The Patriots have to be feeling pretty good about the position they've put themselves in. After starting 2-4, New England has reeled off six-straight wins, putting them back near the top of the conference and divisional standings, but next Monday they'll get the kind of test that will define their season -- a divisional clash with the reigning AFC East champions, the Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo found a new level in 2020, with a talented and cohesive defense and a dynamic young quarterback surrounded by outstanding playmakers, the Bills won two playoff games and made it all the way to the AFC Championship where they fell to the Kansas City Chiefs.
In 2021, the Bills have experienced some growing pains, losing three of their last six games after a 4-1 start to the year which included an impressive defeat of the Chiefs team that had ended their season. Still, Buffalo has all the pieces and all the rankings to prove that they remain one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL.
"This is the best group we've played all year," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on Tuesday. "First of all, they're really well coached. Coach McDermott, Leslie Fraser, they do a tremendous job with their staff. We don't play a group that's more connected than this one. Whatever the call is, all 11 guys know exactly what their role is on the call and they never make a mistake it seems."
Buffalo's veteran defense will look to make rookie quarterback Mac Jones' Monday Night Football debut a difficult one. This is the biggest game of young Mac's career, against a divisional opponent that is well-familiar with the Patriots and major playoff implications on the line while playing in front of a hostile crowd on a nationally televised game.
So far, Jones has been excellent in his rookie season, surpassing most expectations in leading the Patriots to an 8-4 record. The infusion of youth and new faces is all coming together and McDaniels has been enjoying it.
"We've got a lot of good young players that really have added some energy," said McDaniels. "They're fun to coach, they're fun to be around. I really like the vibe in our room and for coaches, it makes our days, that are normally long, it makes them fly by because you're having a lot of fun."
They'll need their best effort against Buffalo, with Jones continuing to play his efficient and safe play.
"I think the big thing for us is we are seeing growth in his ability to process the opponent every week, his ability to change from one week to the next," said McDaniels. "This week's going to be another big challenge there and I think for Mac when he comes out of the game having generally taken care of the ball and made some good decisions, even if they resulted in an incomplete pass or a possession that ended in a punt or a field goal. To me, I don't look at all those and say 'wow, what a disaster that was.' Sometimes you have to understand what could've been in terms of worse."
Jones has already gone through a challenging gauntlet of defenses this season. From opening the year against Brian Flores, to managing against defenses run by former Patriots like Dean Pees and Mike Vrabel, Jones has quickly gotten a taste of everything that can be thrown at him in the NFL.
But Buffalo is the true test, since the road to the playoffs starts in the division. Last season, the Patriots nearly pulled off a win in Buffalo, with a late Cam Newton fumble sealing their fate. The rematch in December wasn't nearly as close as the Bills rolled 38-9 in the penultimate game of the regular season.
Buffalo is well aware of everything that is on the line as well, and despite their recent inconsistency, should be expected to throw their best punch against the Patriots.
"They're good on third down, they're really good in the red zone," said McDaniels. "They just don't give up many easy plays and they're one of the best teams we'll play this year in terms of limiting big production. They force you to be disciplined, they force you to execute play after play, they force you to drive the football. And usually, their team does a good job playing complementary football so you don't usually have a bunch of short fields on them.
"We have our work cut out for us. They have really good talented players at all three levels as I mentioned before they're extremely well coached. I look forward to the challenge and it is a great challenge to go up there and play against this team coached by this staff."