The New England Patriots are in a bad spot entering Week 7. They have lost three straight en route to a 1-5 start, are arguably the most injured team in the NFL, and their offense and quarterback have struggled mightily the last few games.
Other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?
To make matters worse, they will now head into a matchup with one of the league’s top teams: the Buffalo Bills, owners of a 4-2 record, will march into Gillette Stadium trying to win a fifth game in a row against their division rivals. Given how both teams’ seasons looked so far, the chances of that happening are high — DraftKings Sportsbook currently has New England listed as 8.5-point underdogs for a reason.
Considering all of those circumstances, a lot will have to go right for the Patriots to pull off the upset. They will need to play their best game of the season, and win the decisive battles in order to also victoriously end the war.
So, with that said, let’s dive into the team’s X-factors against Buffalo.
X-factor: Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson
The Bills’ offense is one of the best in the league, and one connection in particular is powering the unit: quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs have hooked up 49 times already this season for 620 yards and five touchdowns. Diggs has been Buffalo’s most productive pass catcher through six games, and one of the best in the league.
The Patriots are, obviously, no strangers to the 29-year-old. Since his arrival in Western New York in 2020, Diggs has appeared in seven games versus New England.
In those seven games, he caught 43 passes on 63 targets for a combined 629 yards and six touchdowns. He has been averaging 14.6 yards per reception against New England lately, with 29 of his catches going for first downs.
“He’s a fantastic, phenomenal player,” said Patriots safety Jabrill Peppers earlier this week. “Great hands, great routes. He’s smart, savvy, tough. Week-in, week-out, he’s going to do what he has to do. So, we need to have high, high awareness to him.”
The task at hand is obviously a difficult one with their No. 1 cornerback on injured reserve, but the Patriots do have some experience available to throw at the Allen-Diggs connection: both Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson, the projected starting cornerbacks on the perimeter, have matched up against the Pro Bowler and therefore know what they are up against.
Who the team will use on Diggs this week remains to be seen, the speedy Jones — who guarded the wideout in 2022 — and the physical Jackson both bring different strengths to the matchup. But whoever is on him will have his hands full against a crafty wideout who might be the best route-runner in all of football right now.
Jonathan Jones and Stefon Diggs had a fun battle in their last matchup— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 18, 2023
Jones forced one incompletion and almost disrupted a short throw, but Diggs caught a bomb for a TD with the CB attacking the catch point pic.twitter.com/55EZPokxEJ
Of course, whoever is not on Diggs is not necessarily in for an easy time either. Buffalo’s No. 2 — Gabe Davis — has also been highly productive this year, catching 21 passes for 341 yards and four scores himself.
“They have a lot of guys who can make plays for them, not just Stef,” said Peppers. “We have to read our keys, have high awareness to him, but you still can’t sleep on those other guys.”
The interior O-line: The interior offensive line has been a major problem for the Patriots this season, and it might be in for more turnover on Sunday with guards Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu possibly returning to the lineup. But regardless of whether they are back or not, the unit needs to be able to function as a cohesive unit for once. The Bills, after all, are more than well-equipped to exploit any inconsistencies: led by stalwart tackle Ed Oliver, their pass rush in particular has been devastating, pressuring opposing quarterbacks on a league-high 31.1 percent of dropbacks.
Trent Brown and Vederian Lowe: That pressure number is not just the result of interior disruption, but also due to one of the deepest edge rotations in the league. Leonard Floyd and Gregory Rousseau bring a combined 9.5 sacks and 33 total disruptions into Week 7, while Von Miller is also getting back to full strength. Add fourth-year man A.J. Epenesa and you can see why New England’s offensive tackles will be in for a challenging battle.
AJ Epenesa’s been on a heater the past two weeks— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 18, 2023
2nd-highest pressure rate among ED (min. 25 pass rush) and his 3 sacks are tied with Leonard Floyd for 3rd-most among ED
Trent Brown’s been good this season, but Epenesa’s bend led to some convincing wins last season https://t.co/wLPuTMbROs pic.twitter.com/WulSDEGoe8
The downhill run game: For as good as the Bills defense has been at pressuring quarterbacks, there are some areas to attack it. Among them is the ground game as a look at yards per game (133.7; 25th), EPA (-0.085; 18th) and DVOA (-15.6%; 12th) shows. They are still good overall, but the Patriots might be able to find some success if they can pick up where they left off last week: focusing on downhill running behind a big if inconsistent offensive line allowed Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott to average 4.7 yards per carry — including 6.4 on five power concepts.
Marte Mapu and Jahlani Tavai: Josh Allen is as good a runner as any quarterback in football, and not afraid to test defenses with his legs. For the Patriots, this means that they need to account for him both on the second level and up front. Rookie Marte Mapu and veteran Jahlani Tavai in particular might play important roles: the former as a hyper-athletic second-level spy, the latter as a potential edge-setter to keep Allen from breaking runs to the outside.
Mac Jones’ poise: Obviously, the quarterback is always going to play an enormous role in a team’s fortunes. So why are we singling Jones out this week, especially with this specific attribute mentioned? Because he has had his issues the last three weeks in particular when facing pressure, oftentimes leaving the pocket at the first sign of defenders closing in or trying to salvage plays instead of living to fight another down. Given the quality of the Bills’ pass rush and the unit’s ability to generate takeaways, he needs to find a way to stay calm even when feeling the heat. If he can’t, it is going to be another long day at the office.