After a difficult week following the aftermath of Damar Hamlin's injury on Monday Night Football, the Patriots and Bills appear set to meet on Sunday at 1pm with playoff berths and seeds still on the line. Hamlin's health remains on the top of everyone's mind and reports of his improving status offered some hope for his continued recovery which should help the two teams slowly refocus on playing the game they love.
When it comes to the less important football part of things, the Patriots are in a "win and you're in" scenario, but face a difficult task against a Buffalo team that has defeated them in three-straight contests, including December's 24-10 victory on Thursday Night Football at Gillette Stadium. However, even with a loss, the Patriots could still sneak into the postseason with an 8-9 record but would require wins by the Jags over the Titans on Saturday night, then by the Browns over the Steelers and Jets over the Dolphins. If all three of those results come in, the Patriots will lock up the final AFC playoff seed even if they drop their fourth straight to Buffalo.
Here are the players to watch in a game that all eyes will be on and not just for the matchup on the field.
Patriots fans need no reintroduction to Allen, who has often looked unstoppable against New England in recent matchups that saw him throw 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in the last five meetings. The last time he threw a pick to the Pats was in November 2020. For a defense that prays off turnovers and this year especially, defensive scores, it's been hard for the Patriots to find their stride against Allen. But his fumble in Week 13 might be cause for hope and possibly show a way to slow down the runaway freight train with a rocket arm. With 13 fumbles and 13 interceptions, Allen has made his fair share of mistakes this season. The Patriots just need to figure out how to force more of them and therein lies their path to playoffs.
Cook and Singletary
The Bills had had success checking down to their backs against the Patriots, taking advantage of mismatches against some of New England's linebackers. Rookie James Cook is coming on lately, while Devin Singletary remains a thorn in the Patriots' sides and will be problems for the defense to contend with. The running back duo combined for 105 rushing yards in Week 13, while Cook added another 41 receiving yards that came on six catches. With the Patriots likely to give extra attention to the Bills' receivers due to their cornerback issues it could leave the underneath coverage exposed, while also affecting how many guys New England can put in the box to stop Buffalo's unique running game that produces key plays when you least expect it.
Like Allen, the Patriots haven't had many answers for Stefon Diggs. His performances over the last five games vs. New England: nine catches for 145 yards, four catches for 51 yards (2021 wind game), seven catches for 85 yards, three catches for 60 yards, and finally, seven catches for 92 yards this year. That kind of consistent production has been a thorn in the Patriots' side, as Allen has had similar success targeting his other wideouts. But it's clear that the passing game relies on Diggs' effectiveness. With a battered cornerback group, the Patriots must find a way to make life difficult for Diggs, but there are no obvious or easy answers at this point in the season.
Milano and Tremaine Edmunds man the middle of the Bills defense from the linebacker position and are two instinctive, mobile players who are key features on that side of the ball. The Boston College product Milano will be in the thick of it against the Patriots screen and run games, where his ability to track down Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson figures to be a key area of competition. Whether or not the Patriots can get their bread and butter working on offense will depend largely on how many plays Milano and Edmunds blow up. Finding a way to use their speed and aggressiveness against them remains an elusive goal.
Poyer was active against the Bengals despite a knee injury as the Patriots could catch a break if the talented safety is limited. He had five tackles, a tackle-for-loss and a pass defensed against the Patriots in Week 13, as he's another active member of the Bills defense that can make plays all over the field. With Hunter Henry playing some of his best football, the Patriots could look to challenge Poyer with their athletic tight end, at the very least in an attempt to get him away from the box where he makes a lot of drive-stunting plays.
Mac is playing some pretty good football down the stretch, continuing a three-game stretch without an interception while throwing just one pick since the Week 10 bye. Though the offense strung together only two touchdown-scoring drives, they featured some of Mac's best throws of the year, including some explosive downfield plays. Now he returns to the site of last year's 47-17 playoff loss, needing to knock off the three-time AFC East champs to get his team back into the playoffs, which could very well feature another rematch with this same Bills team. While Jones has had more and more moments in recent weeks, he and the offense continue to search for a consistent way to put up enough points to challenge an explosive opponent like Buffalo with Josh Allen at the helm. The stage is set for the Patriots to show how they've grown over the last calendar year, and Mac will play a major role in whether or not the Patriots are able to finally put it all together on offense in Week 18.
Harris returned against the Dolphins after missing four games and showed good burst in limited work (29 snaps), producing 50 yards on 12 total touches. Overall, it's been a disappointing final year of Harris' rookie deal. He's missed six total games and topped 10 carries just four times, with his 18 carries for 86 yards and a touchdown against the Packers being his best performance of the year. But it's not hard to forget Harris' game-breaking touchdown run last year in Buffalo in the wind storm game, and Harris could be primed for that kind of game once again if the Patriots offensive line can help break him free against a very tough Bills run defense. Everyone expects Rhamondre Stevenson to make his share of plays, but Harris is a wild card entering what could possibly be his final game as a Patriot.
It's been a fairly quiet rookie year for Thornton, highlighted by a four-catch 37-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Browns earlier in the season. But last week was another strong performance with a big catch on the opening drive for 29 yards and then capping that drive off with his second receiving touchdown of the year. He'd later add another catch, finishing with three catches for 60 yards. Thornton's speed could be a key feature to build around going forward and he has at least one more chance to demonstrate how he's developed over his rookie year. With a lot of free agents and uncertainty surrounding the wide receiver position heading into the offseason, Thornton is one key player guaranteed to be back.
Barmore is coming on at the right time after missing seven games this season with a knee injury. His stats might not jump off the page but look to Matthew Judon and Josh Uche's stats if you want to see where Barmore's impact is being felt. He picked up his second full sack of the season against Miami and has the potential to be a game-wrecker against the Bills as his relentless and disruptive style can significantly alter Buffalo's offensive plans. Barmore has the chance to put a really nice cherry on top of a frustrating sophomore campaign.
It's been a battle of attrition at cornerback this season and with Jonathan Jones leaving Sunday's game against Miami early with an injury, things might be even more complicated this week. That's a bad thing going against Stefon Diggs and the rest of their talented receiving corps. Tae Hayes was promoted from the practice squad last week as he's a late roster addition that spent training camp and the early part of the season with the Panthers. Aside from Jonathan Jones, the statuses of Marcus Jones and Jalen Mills, who's missed the last four games, will be key to watch and it could very well go right down to game-time decisions.