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Patriots-Bills What To Watch For: Keys To A Pats Upset On Wild Card Weekend

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots and the Bills have already given us two extremely entertaining games this season, so it will be a real treat to see them tussle again in the postseason.

The conclusion to this season's Patriots-Bills trilogy is the biggest matchup yet, as it will put Bill Belichick, Mac Jones and the Patriots defense against Sean McDermott, Josh Allen and the two-time AFC East champs in the Wild Card Round. This time it's a battle for survival, and once again, it's gonna be an arctic affair in Buffalo.

Will we see another absolutely bananas game like their Monday Night Football clash in Week 13, when the Pats ran all over the Bills in a windy Buffalo? Or will it be more like when the Bills came into Foxboro and flipped the script, letting Allen beat the Patriots with some shorter throws and his legs?

The answer is likely somewhere in the middle. The Patriots still had training wheels on Jones late in the season, and those won't probably won't come off in his first taste of the postseason. The Bills go as far as Allen and his cannon take them, but they also need him and others to take advantage of New England's porous run defense.

Here's what we'll be watching for when the Patriots and the Bills meet for just the second time ever in the postseason.

Start Fast

The Bills are going to be amped. Bills fans are really going to be amped. (That is, if they show up.) There is going to be quite the resting ground of broken tables and empty tall boys outside of Highmark Stadium.

So it would be in New England's best interest to get off to a fast start and take the Bills and the crowd out of it as much as possible. Unfortunately, that has been one of the team's biggest weaknesses all year.

During their season-ending losses to the Colts, Bills and Dolphins, the Patriots let all three opponents score first. Indy took leads of 7-0, 14-0 and 20-0, the Bills went ahead 7-0, 10-7 and 17-7, while the Dolphins jumped out to 7-0, 14-0 and 17-0 advantages. That is no recipe for success.

It was especially brutal in Week 16, when the Patriots went three-and-out to start the game and then let the Bills go on a 61-yard touchdown drive that chewed seven minutes off the clock. Mac Jones and company answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive of their own, but then followed a Buffalo field goal with an interception. After Buffalo turned that free possession over on downs, the Patriots offense followed that by going three-and-out. The Bills answered that with another touchdown.

That cannot happen on Saturday night. This Patriots team isn't capable of overcoming those kinds of deficits. An early lead for the Patriots shifts loads of pressure to Buffalo, and is New England's best shot at stealing a road playoff win.

Win The Turnover Battle

The Patriots were a buncha ball hawks during their seven-game winning streak, with 18 turnovers over that stretch. A lot of those came against some truly bad teams, including three each against the Jets and Panthers and four against the Falcons, which brings back memories of that "Boogeymen" defense in 2019 that really wasn't all that scary by season's end.

Down the stretch, the Patriots just kinda stopped forcing turnovers against the "good" teams. The defense had a good day against the Jaguars, picking off rookie Trevor Lawrence three times. But the Jaguars are not a good team. They're not even a bad team; they just flat-out stink.

Against the "good" teams, or the "better" teams -- the Colts, the Bills and the Dolphins -- the Patriots defense produced just one turnover; an interception from Carson Wentz. The fact they came down with just one pick against Wentz, and no picks or fumbles against a turnover-prone QB like Tua Tagovailoa in Week 18, is a bit disappointing. Devin McCourty had an interception in his hands on Sunday, but he dropped it. It's the kind of play the Patriots make when things are going right, and the kind of play they let bounce off their hands when things are not.

That happened quite a bit in New England's Week 16 loss to the Bills. Allen wanted to give them the ball on three different occasions, but the Pats defense let the ball fall to the ground instead. That included an overthrow to Stefon Diggs in the fourth quarter that J.C. Jackson couldn't corral. That pick likely would have went for a go-ahead touchdown for Jackson and the Patriots, but instead the Bills went on a 75-yard touchdown drive to seal the game.

If we learned anything about the Patriots defense throughout the season, it's that they're front-runners. They are much more likely to succeed when they're playing with the lead or after they've put opponents in perilous situations, like second- and third-and-long. And with an offense that can make it interesting but not complete comebacks against anyone, the Patriots need to take advantage of all of their opportunities.

They also need to keep the ball in their own hands on offense, something Jones has struggled with as of late. New England's turnover differential was a plus-19 in the team's 10 wins this year. In their losses, the Patriots were a minus-12.

Running To Victory

Jones is going to have to throw a lot more than three passes this weekend, and the lack of a strong wind this time around will make that a lot likelier. But we still don't really know if the rookie can have a strong game through the air in the cold weather, so a steady run game is still New England's best avenue to a win.

Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson are more than up to the challenge, as we saw when they ran all over, around and through the Bills in Week 13. Harris was solid again in Week 16, averaging 5.7 yards on his 18 carries for 103 yards and a touchdown, but the Pats put themselves in a bad situation by getting down early.

The Bills knew the run was coming in Week 13 but couldn't stop it. They knew the run was coming again in Week 16 and were much better at containing it. Harris and Stevenson will be barreling their way at them again this weekend, and tackling either won't be a very appealing action in such frigid temps. New England's best bet is to keep it on the ground as much as possible, while sprinkling in some Mac along the way. A few Kendrick Bourne and Jonnu Smith end-arounds may be in the cards this weekend as well.

While it would be nice to see the rookie get to let it fly a few times this weekend, the weather calls for New England's usual ground-and-pound style. (Though don't be surprised to see Josh McDaniels open up his bag of tricks and call for a Jakobi Meyers pass or two along the way.)

Cut Out The Nonsense

The Patriots have been their own worst enemy during their season-ending slump. Missed opportunities, dumb penalties and poor special teams play ailed New England throughout three of the final four games, and all of that played major roles in the team's three losses.

We already touched on the missed opportunities by the defense. But penalties and uncharacteristically poor special teams efforts have also been prevalent at the most important time of the year. Lawrence Guy lining up over the Dolphins' long snapper on a Miami punt was inexcusable last week. There is no telling how Week 15's game in Indy would have swung had the Patriots not allowed a blocked punt touchdown at the end of the first quarter, giving the Colts a 14-0 lead. And Buffalo scored their only touchdown in Week 13 after N'Keal Harry muffed a punt and gave Buffalo the ball at the New England 14-yard line.

The Pats also need to stop causing those yellow flags to fly so often. They were hit with eight penalties in each of their losses to the Colts and the Dolphins, and while they were only flagged for three penalties in Week 16, they were pretty costly. Trent Brown's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty turned a second-and-3 into a second-and-18, driving the Patriots back into their own side of the field. They ended up punting instead of potentially scoring ahead of halftime. Christian Barmore also jumped offside on a fouth-and-7 for the Bills that gave Buffalo a much more manageable conversion, though Allen hit Diggs for a huge gain on the play, so maybe the penalty didn't matter too much.

But the Patriots very much need to clean things up in important situations, or come Sunday, the only thing they'll be cleaning is their lockers inside Gillette Stadium.

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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