By now, you probably know the key storylines surrounding Saturday night’s wild-card playoff matchup between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium.
On one side, it’s the Bills, fresh off a second consecutive AFC East title and positioned to contend for the Super Bowl crown thanks to an excellent quarterback, Josh Allen, and an at-times stifling defense.
On the other, it’s the Patriots, a team that can’t be underestimated for as long as Bill Belichick roams the sideline, even though New England — now relying on a rookie QB in Mac Jones — hasn’t been the same since Tom Brady’s departure.
So, what will be the difference this weekend in Orchard Park? We asked our NESN Digital team who (or what) will be the X-factor when the Patriots and Bills lock horns for the third time this season.
George Balekji: Patriots’ health
Can Kyle Dugger go with his hand? Will Christian Barmore even be at 80%? Don’t underrate that a full-sized human was whipped into his right leg at full speed — not on purpose, of course — and that leg now needs to support Barmore, who is the size of a brick house. Those two not being 100% affects the front and back end of the Patriots’ defense, along with Dugger being able to do everything. Everyone is banged up at this point in the season, but having two key pieces on your strongest side of the ball even worse doesn’t bode well against Josh Allen. Extra X-Factor: Brian Daboll’s decision-making. Does he choose to just run Allen 10-15 times on Saturday? Because he should, and that will wreck the Patriots’ day.
Lauren Campbell: Matthew Judon
Judon did not have a sack over New England’s final four games and must return to form for the Patriots in the postseason, especially against the Bills in the wild-card round. The linebacker can put everything behind him and start fresh this weekend.
Mike Cole: The punters
You’ve got two very good defenses and a pair of offenses who both struggle in certain aspects of the game. Weather — forecasts call for frigid temps — will make moving the ball even more difficult. So, don’t be surprised if it comes down to field position, and there are question marks with Jake Bailey and Matt Haack, who both struggled at points this season.
Zack Cox: The weather
It shouldn’t be nearly as windy as it was in the Patriots’ first visit to Buffalo, but it will be very, very, very cold. Like, Pats-Titans in the 2003 playoffs-level cold. This has a real chance of being the coldest game in Patriots history, and I can’t confidently say Florida boy Mac Jones is going to be able to handle these conditions until I see him do it. He’s already looked shaky in standard, garden-variety cold. I do think the low temperatures will favor New England’s run game, though, which was productive in both regular-season meetings.
Ricky Doyle: Bills’ linebackers
Buffalo needs to slow New England’s rushing attack, and that effort starts with stacking the box with the intention of meeting the Patriots’ running backs near the line of scrimmage. The Pats ranked fifth in second-level yards this season, per Football Outsiders. But the Bills’ linebackers — Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds and A.J. Klein — also must step up in the passing game, should the Patriots be forced to throw more frequently than they’d like. The Bills ranked ninth in defensive DVOA vs. No. 1 wide receivers, per Football Outsiders, and first against No. 2 and “other” wide receivers. They’re worse against tight ends (13th) and running backs (16th), and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels therefore might test their chops in that area while trying to ease Mac Jones into a rhythm.
Scott Edwards: Josh Allen
The quarterback has been the reason the Bills won or lost their games against the Patriots. He will have to have the first of what should be many great playoff games in his career. If Allen plays well, the Bills walk away with this one. But if not, the Patriots will somehow find themselves one step closer to the Super Bowl.
Adam London: Bills’ run defense
Seemingly the Patriots’ only chance of winning this game — or even keeping it competitive — is if they are able to establish the run. New England ran for a combined 371 yards in its first two meetings against Buffalo, good for an average of 185.5 per game. If the Bills are able to keep Damien Harris and Co. at bay and force Mac Jones to throw more than usual, the Patriots’ vanilla offense might sputter.
Patrick McAvoy: A defensive touchdown
A defensive score will decide this game. Both the Patriots and Bills have great secondaries, and I expect the game to be decided by a pick-six. Whoever gets one will win, and I expect it to be New England, but not J.C. Jackson.
Sean McGuire: Patriots’ ability (or inability) to score early
The Patriots have yet to prove they can rally back from a deficit, as they weren’t able to do so against the better teams they faced — Indianapolis Colts, Bills, Miami Dolphins — down the stretch. It’s not the fault of rookie quarterback Mac Jones, as it’s part of the growing process, but should the Patriots’ defense allow the Bills to score one or two early touchdowns, New England doesn’t have the quick-strike offense to play from behind.
Logan Mullen: The punters
A very understated storyline this season is the regression of Jake Bailey for the Patriots. On his day, he’s one of the best in the league at his position, and the Patriots need him to hem the Bills back into their own 20. New England simply can’t afford to routinely give the ball to Josh Allen near midfield. Same goes for Matt Haack, who hasn’t been great for the Bills, especially down the stretch. If one punter is particularly good (or bad), it could have a major role on the outcome.
Dakota Randall: Davon Godchaux/Carl Davis vs. Bills centers/guards
In the first matchup, Godchaux had one of the most impressive games you’ll ever see from a nose tackle, and Buffalo couldn’t get anything going on the ground. Additionally, Josh Allen rarely had anywhere to run either on the edges or up the middle. The second game was a totally different story, with Godchaux getting rag-dolled and Allen running all over the place. If the Patriots’ interior defensive line doesn’t win its matchups, the trickle-down effect could make it a long day for New England’s defense.