FOXBORO (CBS) -- With a third matchup with the Bills in this weekend's Wild Card round, this is not the weekend for the Patriots to be dealing with depth issues in their secondary. Alas, the Patriots are dealing with some depth issues in their secondary.
Jalen Mills is currently on the Reserve/COVID list and may not be cleared in time for Saturday night's game. Kyle Dugger has been limited at practice all week with the same hand injury that kept him out of Week 18's loss to the Dolphins. If neither can play on Saturday, it will leave the New England defense without its No. 2 corner and their hard-hitting safety.
That would make life a lot more difficult as the Patriots look to contain the duel threat that Bills quarterback Josh Allen brings to the table, as well as the arduous task of keeping receiver Stefon Diggs from tearing the game wide open.
Keeping Diggs in check, while also making sure Allen doesn't break loose for a big scramble, will likely befall on J.C. Jackson. It was a group effort to contain Diggs the first time these two teams met, with New England holding him to five receptions for 51 yards and no touchdowns in a blustery Buffalo on Monday Night Football. Diggs had a lot more fun in Foxboro in Week 16, torching Jackson and the Patriots for seven catches for 85 yards and found the end zone in the second quarter to give the Bills a 17-7 lead just before halftime.
Now Jackson gets a shot at redemption against Diggs, with New England's season on the line. He knows it will be a lot more challenging if the secondary isn't whole on Saturday night, but Jackson is never one to shy away from a challenge. And keeping Diggs, whom he called one of the best receivers in the game, in check certainly fits that bill.
"The guy knows how to get open," Jackson said of Diggs on Thursday. "He has strong hands, he runs pretty great routes. He's hard to defend on an island by yourself."
But Jackson wants to be an island, and he feels that having two games of experience against Diggs this season will work in his favor. Unfortunately, the receiver is just half of the equation when going against the Bills.
The other is, of course, Buffalo's 6-foot-5 quarterback who can launch passes to the moon, or can hurdle would-be tacklers like a lunar rover. As safety Adrian Phillips explained, there is a delicate balance between getting Allen off his spot, but keeping him in the pocket so he doesn't burn them with a 20-yard scamper.
"It's a tough challenge and people haven't been doing a great job at it," said Phillips. "At the end of the day, when you have a chance to hit him and keep him from gaining more yards, you have to take that shot in the most legal way possible. Stay away from the head and neck area and make sure you get him on the ground."
"He's a big, strong quarterback," Jackson said of Allen. "We have to do a good job wrapping him up. Everybody needs to get to the ball. We know he's not easy to tackle so we need to have good fundamentals and be disciplined. With the ball in his hands, he can pretty much do whatever."
Allen wasn't able to do much in the first matchup with strong winds negating Buffalo's aerial assault. But he really let it fly in the rematch at Gillette Stadium, throwing for 314 yards and three touchdowns. He was also Buffalo's leading rusher with 64 yards on his 12 carries, and he's been running a lot more since that afternoon in Foxboro.
"You just can't fall asleep. You can't blink your eyes," said Jackson. "He's got a very strong arm, can scramble outside of pocket and throw it to the other side of the field. He can do it all. It's like playing football in the backyard."
Following a lackluster defensive performance to close the regular season, and really, a disappointing final month of the year, the Patriots defense is looking to re-gain their midseason form at the most important time of the year. If not, they know they won't have another chance.
"It's all about us. We just got to come out and play New England football," said Jackson. "Start fast and be disciplined. It's all about us. It's not nothing about the Bills. They have a good team, but we're good too. We'll see Saturday night."
Tune in to Saturday night's Patriots-Bills Wild Card game on WBZ-TV! Pregame coverage begins at 6:30pm with Patriots GameDay, the Pats and the Bills kick off around 8:15pm, and after the game stick around for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!
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