The Patriots divisional showdown with the Bills has become a war of attrition for both AFC East teams ahead of Thursday night's clash at Gillette Stadium.
With the two teams dealing with key injuries in the trenches, the Patriots got some good news as center David Andrews (thigh) and offensive tackle Trent Brown (illness) are officially active.
Along with Damien Harris (thigh) and Isaiah Wynn (foot), who were already ruled out for Thursday night's game, the Patriots will also be down starting corner Jalen Mills. Mills is dealing with a groin injury coming off last Thursday night's loss in Minnesota and won't play tonight.
Although the Patriots got good news along the offensive line with Andrews and Brown, third-year tackle Yodny Cajuste is inactive due to a calf injury. Cajuste has started New England's last three games at right tackle, meaning they'll need to do some shuffling there.
New England's full game-day inactives are as follows: RB Damien Harris, OT Isaiah Wynn, CB Shaun Wade, DB Joshuah Bledsoe, OT Yodny Cajuste, NT Carl Davis, and CB Jalen Mills.
Starting with the offensive line, Andrews missed last week's game despite traveling to Minnesota with the team on Thanksgiving. The veteran captain was hoping to play last Thursday night, but the team decided to play it safe on a short week. Initially, Andrews's thigh injury was reported as a multi-week ailment. However, the Pats starting center has decided to play through the injury and is expected to start on Thursday night vs. Buffalo.
As for Brown, the Pats hulking left tackle was a late addition to the injury report and has been dealing with flu-like symptoms since New England's win over the Jets in Week 11. Surprisingly, Brown didn't start against New York because he was under the weather, so it's unclear if the veteran tackle will start or play the game against the Bills this week.
New England is very thin at offensive tackle with Isaiah Wynn (foot) ruled out on Wednesday, vet Marcus Cannon (concussion) on injured reserve, Cajuste (calf) inactive, and Brown dealing with a two-week illness.
Based on the current information, here are the most likely starting offensive line combinations for the Patriots:
- LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG James Ferentz, and RT Mike Onwenu
- LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Mike Onwenu, and RT Connor McDermott
- LT Connor McDermott, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG James Ferentz, and RT Mike Onwenu
McDermott signed to the 53-man roster off the Jets practice squad nine days ago. He started his career as a Patriots draft selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, giving him some knowledge of the system. Still, it's hard to envision McDermott getting the start just nine days into his second stint with the team.
As for the secondary without Mills, the Patriots will rely more on a standout rookie Jack Jones at outside cornerback. Jones is already playing 55.7% of the defensive snaps but now could be a full-time starter alongside Jonathan Jones. With the veteran on Bills All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs, the rookie Jones will likely draw a matchup with Buffalo wideout Gabriel Davis.
The Pats need to deal with the speedy Isaiah McKenzie in the slot. Last season, McKenzie caught eight passes for 83 yards with nickel corner Myles Bryant in coverage. To match speed on speed, Belichick could turn to third-round draft pick Marcus Jones in the slot over Bryant.
In the offensive backfield, the Patriots did not elevate running back J.J. Taylor from the practice squad, as both rookie running backs are active. Although he is active for the game, running back Pierre Strong has played almost exclusively on special teams with only ten offensive snaps, mostly in mop-up duty in his rookie season. On the other hand, Kevin Harris is active for the first time since Week 6, when he carried the ball thrice.
The Patriots were expected to ride second-year breakout star Rhamondre Stevenson anyways but might do so even more now without an experienced backup. If they need to play one of the rookies on offense, our best guess is that Harris will get some early-down carries.
Luckily, the Patriots depleted tackle depth will catch a break as the Bills placed star pass-rusher Von Miller (knee) on injured reserve on Thursday. Buffalo will also play Thursday night's game without starting left tackle Dion Dawkins (ankle).
The Patriots will look to find an answer for Bills quarterback Josh Allen when they host Buffalo in a pivotal AFC East tilt with kickoff at 8:15 pm ET at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night.