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What to watch for when Patriots visit Bills in Week 18

Patriots 1st Down: Football is more than a game
Patriots 1st Down: Football is more than a game 03:52

FOXBORO -- Football almost feels secondary as we hit an important Week 18 of the season. Playoff seeding and spots are on the line, but it's almost impossible to get the frightening images from last Monday night out of our heads. 

At least the week has been filled with incredibly positive updates on Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin, who on Thursday night had his breathing tube removed. He is talking to his family and care team, and even Facetimed with his Bills teammates during a meeting on Friday morning.

Those teammates have been through a roller coaster of emotions this week, but all the news from Thursday and Friday has been promising and uplifting. The Bills seem eager and ready to head out on the field Sunday afternoon and win a game for Hamlin.

The New England Patriots will be their opponent to close out the regular season, and at 8-8, the Pats can clinch a playoff spot with a win. (Or they can back in with a loss, and losses by the Dolphins and Steelers on Sunday.) Here are the storylines to watch Sunday afternoon in Buffalo.

The Bills

This is obvious. Everyone around the country will be watching to see how the Bills respond on Sunday. Just a few days ago, it was hard to imagine anyone on that team will be completely invested in the game. 

But with Hamlin taking a positive turn late in the week, the Bills may be more motivated than ever when they take the field Sunday, hoping to get a win for their recovering teammate. Emotions will be high throughout, and that could give them a whole new level of juice for the contest.

The Bills have the high-class leadership needed to get through something like this, with Sean McDermott and Josh Allen atop of it all. No one would blame them if they didn't want to play Sunday, but no one would be surprised if they came out and absolutely trounced the Patriots, either.

Buffalo has had New England's number the last few years. They toyed with the Patriots in New England last month, and knocking their AFC East rival -- and a franchise that beat up on them for two decades -- would certainly help their recovery process from last week.

Mac's Attack

It has been a pretty disappointing season overall for Mac Jones, but he's been on a pretty good run as of late. He is at least taking care of the football, with just one interception over his last eight games, throwing eight touchdown passes in that span. Mac is making much better decisions with the ball, and he's even uncorked (and connected on) some impressive deep passes.

Can he continue this upward trend against Buffalo? It won't be easy. The Buffalo secondary stymied Jones and held him to just 195 passing yards back in Week 13. Tre'Davious White was mostly a spectator at that point in his return from ACL surgery, but he's back to being a fulltime threat at corner. And Jordan Poyer hasn't had a pick in three months (and just two passes defended since Week 4), but he's always a threat to make something happen -- or at least muck things up for an opposing passing game.

It would help if guys could get open on New England, as Jones had to rely mostly on Rhamondre Stevenson last month. The running back caught six of Jones' 22 completions against Buffalo. Jakobi Meyers caught three. No one else on the team caught more than two passes.

It would be nice to see Meyers have another one of his big afternoons, with the likes of Kendrick Bourne and Tyquan Thornton also contributing to New England's aerial attack. 

Can Harris get it going?

Rhamondre Stevenson has had a stellar year and is just 14 yards shy of the first 1,000 rushing yard season of his career. But it has been pretty clear over the last few weeks that the 24-year-old is a bit gassed after carrying the offense for most of the season, and he's even admitted to that.

Sounds like a good weekend to rely on the fresh legs of Damien Harris, who returned last weekend after missing four games with a thigh injury. Though it didn't really help New England's run game against the Dolphins, which managed just 77 yards on the ground on 21 carries, Harris has had success against Buffalo in the past.

In two regular season games last season, Harris rushed for 214 yards and four touchdowns against Buffalo, averaging 7.64 yards on his 28 carries. He's racked up 100 rushing yards against the Bills three times in his career. 

New England, however, has only won one of those games, and that came in that ridiculous blustery meeting between the two teams in Buffalo last season. The Bills have a stout run defense this season, ranking fourth at just 104.4 rushing yards allowed, and held New England to just 60 yards on the ground in their first meeting this year. 

The Patriots run game was running out of gas over the last month, but maybe Harris can get things back on track this weekend.

Another defensive score???

Relying on the New England offense this season has been a frustrating endeavor. And we aren't telling any tales out of school when we say that most of the team's success has spawned from the defense. 

Scoring touchdowns and sacking the quarterback have been the calling cards of the New England D this season, and the Pats are going to need that to continue in Week 18. Against a legit team with a legit quarterback.

The Patriots have a franchise-record seven defensive touchdowns this season, with five pick-sixes and a pair of fumble recoveries for a score. Kyle Dugger has three of those touchdowns, and his pick-six against the Dolphins last week earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. 

Matthew Judon and Josh Uche will need to bring the pressure on Allen, and the secondary will have to be ready to pounce at any mistake the QB makes. Nothing can get a team going like a defensive touchdown, and New England will probably need one to beat the Bills on Sunday.

Tune in to Sunday's Patriots-Bills game on WBZ--TV -- the television home of the New England Patriots. Coverage continues Friday on WBZ-TV at 7 p.m. with Patriots All Access. Coverage kicks off Sunday morning at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay, followed by the Pats and the Bills at 1 p.m., and we'll wrap it all up after the game on Patriots 5th Quarter on TV38.

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