The Patriots are nearly at full strength for their win-and-in matchup against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on Sunday.
Although New England downgraded CB Jalen Mills (groin) and TE Jonnu Smith (concussion) to out on Saturday, the only somewhat surprising game-day inactive in special teams ace Brenden Schooler, who was questionable with a hip injury. Pats corner Jonathan Jones (chest) and WR Jakobi Meyers (shoulder) are officially active. For those who missed it, rookie CB Marcus Jones and WR DeVante Parker cleared concussion protocol this week and will play on Sunday. It's also noteworthy that practice squad elevations LB Calvin Munson and TE Matt Sokol are active. Munson will likely fill in for Schooler on special teams.
Along with Mills and Smith, the Patriots game-day inactives for Sunday's tilt are as follows: CB Jalen Mills, TE Jonnu Smith, CB Shaun Wade, DT Sam Roberts, FS Joshuah Bledsoe, RB Kevin Harris, and SS Brenden Schooler.
With the Patriots close to full strength, the focus turns to pulling off an upset on the road to punch their ticket to the playoffs. Buffalo has defeated New England in five of the last six meetings, with the Pats lone victory in a wind-impacted game last season.
Offensively, this week's game plan comes down to finally solving a Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier-led defense that has shut down the Patriots passing attack. 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.
The Bills major in zone coverage, specifically split-safety zone, playing zone schemes on all but two pass attempts for Mac in the first meeting (Week 13). The Patriots tried moving the ball with "quick game" concepts aimed at attacking short zones to create yards after the catch but had poor results.
Instead, the hope is that New England will attack the deep part of the field more this time, where Jones has a completion rate over expected (CPOE) of plus-five this season on deep throws. In particular, Mac ranks third in the NFL in CPOE against split-safety zones (+5.7).
After safety Damar Hamlin's horrific injury on Monday night, the Bills safety has thankfully made positive strides in his recovery. Although football is secondary to Hamlin's health, the bottom line is that Buffalo is now relying on third-string safety Jaquan Johnson next to Jordan Poyer since Hamlin was replacing Pro Bowler Micah Hyde already.
Understandably, the focus for most game-plan wise is how Belichick schemes to slow down Josh Allen and the Bills offense. However, the Pats offense needs to compete on the scoreboard for New England to stand a chance against Buffalo.
The Patriots defense's early-down zone formula, coupled with more aggressive third-down calls, should force the Bills to march down the field on longer drives. But, even if the Pats defense keeps Buffalo's offense in the 20s as it did in Week 13, the Patriots offense needs to match that production.
New England's defense still needs to hold up its end of the bargain. One way they could do that is by baiting Allen into mistakes. The Bills quarterback is terrific, but he has a league-high 29 turnover-worthy plays this season facing a Pats defense with 27 takeaways (second-most in NFL) and an NFL-best seven defensive touchdowns.
The best way for the Patriots defense to cause turnovers is by taking away Allen's go-to target, Stefon Diggs. That's easier said than done, and Diggs averages over 93 yards with five touchdowns in five career regular-season games vs. the Patriots. Still, if the Pats can take out Diggs, 12 of Allen's 13 interceptions this season came while targeting his other receivers.
Most likely, Pats cornerback Jonathan Jones will draw the matchup against Diggs. But the smart thing would be to roll coverage or send double teams Diggs's way as often as possible.
New England's playoff scenarios in the final week of the regular season are simple. With a win, the Patriots are in as the AFC's seventh seed. Following a Jaguars win last night, the Patriots can still claim the final Wild Card spot with a loss if the Dolphins (vs. Jets) and Steelers (vs. Browns) also lose on Sunday.
The Patriots look to punch their ticket to the playoffs when they visit the Bills at 1 pm ET in Buffalo on Sunday.