The Buffalo Bills will remain on the road this week, following consecutive wins in Detroit they will now face the New England Patriots in Week 13.
With an opportunity to gain ground in their division, there are certain things to keep an eye out for.
Here are five things to watch for during Thursday’s Bills-Patriots matchup:
The Bills have played well the last two seasons against the Patriots in New England, going 2-0 in those contests, which is important since they often say “division games count double.”
With games left on the schedule after this week against all three squads, Thursday will be the first opportunity since those losses to right the ship in the quest for another AFC East crown.
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Illnesses have impeded some Bills players in recent weeks, and have hit particularly hard ahead of Thursday’s game against the Patriots.
Five players were listed with an illness on Monday’s injury report, missing practice. Cornerback Dane Jackson, safety Damar Hamlin, safety Jaquan Johnson, receiver Khalil Shakir, and tight end Quintin Morris were listed as out.
The Bills need as many healthy players as possible right now, especially being shorthanded in receiver depth as well as in a defensive group that has been hit with injuries.
Returns on defense
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The Bills defensive group has remained formidable despite losing starters and star contributors to injury over the past year.
One of the most visible examples was CB Tre’Davious White, who just returned to the field during last week’s Thanksgiving Day victory over the Detroit Lions. During that game, OLB Von Miller was lost to a knee injury that has him out for the time being.
While the teams’ defense overall has stayed competitive, a string of other key contributors recently on the IL could also return against the Patriots.
Sack Mac and corner the passing game
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Mac Jones and the Patriots air attack is coming off a big day despite a loss against the Vikings. He went for 28-of-39 and 382 yards with two touchdowns passing and a 119.8 passer rating. The Pats offensive line finally put together a good game after struggling this season, allowing no QB hits aside from three allowed sacks by Minnesota.
The Bills will hope to have three heavy hitters back to contribute to pocket pressure and run defense in Edmunds, Rousseau, and Epenesa, to join the strong play of linebacker Matt Milano and tackle Ed Oliver. They will need it in Miller’s absence, but having those hands on deck could make life difficult for Jones and the Patriots O-line.
White’s return is significant to a Buffalo CB group that has struggled as of late, and that will need to be on their game against Jones and the New England receiving corps coming off their Week 11 performance.
Attack the Pats defense
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Taking what the defense gives you might include some Thanksgiving leftovers if last week’s Patriots loss to the Vikings is any indication of what opportunities may exist for the Bills offense as well. New England’s defensive group played well stopping the run against Minnesota but struggled to defend their passing game, and their special teams struggled to defend, giving up a 97-yard kickoff return.
New England corner Jonathan Jones had a pick while defending star receiver Justin Jefferson last week, but Jefferson beat him on routes most of the game, putting up 139 receiving yards on nine receptions with a touchdown.
Enter Bills receiver Stefon Diggs. If Jones is tasked with defending Diggs, who is revered for his route running, it could mean another big day for the receiver he’s defending. If he’s on fellow receiver Gabe Davis, whom Diggs’ has mentored in the route running arts, Davis could also be productive in that regard.
Some of the receiving corps could see some more action regardless. Patriots corner Myles Bryant was a weak spot in the defense against the Vikings (and this season) struggling in coverage and committing a personal foul and brutal hit on a defenseless Adam Thielen. The Patriots defense didn’t look particularly strong last week, and quarterback Josh Allen has thrown at least two touchdown passes each of the Bills last three games in New England (with 9 total) and only one interception.