Monday night will be a chance to erase the memory of two painful 2020 performances against the Buffalo Bills.
That applied both to the New England Patriots and, individually, to J.C. Jackson.
Jackson, who at the time was the Patriots’ interim No. 1 cornerback with Stephon Gilmore out injured, struggled last season to keep pace with top Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
In the teams’ first meeting — a 24-21 Bills win in Buffalo — Diggs caught six passes for 92 yards. He was even more explosive in the late-December rematch at Gillette Stadium: nine catches, 145 yards, three touchdowns in a 38-9 Bills rout.
The bulk of that production was against Jackson. The Patriots corner surrendered 10 catches on 16 targets for 172 yards and two scores to Diggs across the two matchups, per Pro Football Focus, grabbing one interception.
Jackson aims to make amends when the Patriots visit Highmark Stadium this Monday night.
“Everybody knows Diggs, man,” Jackson said Friday in a video conference. “Diggs is one of the best receivers in the game. One of the toughest matchups that I’ve been against since I’ve been in the league. So I’m looking forward to it. I’m ready to compete, and we’ll see Monday night.”
Diggs enjoyed a career year in 2020, leading the NFL in both catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535) for a Bills team that lost in the AFC Championship Game. Like quarterback Josh Allen and Buffalo as a team, the 28-year-old wideout has shown some regression this season, with his per-game reception (7.9 to 6.1) and yardage (95.9 to 77.0) marks and his catch rate (76.5% to 66.3%) all declining.
Still, Diggs remains a dangerous offensive weapon. He ranks in the top 10 in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, finding the end zone six times in his last six games. PFF has him as its ninth-highest-graded receiver through 12 weeks. He’ll be a tough cover for Jackson, who, with Gilmore out of the picture, has been New England’s No. 1 corner since training camp.
Jackson, though, is in the midst of a fantastic season as he prepares to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time. With the Patriots shifting more toward zone-based coverage schemes, he’s been borderline unbeatable of late, allowing just four catches on 14 targets for 19 yards and no touchdowns over the last four games.
That dominant stretch — which also included four of his team-high seven interceptions — earned Jackson AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for November.
“You can’t make no mistakes around me, man,” said Jackson, who leads all NFL cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps in passer rating against (38.1). “You can’t make no mistakes. That’s how I look at it.”
Jackson credited his “amazing” hands and ball skills for his lofty annual interception totals. His 24 regular-season picks over his four pro seasons lead all NFL defenders during that span. This season, he leads the league in passes defended (16) and trails only Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs — Stefon’s younger brother — in INTs.
“I feel like I have brought my performance up a notch this year because of the time I put in studying, watching extra film, doing work before practice,” Jackson said. “All of that is paying off for me, and you see the results on Sundays or Mondays.”
A positive result Monday night would allow the 8-4 Patriots to both maintain their grip on first place in the AFC East and, if the Baltimore Ravens lose Sunday, claim the top spot in the AFC standings. Diggs’ Bills, who will visit Gillette Stadium for Round 2 on Dec. 26, sit just a half-game back at 7-4.