contests. Teams have started to hone in on the Pro Bowler recently.
Despite the cause for concern regarding Judon’s shaky final few weeks, Belichick pointed out this week that Judon is still making plays for his defense “whether they show up on the stat sheet or not.” For the Patriots to be able to come away with a win on Saturday, they will need their front seven to return to its dominant form and it starts with Judon setting the tempo early on.
On a related note, the Patriots are 8-2 this season when he has recorded a sack.
6. A noteworthy week for (ex-)Patriots coaches... The Miami Dolphins shocked the football world on Monday by parting ways with former New England defensive signal caller Brian Flores on Monday. Flores, who served as the Dolphins’ head coach for the last three seasons, is expected to be a hot commodity around the league with several jobs opening up.
In less shocking news, Joe Judge was fired by the New York Giants on Tuesday after a run of organizational changes came about. With the Patriots’ kicking game unit struggling mightily in 2021, don’t be shocked if the long-time Patriots special teams coach returns in the future as a reclamation project of sorts.
Jerod Mayo, meanwhile, has emerged as a favorite for the Houston Texans’ head coaching job after they parted ways with David Culley after one season. Mayo, a former star linebacker who now coaches the Patriots’ inside linebackers, has been rumored to be interviewing for a number of open jobs across the league. He is expected to talk to the Texans this coming week.
...7. and players. Former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk has been voted into the College Football Hall of Fame. An All-American at LSU, he finished his college career holding 11 school records including most rushing yards (4,557) and rushing touchdowns (46). Faulk still owns the SEC record for most all-purpose yards in a career with 6,833.
He joined the Patriots as a second-round draft choice in 1999 and spent his entire 13-year career with the team. Along the way, Faulk helped the organization win three Super Bowls. He was enshrined into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2016.
“This is an honor that wouldn’t be possible without my great teammates, coaches and everyone who helped me along the way,” Faulk said in a statement released by LSU. “It’s a tremendous honor, but for me, it was a team effort. I’m so humbled and honored to be included among the great list of players and coaches in the Hall of Fame Class for 2022.”
The induction ceremony will take place on Dec. 6.
Faulk is not the only ex-Patriots with some big news this week. Long-time New England wide receiver Deion Branch has been hired as director of player development at his alma mater, the University of Louisville.
If the Patriots lose in a close game tomorrow night and Mac plays relatively well, would you say that the season is a success given that they returned to being competitive and found their QB of the future?— Adam Bradford (@Adam_Bradford14) January 14, 2022
This is a good question and something that I felt was good to reflect on. Obviously, when winning playoff games and consistent deep runs late in the year has been the precedent around here for awhile, it is easy to have high expectations for Mac Jones and this Patriots team. However, I think regardless of the outcome in Saturday’s game, the Patriots have struck gold and over-achieved in 2021.
Coming into the year with a new quarterback and several new faces on both sides of the ball, to be able to win 10 games and give themselves an opportunity in the playoffs is a successful campaign in my book. Saturday’s game doesn’t change the outlook on Mac Jones’ career, while the Patriots feel as if they have found their next franchise quarterback regardless of win or loss.
Think we see any deep shots to Nelly early on? Might help open up the run game if the Bills sell out and commit to stopping Damondre Harrison— Andy (@brodus_operandy) January 14, 2022
I may be alone on this but I have been happy with Nelson Agholor’s performance in 2021. Obviously, the contract he signed in the offseason doesn’t necessarily line up with his production but playing in an offense that is game-plan based and shares targets all around, Agholor’s role has still become important one.
You saw first-hand how much they missed him in the second meeting between the Patriots and Bills. They didn’t have a true downfield threat to help open things up for the run game and over the middle of the field. Agholor’s speed and downfield presence can help the Patriots offense get back to how it was rolling in the middle part of the season.
If you had to choose one key factor as for whos winning what would it be?— oliver wolk (@oliver_wolk) January 14, 2022
The beauty of being able to play a divisional rival for the third time helps your preparation and how you may expose each other’s weaknesses. As for the key factor for the Patriots getting a win, it’s got to be being able to contain and make life hard on Josh Allen similar to the way they dialed things up in the first meeting.
The Patriots offense should be able to score and move the ball versus this Bills defense due to their rushing attack. However, if this game turns into a shootout it will be tough to keep up. If New England can make things difficult with Allen from the jump and keep the game close, I like the Patriots’ chances on Saturday night.