The first round of the playoffs has finally arrived, and the Patriots will be facing a familiar foe: Josh Allen and the Bills. New England, the 6 seed, will be traveling to Buffalo, the 3 seed, for a Saturday night showdown.
These are two teams who know each other very well. In each of their two regular season meetings, the away team came out victorious as the Patriots won 14-10 in Buffalo, then a few weeks later the Bills had a convincing 33-21 win in New England. It’s no secret that the Patriots have their work cut out for them this weekend, but this is certainly a winnable game. I will break down how the Patriots can put themselves in position to win this game.
First off, it is important to recognize the final score in the Patriots’ win against the Bills versus the loss. The win was a defensive slugfest in snowy conditions where a superior running game won them the game. Mac Jones only threw three passes in the contest and the Patriots were able to control the time of possession by staying committed to the ground game. The Patriots had 222 yards rushing with an average YPC (yards per carry) of 4.8. Despite rookie Rhamondre Stevenson’s struggles, Damien Harris recorded 111 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries, thanks in large part to his 64 yard touchdown. Harris has since solidified himself as the top running back on this team and proven that the team can depend on him to run effectively throughout the game while also being a threat to break a big play, as we saw in the Buffalo game. Contrary to this low-scoring victory, when the Patriots lost to the Bills, it was because they went down early in the game and were hesitant to let Mac Jones try to make plays to get them back in the game. Towards the end, the Patriots finally gave him the freedom to play a little less robotic and sling it down the field throughout an entire drive as opposed to staying content with run plays and short passes. Although he was relatively successful, it was too little too late.
Obviously, the Patriots would ideally like to stay true to the rushing attack all game long, as this is the strength of their offense and the best way to beat the Bills is by chewing up clock and keeping Josh Allen off the field. However, like many of the quarterbacks in the AFC playoff field, Allen is a very difficult quarterback to contain, and if he ends up having a big game, it is key that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels trusts Mac Jones to make plays downfield in order to keep up with Allen. I’m not asking the Patriots to change their identity, but the reality is that winning without a respectable passing game is an extreme anomaly in the NFL. While the plan should definitely be to make the running game the focal point of the offense as this will enable them to control the pace of the game in Buffalo, keeping the defense honest is paramount, which is why they need to open up the playbook for Mac and have faith in his ability to execute passes at all three levels in order to win.
From a defensive standpoint, the Patriots have to do a better job of keeping Josh Allen in check. In the last matchup, it seemed like Allen was doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. The Patriots, of all teams, should know the best way to defend Josh Allen. The key is to be conservative and understand that blitzing will result in Allen rolling out to buy more time and he’ll either find an open man or run if there’s open field in front of him. In my opinion, the Patriots should use the blitz sparingly, because with Allen’s elite mobility, it often ends up being counterproductive. Instead, the Patriots have to trust their secondary, especially Pro Bowler JC Jackson, who will be matched up on superstar wide receiver Stefon Diggs. I would be more than content with giving up a couple big plays downfield rather than watching Josh Allen pick up easy first downs either by scrambling or rolling out and executing easy ten yard passes. When linebackers blitz they leave short to medium passes wide open all game, which is how Allen picked the Patriots apart a few weeks ago in New England. The use of a quarterback spy should also be implemented for the majority of the game to refrain Allen from picking up easy yards with this feet.
The Patriots are undoubtedly underdogs in this game, and it will take a great game to beat the Bills, who were just one game away from the Super Bowl last season. While it has been a successful year for New England regardless of the outcome of this game, we will look back on this season completely differently if they can go into Buffalo and win in a playoff atmosphere. Instead of looking back on the 2021-22 Patriots as a team that just made the playoffs, we will view them as a team that was a legitimate AFC contender. I broke down the blueprint for a Patriot victory both offensively and defensively; it is very doable. That being said, it is essential that the coaching staff trusts that every player on this team can execute their role at the highest of levels. If they make mistakes or blow a play, so be it. Limiting a team’s offensive scheme in the playoffs is not a championship mindset. Mac Jones is a rookie, but he’s a winner, and I believe he’s ready for this moment. Hopefully Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels think the same.