The wild card marked the third time in 40 days that the AFC East rivals had met.
Here’s an initial glance through what followed between the No. 6 seed and the No. 3 seed.
Steep hill to climb for Jones in playoff debut
“It is another game, but there’s more at stake,” Patriots quarterback Mac Jones said leading up to his first playoff start. “You have to realize that there’s not a lot of room for error. That’s kind of what makes it fun. There’s more pressure.”
The rookie faced the pressure by going 24-of-38 passing for 232 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Bills. It would be a different hill than the one that featured a trio of throws or the one that featured a 44.7 completion percentage. Saturday’s proved to be a mountain.
Jones connected with tight end Hunter Henry for 30 yards on a third-and-14 to keep New England’s initial drive alive. The Alabama product then scrambled for a conversion. Yet safety Micah Hyde, who had two interceptions when the sides last crossed paths, tracked down a dart of a deep ball intended for wide receiver Nelson Agholor. The climb only steepened from there as New England faced the largest halftime deficit in team postseason history. A tip by linebacker Matt Milano gave way to an interception by cornerback Levi Wallace as the third frame got underway. Jones would later find his first playoff touchdowns in tandem with wideout Kendrick Bourne, who accounted for 91 yards from scrimmage.
No balance between containing and rushing Buffalo’s Allen
The line between containing and rushing Bills quarterback Josh Allen proved to be fine on Dec. 26. That afternoon at Gillette Stadium, the 2020 All-Pro threw for over 300 yards and ran for over 60. Three touchdowns followed. No turnovers, sacks or punts did.
“If you miss him and he gets loose, that’s going to be a big problem,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters during his Thursday video conference. “You just can’t stand there and watch him throw. That’s not the answer, but being undisciplined and just running around back there, letting him run, that’s not the answer either.”
There was no answer on Saturday. Allen went 21-of-25 for 308 yards and five touchdowns through the air and added 66 yards on the ground. Those yards began on the opening drive with a scramble for 26 around outside linebacker Matt Judon. A toe-tapping touchdown to tight end Dawson Knox followed on an extended play that spanned 9.64 seconds, per Next Gen Stats. And back to Knox he went to make it a 14-0 score before two handoffs to running back Devin Singletary made it 27 unanswered. The Buffalo offense had surpassed 300 yards with 9.1 yards per play by then. And by the fourth quarter, three more TD strikes had been logged while New England’s defense again logged zero turnovers, sacks or punts.
Offensive line deals with a no-Wynn situation
The Patriots traveled to Orchard Park without left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who had missed consecutive practices due to hip and ankle injuries before being downgraded to out on the eve of the 8:15 p.m. ET kickoff.
Wynn had started 15 games and finished the regular season ranked fifth on the offense in snaps played despite his departure against the Miami Dolphins. In his absence on Saturday, Justin Herron again got the call next to left guard Ted Karras, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Trent Brown. Sixth man Mike Onwenu reported as eligible.
New England’s combination would go on to concede three sacks to the back-to-back division champions. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei got the first up the middle and defensive end Jerry Hughes got the second off the right side. A 45-yard field goal by kicker Nick Folk arrived going into intermission. Though later, so did a takedown by Bills rookie Carlos Basham.
Replacing a 16-game starter at cornerback
Jalen Mills remained on the Covid-19 reserve list for Saturday’s wild card. The starting cornerback had been charted by Pro Football Focus for allowing no more than 20 receiving yards in seven of his last eight matchups.
Without him, New England elevated cornerbacks D’Angelo Ross and De’Vante Bausby from the practice squad the evening prior. Both saw work in the secondary. But it would be 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams stepping in across from J.C. Jackson on the outside while Myles Bryant started in the nickel.
From there, 2020 NFL receiving leader Stefon Diggs caught the opening pass in zone coverage and finished with a go pattern for 45 yards versus a fellow Pro Bowler. The sudden Isaiah McKenzie, who posted career bests while running crossers from the slot last time, tacked on 45 yards receiving. And in the final set of quarters, wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis broke loose for touchdowns from 34 yards out and 19 yards out, respectively.
Dugger back on hand, but Bentley exits
With a large white club wrapped over his right hand, Kyle Dugger would be on hand. The sophomore safety out of Lenoir-Rhyne started and stayed in to record four tackles.
Dugger had finished the regular season among the inactives. He began his postseason matched up with Buffalo’s Knox in the end zone after not being spotted during the media portion of two practices.
Rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins would also be in the lineup after residing on the final injury report as questionable. But New England tackle leader Ja’Whaun Bentley, scheduled to become a free agent in March, departed with an arm injury prior to intermission. The 2020 team captain did not return.
Patriots unable to turn back to the ground attack in Round 3
The running backs were expected to return to forefront as temperatures hovered in the single digits. The production did not return with them.
After twice eclipsing the century mark and totaling four touchdowns during the previous Buffalo meetings, Damien Harris handled nine carries for New England on Saturday. Those carries became 30 yards for the lead back, who had a long pickup of five before halftime and a long of 14 after it.
The runaway worked away from the running game. Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson and veteran Brandon Bolden spelled in for 60 yards out of the backfield on four catches apiece.