The Patriots are heading into a win-and-in contest against the Bills on Sunday at close to full strength.
After returning to practice this week, Patriots CB Marcus Jones and WR DeVante Parker were removed from the injury report and will play on Sunday. TE Jonnu Smith, the third Patriot dealing with a concussion, is officially questionable, along with CB Jonathan Jones (chest), WR Jakobi Meyers (shoulder), CB Jalen Mills (groin), and DB Brenden Schooler (hip).
Starting with Parker, the Pats wideout has missed the last three games after suffering a concussion in the victory over the Cardinals. Thanks to teammate Nelson Agholor, Parker was removed from the game after looking shaky following a collision on an incomplete pass in the first quarter. There weren't many signs of Parker playing again this season, but a surprising development was when he reappeared at Pats practice on Wednesday.
Although targeting Parker hasn't been the most efficient offense for New England, his nine contested catches produced nine plays of 20-plus yards, which ranks third on the team behind Jakobi Meyers (13) and Hunter Henry (ten). Parker brings big-play potential to an offense that needs to rack up the points to keep up with Josh Allen and the Bills.
Speaking of explosive play potential, rookie Marcus Jones was removed from the report and is good to go for Sunday. Jones missed last week's win versus the Dolphins after suffering a head injury the week before against Cincinnati.
The first-year cornerback, return man, and gadget receiver had one of the few offensive highlights the last time the Patriots faced the Bills, taking a screen pass from Mac Jones 48 yards to the house. Along with his game-breaking speed with the ball in his hands in all three phases, Jones could even out the matchups with Buffalo's wide receivers since he has the speed to run across the field with Bills slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie.
New England is hoping to be healthier in the secondary after playing without both rookie Joneses and veteran Jalen Mills last Sunday. Mills, who hasn't suited up since Thanksgiving night in Minnesota, was limited all week due to a nagging groin injury. His participation in practice this week signals that he could be ready to play in Week 18.
Over the last month, New England has played more zone coverage than any defense in the NFL. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick found those statistics hard to believe, but according to Pro Football Focus, the Pats have been in zone on 83.9% of their passing plays since Week 13.
With multiple members of their secondary potentially returning, will the Patriots go with a more man-heavy plan against the Bills? The Pats played their fair share of man-to-man against Buffalo in the first matchup, lining up in man coverage on 14 of Buffalo's 33 pass attempts. However, the results were mixed, with Allen completing 10-of-14 attempts for 108 yards (7.7 average). In particular, Stefon Diggs caught four-of-six targets for 57 yards with the Patriots defense in man coverage. Allen was 7-of-12 for 87 yards against zone coverage (7.3 average).
Either way, the Bills offense is tough to match up against, as we've seen over the last three matchups against the Patriots defense. But, statistically, they're challenging to line up against in man coverage because of Diggs's route-running ability, McKenzie's speed, and obviously, the playmaking ability of the quarterback.
Anything is possible with Bill Belichick's defense on a week-to-week basis. But expect the Patriots to stay with the same formula against other elite passing attacks with the idea of forcing the Bills to march down the field on long drives rather than being aggressive on early downs.
On the Bills side, Buffalo continues to get great news about hospitalized safety Damar Hamlin who has the support of the entire NFL world in his recovery from Monday's scary injury. The Bills, who will be, at worst, the AFC's number three seed, are not listing any players on their injury report.
After the league passed commissioner Roger Goodell's proposal to play the AFC Championship Game at a neutral site if the Bills, Bengals, or Chiefs are involved, Buffalo has the incentive to play for the number two seed. Obviously, they'll rally for their teammate, but the Bills would host the first two rounds of the playoffs and will not need to play a road championship game with a win.
The Patriots will travel to Buffalo on Saturday, anticipating an intense and energized atmosphere following Hamlin's tragic injury and thankfully positive recovery in recent days. The two AFC East rivals have until Saturday's 4 pm ET deadline for practice squad elevations and injured reserve activations. According to Belichick, punter Jake Bailey will not be among those elevations as his window to return from injured reserve has expired. He is now out for the remainder of the season.
New England looks to punch their ticket into the playoffs when it faces the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park on Sunday at 1 pm ET.