The Patriots offense will try to keep up with Josh Allen and the Bills while short-handed in the backfield.
The Patriots have ruled out running back Damien Harris (thigh) and offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn (foot) for Thursday night's home game against Buffalo.
Along with ruling Harris and Wynn out, the Patriots also listed six players as questionable: C David Andrews (thigh), OT Yodny Cajuste (calf), DB Marcus Jones (ankle), DB Jabrill Peppers (illness), WR Jakobi Meyers (shoulder), and CB Jalen Mills (groin).
New England will ride second-year star Rhamondre Stevenson at running back. In two games earlier this season without Harris, Stevenson played 80% of the offensive snaps and had 41 touches for 161 scrimmage yards in wins over the Browns and Colts. Although Stevenson dominated the playing time, practice-squader J.J. Taylor also had ten carries in 17 snaps to spell Stevenson in a Week 9 win against Indianapolis.
Taylor was re-signed to the practice squad after a short stint on the 53-man roster and is a prime candidate for a standard elevation this week. The Patriots also have rookie running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris. But Harris has only been active for one game this season in a three-rush attempt effort vs. the Browns, while Strong has predominantly played exclusively on special teams in his rookie campaign (ten offensive snaps all season).
As for the offensive line, the Patriots were expected to field nearly the same starting five regardless of Isaiah Wynn's health as they did last week in Minnesota. However, there's growing optimism that starting center and team captain David Andrews could return on Thursday night.
Andrews told reporters he would be "ready to go" after practicing in a limited capacity all week and is officially questionable for Thursday night's game. The veteran center traveled to Minnesota on Thanksgiving but ultimately was inactive after suffering a thigh injury in New England's win over the Jets in Week 11.
If the Patriots longtime center can play, New England's starting offensive line should look like this: LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Mike Onwenu, RT Yodny Cajuste. If Andrews can't play, expect backup James Ferentz to take his place.
Last week, the same starting four with Ferentz in the middle held the Vikings pass rush to a respectable 28.6% pressure rate, allowing quarterback Mac Jones to have his best game of the season. With Von Miller (knee) out for Buffalo's defense, a clean pocket could let Jones succeed in the passing game against a banged-up Bills secondary.
Although the Bills are always a formidable opponent, facing Buffalo at a time when Miller and starting left tackle Dion Dawkins will not play is a break for New England. Miller may have avoided a major injury to his knee in the Thanksgiving win over the Lions, but he'll miss some time, including this week's game, while Dawkins is dealing with an ankle injury.
Without Dawkins, the Bills will turn to backup tackle David Quessenberry to protect Allen's blindside, and right tackle Spencer Brown is also struggling in pass protection, so the matchup in the trenches is winnable for the Patriots, who must take advantage of those key injuries.
For the Patriots to pull off an upset as home underdogs, head coach Bill Belichick needs a different defensive approach that allows a productive pass rush to get after Allen. Offensively, Jones and company need to build off their performance against the Vikings to match the Bills on the scoreboard since holding Buffalo's offense completely in check is unrealistic.
New England gets its first shot to avenge last season's playoff disappointment when the Patriots host the Bills at Gillette Stadium with kickoff at 8:15 pm ET on Thursday Night Football.