It is officially a new era in Buffalo after the sun finally set on the Patriots dynasty this past Saturday. The Buffalo Bills clinched their first AFC East divisional title in 25 years with a dominant 48-19 victory over the Denver Broncos, setting themselves up to host playoff football in January. Meanwhile, New England watched their playoff hopes disappear as Bill Belichick and company get to make early vacation plans for the first time since 2008. While the division is already locked up with two games left to play, there are still plenty of implications on the line for Monday Night Football in Foxborough. Following the Cincinnati Bengals’ upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Buffalo Bills now control their own destiny for the second seed in the AFC. Clinching the second seed would guarantee that the Bills could host at least two playoff games as long as they win on Wild Card Weekend. Home field advantage may not be as crucial as it has been in years past given the restrictions on fan attendance, however, no opposing team will be thrilled to play a tough Bills team in the numbing cold conditions present in Western New York this time of year. There is a possibility that the Bills Mafia could be welcomed back in time for the postseason after recent reports stated that the Bills are working with the New York State Government on a proposal for 6,700 socially distanced fans to be allowed in Bills Stadium this January. 6,700 fans may not sound like a lot, but following an entire season of eerie silence in the stadium, even a fraction of passionate Bills fans in attendance would be a spark of energy for the players and coaches.
1. Stefon Diggs vs. J.C. Jackson
Last year, Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore won Defensive Player of the Year for the standout season he had. This year, another Patriots CB might take home the same award. J.C. Jackson has been outstanding for the Patriots this season, snatching a career high 8 interceptions through 14 games. Jackson has had a knack for finding the football in his young three-year career, but this season has proven to be his best one yet. The Patriots secondary will be without Gilmore, whose season ended with a partially torn quad injury last week against Miami. That being said, Jackson will likely see plenty of snaps lined up across arguably the league’s best receiver this season, Stefon Diggs. The combination of Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs has set the league on fire this season, reaching heights never before seen in Buffalo. Both Allen and Diggs are on track to break franchise records set by Bills legends Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, and Eric Moulds. Given their remarkable success in only a brief time together, it would not be surprising if every record is eventually shattered by these two the longer they play in Buffalo. Diggs vs. Jackson is a must watch battle between the best of the best, but it will not entirely decide the game. The Bills receiver core is too deep with talent to focus on just one player. As great as Diggs is, forgetting about guys like Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, and a returning John Brown can be equally as deadly for opposing defenses. The Patriots secondary is the strength of their defense, but they may have to pick their poison when facing this potent Bills offense.
2. Bills Special Teams vs. Pats Special Teams
Special teams are often overlooked when it comes to its impact on the game, which is why the playmakers on that side of the ball deserve much more credit. To illustrate just how important special teams are, it is easiest to revisit the 2010 San Diego Chargers season. In a year that they possessed the number one ranked offense and defense in the NFL, the 2010 Chargers still missed the playoffs. How is that even possible? Well, despite their excellence on offense and defense, the Chargers managed to rank dead last in special teams. The Chargers’ special teams unit was so brutal, gifting away key field position on so many kick/punt returns that it outweighed their brilliance everywhere else. Neither the Bills nor the Patriots struggle on special teams. In fact, both teams rank in the top half of the league in that category. While the Patriots do not have the same success in the kicking game as the Bills, their kick coverage has consistently thrived under Bill Belichick. Patriots ST Matthew Slater, easily the best gunner in the NFL for the past decade, has been a phenomenal playmaker for the Patriots on that side of the ball. Slater credits Bills legend Steve Tasker for paving the way for guys like him, stating “I think of Steve Tasker as being The Godfather of special teams…I think he set the standard so high, the bar so high, that I think that coaches when they started to build their teams realized, ‘hey, this an important phase of the game.’” Slater has consistently advocated for Steve Tasker to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and once that happens, Slater deserves to receive the same honor one day as well. Big plays on special teams can completely impact the outcome of the game, so fans should certainly keep an eye on the way these two units fight for field position throughout the course of the game.
3. Bills Run Defense vs. Patriots Running Game
It is currently up in the air which QB the Patriots intend to start this week. Cam Newton may give them a better chance to win, yet with two games left in the season, the Patriots may opt to get an extended look at second-year QB Jarrett Stidham. Bill Belichick has been reluctant to reveal if he is making a QB switch, but either way, it should not matter much. New England’s passing game has been abysmal this season with only 7 touchdown passes combined between the two QB’s on the year. As a result, New England is forced to rely mostly on their running game for offensive production. New England’s lead back, Damien Harris, will miss this game with ankle injury, leaving the Pats to turn to their remaining stable of running backs led by former first-round pick, Sony Michel. Buffalo’s run defense has improved quite a bit since the last time these two teams met, slowly finding their form as the season progresses. Given the Patriots’ shortcomings in the passing game, that places an increased incentive to dial in on stopping the run. If New England struggles to run the ball on Monday, it could end up being a long night for them.
The Bills have continually shown up on a national stage for the past few weeks, and with this game being played on Monday Night Football, it is a perfect opportunity to showcase to the rest of the world that the Patriots’ reign is over. A win on Monday Night would allow the Bills to sweep New England for the first time since 1999, providing yet another incentive to win this game. The last meeting between these teams ended with a heroic forced fumble by Justin Zimmer. This time around should be a different story. The Patriots are banged up, listing an alarming 20 players as questionable on the injury report. The Bills are much better than this team right now and are certainly much healthier, and that should be apparent after Monday Night.