Patriots: WILD CARD Preview and Prediction

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It is finally here! A year after their first losing season in 20 years, the Patriots retooled and reloaded. This team looks very, very different from the last time the Patriots were in the playoffs, but they are hungry. And one thing has stayed consistent. Bill. Belichick. The greatest coach of all time provides stability and a high floor no matter the circumstances around him and this year has been no exception. He won’t win it, but this season was certainly some of Bill’s best work and he is worthy of coach of the year consideration. But as we know and have heard throughout the years, that is not what he is interested in.

Bill wants another Super Bowl. He is used to winning and certainly is not satisfied with making the playoffs and exceeding regular season expectations. This is only the second meeting ever between the Patriots and the Bills in the playoffs, partially because they share a division and partially because the Bills have been straight up bad for the better part of 20 years. But they have seriously turned a corner, winning the AFC East for the second year in a row this season. They split the season series this year with the Patriots, with each team winning in the other’s home stadium. But because of newfound elite QB play from Josh Allen and a stifling defense, the Bills can comfortably call themselves the alphas of the AFC East.

Now these two teams matchup for the third time this season in Buffalo in a loser goes home Wild Card matchup. This is debatably the best game of the entire weekend and folks in the frigid northeast are going to be on the edge of their seats the entire time. The forecast in Buffalo calls for no precipitation and light winds with temperatures getting as low as 4 degrees Saturday night. Football weather, some might say. It sounds corny but many of my football coaches have always said, “it’s about who wants it more” and this Saturday night in Buffalo, we are going to find out who wants it more.

If you’re interested in personnel and scheme matchups, check out my preview for the first Bills-Patriots matchup here.

Lets take a look at our X-Factors in this matchup.

The Patriots go where Mac goes

Mac Jones is a rookie of the year candidate and has had an exceptional season for the Patriots this year. New England fans should be excited for his future and he seems like just the quarterback New England needs post-Brady. But Patriots fans, like Bill Belichick, are not satisfied with regular season success.

This will be Mac’s first time in the NFL playoffs and it will be a mighty tough test. In the last matchup with the Bills, Mac looked like a rookie. With a completion percentage in the 40s, less than 150 yards and 2 interceptions on the day, it is safe to say that Mac was not comfortable in that matchup. The other interesting factor in that game was that the Patriots were running the ball effectively with Damien Harris averaging 5.7 yards per carry, but the late deficit was simply too much to overcome for Mac and New England. One of his interception came late in a desperation drive to try to come back and win, but that highlights the position the Patriots don’t want to find themselves in. If Mac can play in a positive game script where the Patriots are controlling the game through running the football and playing tough defense, he will do great. If you ask him to march down the field and score in hurry against a rock solid pass defense, he will run into some trouble.

Now part of that is out of Mac’s hands, he can only control what he can control. But we saw how badly it can hurt the team when he plays poorly out of the gate last week in Miami. After New England’s defense gave up a long, methodical touchdown drive to open the game, Mac threw a pick 6 to Xavien Howard which immediately put the Patriots into a 14-0 deficit before even having a chance to get started. On a short stick concept, Mac tried to zip it past the sticks for a first down. Xavien Howard bluffed running upfield with the outside receiver, folded back inside and jumped right in front of the pass. It was a rookie mistake, but an extremely costly one that played a large part in the Patriots losing the game. He also lost the ball on a strip sack by Jaelen Phillips in the 3rd quarter when the Patriots were at the Miami 22 yard line. This gave Miami the ball and allowed them to drive down the field and get more points, widening their lead.

Mac Jones is a rookie, he is going to have bad games, but this is the playoffs. Mistakes are hard to overcome in the regular season against a division opponent like Miami and they are even tougher to overcome in the playoffs against a better opponent. The Patriots will try their best not to make Mac Jones shoulder a heavy load, but if the Bills take an early lead or are leading late in the game, he will have to take on a mighty challenge. The Patriots go where Mac goes in this one.

