With just two games to go and the Patriots playoff seed still up in the air, New England welcomes a 10-win Buffalo Bills team looking to get the kind of win that could signal a long-awaited power shift in the AFC East.
Buffalo can't win the division by beating the Patriots this week, but they can deal a major blow to their hopes of a playoff bye. That would still mean a lot to the Buffalo franchise and set the stage for a potential Wild Card rematch in a couple weeks.
However, the Patriots can seal up the division if they win, but this is far from the AFC late-season layups of the past decade. These are not the same old Bills. They feature one of the best defenses in the NFL, a defense that under Sean McDermott has held Tom Brady to three touchdowns and five interceptions in five games since 2017.
With an injured Julian Edelman and inconsistency across the rest of the offense, this is shaping up to be one of the most challenging games of Brady's career and that does add a refreshing level of intrigue.
What do the Patriots need to do to get a win that seals up an 11th-straight division title and puts them one season-finale victory over the Dolphins away from the second seed in the AFC?
Here's are the Keys!
The first matchup of these two teams was a 16-10 rock fight that was largely decided by Buffalo's quarterbacks throwing four interceptions as well as a blocked punt that Matthew Slater recovered for a touchdown. Without those game-changing plays, New England might not have escaped with a win.
Can they do it again? Buffalo is playing much more safe with the ball, while also forcing as many turnovers in recent weeks as the Patriots, with both squads coming off of five-takeaway games. Turnovers are always critical, but in a game featuring two defensive-led teams in late December they become even more so.
Whichever team plays more safe with the ball will win this game, it might be just that simple.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 16 matchup against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, December 21, 2019.
Stone Cold Run Stoppers
The Patriots run defense has been one aspect of their dominant unit that has failed them at times this season. The Bills were the first team to break 100 rushing yards on them and the problems peaked with 210 rushing yards by the Ravens (yeah, the Ravens have done that to everyone). Since then the run defense improved but regressed last week against Joe Mixon and the Bengals, allowing 164 yards, their second-highest total of the season.
There's good reason to believe that the Bills saw the Bengals run-centric approach and will once again lean on their backs, led by Devin Singletary. This will take pressure off of Josh Allen and limit takeaway opportunities for the strength of the Patriots defense -- the secondary.
When the Bengals started having success on the ground right out of the gate, the Patriots shifted to a majority of their old 3-4 defense, but against a primarily three-receiver offense that could stretch them thin in the secondary with only four defensive backs. One way or another, stopping the run will be an essential 60-minute battle.
Now is the Time, Offense
We know the dramatic tale of the 2019 Patriots offense by this point, but here we are, in a meaningful Week 16 game against one of the best defenses in the NFL and no one knows quite what to expect. Are we still holding out hope they can suddenly click and put up 30-plus points? Or must we just expect that they'll do what they've been doing -- avoid the critical mistake and capitalize when the defense and special team give them field position, or even better, points?
The headline coming into the game is of course the health of Julian Edelman, the offensive MVP of the team, who had just two catches for nine yards against the Bengals. There's little reason to think Edelman will suddenly be healthy and more effective against the Bills. So now we're asking the offense to deliver in a critical spot without their most reliable piece.
The burden falls to the running game and the secondary weapons who have been under the radar and inconsistent all season. N'Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu and Matt LaCosse are the key guys who will play and get the important targets. It's not quite now or never, but another tepid performance by that core group could lead to a New England loss that wouldn't be all that surprising.
Can the Patriots hit a new level of potential? No one knows for sure and this will be the last big test before it's all on the line in the playoffs.
Unflinching 60 Minutes and Finish
As has been the case all season long, the win matters more than the style points. Everyone would love to see a breakout game for Brady and the offense. They've been putting in the work under constant pressure and plenty of frustrating ups and downs.
But there's also a good chance that the 2019 Patriots are who they've been all season -- a team that needs their defense and special teams to lead the way to a win and offset an inconsistent offense. Getting caught up in how the game unfolds is something the Patriots have never done and shouldn't be expected to start doing now.
Maybe the potential isn't what it once was, but a clean, hard-fought 60 minutes in their home stadium is usually enough for a win and at this point that should be the only focus. This one should come down to the very end and the team that makes the critical plays in crunch time will be the one that gets the win.
The closest thing to a season-defining win that the Patriots have had this season is likely the Week 4 win over the Bills. But that victory was tenuous and inspired little excitement. The rematch has the potential to be a lot more, but it will likely just be more of the same.
The Patriots can hope that after a win they'll be able to pull way back on Edelman's reps in Week 17, then give him a full week off to get healthy for the divisional round. At that point maybe our expectations for the offense can rise slightly, especially if additional reps and attention help get guys like Harry and Sanu on track.
But for this week it's all about the defense and special teams doing what they do and making the difference in a critical division game.