The Patriots are in win-and-in mode heading to Buffalo for Sunday's showdown against the Bills with two notable downgrades on Saturday.
New England downgraded CB Jalen Mills (groin) and TE Jonnu Smith (concussion) to out as the team travels to Buffalo. Mills hasn't played since injuring his groin on Thanksgiving night in Minnesota, while Smith will miss his second consecutive game with a concussion.
With Smith out, the Patriots elevated tight end Matt Sokol and linebacker Calvin Munson from the practice squad. This is Sokol's third standard elevation of the season after the fourth-year tight end played ten offensive snaps in Week 17. Munson, on the other hand, might've received an elevation for a job well done on the practice squad this season, similar to LB Cameron McGrone, who was elevated and then inactive vs. the Cardinals.
The remaining questionable players, which are CB Jonathan Jones (chest), WR Jakobi Meyers (shoulder), and DB Brenden Schooler (hip), made the trip and have a chance to play on Sunday.
For the Patriots, this is the healthiest they've been for some time in a gotta-have-it game against their division rivals. In Friday's final injury report, the team removed CB Marcus Jones and WR DeVante Parker, as the two recovering from concussions are cleared to play. However, questions remain about Bill Belichick's team's ability to pull off the upset.
Buffalo has won five of the last six meetings against New England, with the Patriots one win in a wind-impacted victory last season. Defensively, the Pats have struggled to slow down Bills quarterback Josh Allen and top receiver Stefon Diggs, which is where Belichick's primary focus will be on that side of the ball. With their third-round rookie returning, the Pats will try to match up against Buffalo's passing attack with Jonathan Jones, who drew the Diggs assignment in the first matchup, Myles Bryant, Tae Hayes, Shaun Wade, and Jones.
Without Mills, the Patriots are once again undersized at cornerback. It's less of a factor since Diggs (6-0) and Isaiah McKenzie (5-7) are two of Allen's primary targets. Still, it makes covering 6-foot-2 wideout Gabriel Davis a difficult man coverage matchup. This could lead New England to another zone-heavy plan, which is who they've been over the last month-plus with an 83.9 zone coverage rate. Ultimately, they need to figure out a working formula to make Allen beat them by throwing to his other receivers rather than Diggs, who averages over 90 yards with five touchdowns in five career regular-season games against the Patriots since joining the Bills.
On the other side of the ball, lost in the Allen vs. Belichick chess match is the Patriots offense struggling to move the ball versus Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier's defense. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has completed just 56.9% of his passes for 5.4 yards per attempt, with three touchdowns to four interceptions in four career games against the Bills.
One of the biggest storylines from the Week 13 loss was the game plan offensively to run "quick-game" concepts aimed to beat the Bills defense with yards after the catch. Nearly 60 percent of Jones's throws were in under 2.5 seconds, while Mac's average target depth was 6.5 yards.
The plan produced only ten points, with a 48-yard touchdown by three-phase weapon Marcus Jones as the lone offensive highlight, and frustrations boiled over throughout and after the Thursday night loss.
Along with taking Diggs away in the passing game, our offensive key to victory is playing aggressively and letting Mac Jones cook. You might go down swinging with your second-year quarterback. But playing conservatively against a high-powered offense won't get it done, either.
Although there are scenarios where the Patriots could make the playoffs with a loss, they'll need a lot of help while winning on Sunday punches their ticket. If the Pats lose, they'll need the following to make the postseason: Jaguars beat Titans, Jets beat Dolphins, and Browns beat Steelers.
The Patriots look to extend their season when they visit the Bills on Sunday at 1 pm ET in Buffalo.