Trench Warfare

This is the same section I had as one of the X factors in the second matchup between the Bills and Patriots, but football is football and in cold weather, the big dudes up front dictate a lot of how the game will go. Both offensive lines played well in the week 16 matchup, with the Bills giving up 13 pressures and no sacks and the Patriots giving up 6 pressures and 1 sack. That pressure number is a good one for the Patriots, but not getting Josh Allen on the ground is a problem. The Bills are an interesting team because they barely try to run the ball a lot of the time and if they do amass a solid rushing total, it is usually thanks to Josh Allen keeping the ball himself.

The Bills’ offensive line has been a solid pass blocking unit throughout the year, keeping Allen clean and letting him thrive in his unique playing style. Most people think of good O-Line play as creating a nicely structured pocket for the QB to sit in and scan the field. This is true a lot of the time, but the NFL is changing. Quarterbacks like Josh Allen are coming into the league who like to scramble and throw on the run, outside the pocket. This means offensive lines have to adapt and get used to their QB not being perfectly where they “should be” all of the time. The Bills’ hogs up front do a good job of this, using their athleticism to peel back and giving Allen time to scan and throw on the run. The Patriots will need to get pressure up the middle and their edge rushers will need to play true contain to keep Allen in the pocket.

The Patriots’ offensive line, as usual, has been one of the best in the NFL. According to PFF, their offensive line grades in the top 10 in both run blocking and pass blocking. They have been relatively healthy this whole season, which is a surprise given the return of the habitually injured Trent Brown. Center David Andrews is on the injury report with a shoulder and left tackle Isaiah Wynn left the Miami game after only 9 plays with a hip/ankle injury. Replacing him in Miami was Justin Herron, a solid depth piece for the Patriots who can play both tackle positions. He played well and actually graded out as the Patriots best lineman in that game, according to PFF. Herron is a solid replacement no doubt and the depth on the Patriots’ O-Line is a reason they are considered one of the best units in the league. But having Wynn out or not 100% and playing in Buffalo would be a big hit for the Patriots come Saturday night. Everyone knows how important protecting the blindside of your QB is and if Herron has a slip up at any point during the game, Buffalo will be looking to make Mac pay.

The run game has been chugging this year, ranking top 5 in the NFL when you filter by rushing yards by non QBs. Damien Harris could not find much on the ground against Miami, averaging about 3 yards per carry in the losing effort. He is a talented running back but is on the injury report once again with a hamstring, an injury that he sustained weeks ago against the Colts. Against Buffalo the Patriots will need all three of their backs, Harris, Stevenson and Bolden, to step up against the Bills if they want to dictate the game flow and take pressure off of Mac. But more important than the running backs, the offensive line needs to be the hammer like they were in the week 13 matchup.

Josh Allen the magic man

There are some really good players in this matchup on both sides of the football. JC Jackson for the Patriots has been unbelievable this season, Stefon Diggs has had years of elite production and can hurt you from wherever he lines up on the field. Damien Harris was PFF’s highest graded running back on the season and the safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer gives offensive coordinators nightmares. They will all be vital in this cold weather battle and any of them can make a big play that turns the tide for their team. Any football fan should feel lucky to be able to watch them play. But there is only one player who can put the game in his hands and win it. That is Josh Allen.

It is true that Josh Allen has technically “regressed” this year after an MVP caliber season in 2020. But that doesn’t mean he’s become some slouch. He has thrown for 4400 yards and amassed 42 total touchdowns while leading the Bills to an 11-6 record and second straight division title. In the last matchup of these two teams, Allen tore apart the stout Patriots’ defense for 314 yards and 3 touchdowns to go along with 64 yards on the ground. He faced some seriously high leverage third and fourth downs in a hostile Gillette Stadium and converted time after time. I know a lot of analysts roll their eyes at the “eye test” but I cannot remember the last time a QB made the Patriots’ defense look like that. Apart from how great he was, his number 1 receiver Stefon Diggs was not even who he connected with the most. Isaiah McKenzie, mostly a special teams player and depth receiver, led the way through the air with 11 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown. He had some straight up special throws in the last matchup against New England and the Bills need to let him loose again.

Apart from just having a rocket launcher attached to his shoulder, Josh Allen can straight up scoot. He is a great runner who not only can outrun defensive lineman, but his 6’5″ 240 pound frame makes it extremely difficult to bring him down. The Bills’ leading rusher out of their running backs is Devin Singletary, a veteran player who can do a bit of everything. His rushing total this year is 870 yards with 7 TDs. A modest total but not bad for a team whose offense runs through the passing game. The second leading rusher on Buffalo is Allen with 763 yards and 6 TDs, not too far behind his backfield mate.

