The AFC East title came down to the final week of the regular season, and a week later, the division’s heavyweights -- the Bills and Patriots -- will battle to advance to the AFC Divisional Round. They’ll do it having split the season series in unusual fashion, with the road team winning both games. If it’s freezing cold playoff football you prefer, this is likely the wild-card game not to miss – the weather forecast in Buffalo calls for a high of 10 degrees. It will not be for the meek.
Here are four things to watch when the Bills play host to the Patriots on Saturday night:
- What can we expect from Mac Jones? He’s the only rookie quarterback to take a team into the playoffs, and mostly looked poised and effective over the course of a seven-game win streak that vaulted New England into the postseason after a 2-4 start. In two games against the Bills, however, he hasn’t done much of anything. Jones was a non-factor in run-heavy game plan that helped New England beat Buffalo and its blustery weather on Dec. 6. He then threw two interceptions in arguably his worst performance of the season when Buffalo won in New England 33-21. Buffalo’s pass defense allowed NFL-lows in an assortment of categories, including yardage (3,047), TD passes (12), passer rating (65.5) and completion rate (56.1). After 17 starts, Jones really isn’t a rookie anymore, but against this defense, and on the road, it’s gut-check time just the same.
- Buffalo must stop the run. It’s that simple for a defense that was bullied by the Patriots run game twice this season, once with no pretense of passing the ball. Even in Buffalo’s road win over the Patriots, Damien Harris rumbled for 103 yards and three touchdowns on just 18 carries. If Buffalo hopes to boil the outcome down to a Josh Allen-Mac Jones battle, which would certainly favor the home team, they’ll need to defend the run much better. The Patriots duo of Harris and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson has combined for 1,535 yards and 20 touchdowns on the year. It won’t be easy.
- Hunter Henry can’t disappear again. The Patriots tight end was targeted six times when the two teams met on Dec. 26, resulting in just one catch for nine yards. It was his least-productive game of the year. Henry played just 15 offensive snaps in the first meeting between the teams, and of course had no chance to be a factor as a receiver with New England grinding out a victory on just three pass attempts. Against the best pass defense in the NFL, Jones will need every receiving piston firing. If the Bills can silence Henry once again, it bodes well for their chances.
- Bills punter Matt Haack can’t have a Week 18 repeat. Haack recorded punts of 22, 21 and seven yards in a win over the Jets last week. On the last of those, he mishandled the snap and had to get off the best kick he could on the run. It was the kind of punting performance that a defense as good as Buffalo’s can overcome against a four-win squad like the Jets. The same can’t be said for a playoff game against the Patriots, who would gladly take advantage of any special teams blunders. Whatever got into Haack’s head last week must be expunged before Saturday, lest New England benefit from some crazy-favorable field position.
Next Gen Stat of the game: Bills QB Josh Allen has a better TD-INT ratio when blitzed (10-3) than when not blitzed (26-12).
NFL Research: The defenses in this matchup have allowed the fewest points in the NFL (Bills 17.0 per game, Patriots 17.8 per game). Both defenses have totaled 30 takeaways.