During his first few years in the NFL, the Bills started to catch on to Allen’s rushing ability and would design runs for him to give them an edge while his passing skills were still developing. Now that Allen can sit in the pocket and tear apart defenses, they have been a lot more careful putting him in harms way, with most of his rushing yards coming from scrambles on designed pass plays. I am not saying it’ll be a key part of the gameplan, but I would not be surprised to see Buffalo try to give Allen a few designed runs especially down by the goal line. The forecast is calling for temperatures to drop to almost 20 below 0 with the wind chill and tackling Allen is not going to be fun. Josh Allen is the only player on either team that can single handedly control the game, we will see if he can do it through the freezing temperatures and the high pressure of a playoff game against Belichick.

The Weather

If you haven’t heard, it is going to be cold in Buffalo on Saturday night. The weather angle has been talked about over and over and over, but it does matter. It won’t be the same insane windy conditions that we saw in Buffalo the first time around, but it will be absolutely frigid at 6 degrees come kickoff.

This provides challenges for both teams but it gives the Patriots a slight edge due to their play style. They pound the football and while Mac will obviously throw more than 3 passes this time around, I can absolutely see McDaniels and Belichick just leaning on their offensive line and thumpers in the backfield. As a defense, it absolutely sucks to have an offensive line moving downhill at you with a back like Damien Harris that you have to square up. McDaniels is one of the best run game designers that I have ever seen and I think that should be enough to sustain drives and put New England in advantageous down and distances. For Mac, I don’t think he’ll be comfortable at all. Mac is a Florida kid who went to school at Alabama and has had a few somewhat cold games in the NFL, but nothing even close to how cold it’ll be in Buffalo. Look for him to be extremely uncomfortable and for Buffalo to try and bury him if he drops back too many times to pass.

For the Bills, the weather does not help them. I mentioned that tackling Josh Allen in the cold would be terrible, but the Bills’ play style is almost the complete opposite of the Patriots. They want to pass the ball to set up the run, not the other way around. Passing in the cold is not impossible, but with a QB that throws as hard as Allen, it will be tough to play like it’s business as usual. They’ll have to play fast paced and keep their skill players’ warm if they want to keep their explosive element of the offense. For Allen passing the ball, in five career starts with freezing game-time temperatures, he has thrown six touchdowns to seven interceptions and has a 50.3% completion percentage. That’s second-lowest among 41 quarterbacks who have made at least five such starts over the past 15 years. Allen was sacked three or more times in three of those games. If the Patriots’ are able to get hits on Allen, he could get rattled and overthink his history in the cold.

Final analysis and pick

Trying to make a pick for this game has put my brain in an absolute blender. There are so many angles to go at this and I cannot fathom in my head an AFC East team beating Belichick in the playoffs. The Bills have been fantastic the last two years but Bill has taken one year to reload and has a Hell of a team this season. The weather complicates things no doubt but this is the playoffs, either you’re a team that can go the distance or you’re not. The Patriots’ play style is conducive to the weather and the playoffs, but with Isaiah Wynn trending to be out for the game, their depth is hurt and they are putting a replacement level player in Wynn’s spot. For the Bills, they have the better QB by far and are at home with an insanely passionate fan base.

This game should be low scoring and Vegas knows it, as the O/U is set at 44. If the under hits even by a little, that helps the Patriots. If the Bills can score early and be fast paced, it will force the Patriots to play catchup with the struggling Mac Jones. I think this game goes as the QBs go and the Bills will not be bullied by the Patriots run game like they were in the first matchup. In a dirty, sloppy painful football game my mind immediately goes to Belichick. But he needs his players to back him up. Unless the Patriots’ run game has an all time game, the Bills should win this one. I think Mac’s struggles down the stretch bleed into this game and the cold gets to him more than it does Josh Allen. In a tight game, a Mac Jones turnover gives the Bills points to make the lead insurmountable. Bill and the Patriots fall short and lose to the new king of the AFC East, Josh Allen.

Pick: Bills-23 Patriots-17