Showtime: Four Matchups to Watch in Saturday’s Patriots-Bills Wild Card contest

CBS Sports’ Will Brinson called this a “Cold War AFC East Rubber Match,” and you can’t describe it any better than that.


What a time to be having this reprise. The Bills and Patriots - recent AFC East rivals in the historical context of the division - didn’t square off until December 6th this season. Matchup 1 was an historical one, all things considered; the Pats ran the ball every play except 3, and Mac Jones threw for a cool 19 yards. The most important thing? An addition to the win column for the Pats.


It didn’t take long for Matchup 2, and the Bills came roaring back in 33-21 fashion. They passed, they ran, they tackled, and they made stops. It was all Buffalo.


And now, it's time to settle their differences on the big stage.


It’s no secret; if the Bills execute their gameplan, they’ll win. But the Patriots have a path to win, too…they did it just a few weeks ago.


Here are four key mini-matchups the Patriots must win to get to Divisional Round weekend.



Myles Bryant vs. Isaiah McKenzie

Bryant had a super-tough matchup just a few weeks ago in Isaiah McKenzie, and he came out on the wrong end. He allowed the Bills wide receiver to grab 11 catches for over 120 yards and a touchdown. Twitter exploded at Bryant (as I covered in my Week 17 recap), but he responded to the criticism against the Jaguars by grabbing an interception and locking down most of their offensive weapons (albeit few of them). Now, opportunity strikes again for the former practice squad defensive back; between him and J.C. Jackson, they need to be ready to lock down a talented Bills receiving corps.


Matt Judon & Company vs. Josh Allen

The Pats are 8-2 when Judon records a sack, and 2-5 when he doesn’t. You want to put yourself in a solid position to win the game? The formula is clear; bring the heat. Matt Judon even told us himself, the challenge is to keep Josh Allen in the pocket, and that’ll certainly be the key to success on Saturday night. “In the two games we played, he had a gain over 15 (yards) with his legs,” Judon told the media this week. “That’s just tough when he can do both (pass and run), so we have to keep him in the pocket, make him use his arm, and make him beat the coverage instead of him uncovering everybody with just running.” It’s a tall order, but the Pats have their marching orders. It can’t be just Judon, though; the Pats need help from Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise, and the linebacking core of Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower for this to work well.

Kyle Van Noy celebrates a tackle with teammates Daniel Ekuale and Matt Judon. PIC: Lynne Sladky/AP


Damien Harris vs. Buffalo’s front seven

The Pats are lucky to have had Harris emerge as one of the most talented running backs they’ve had in at least 3 years. He’s quick, shifty, and physical, despite his 5-foot-11 frame. In two games against the Bills this year, he’s rushed for 214 yards and 14 touchdowns…good for almost 8 yards per carry. It’s no secret that shutting down Harris is a HUGE priority for Buffalo, especially considering they are the sixth-best team in the NFL with regard to run defense over their last 3 games. It’ll be a matter of LB Matt Milano and DT Ed Oliver stepping up to get Harris off his tracks.


Side note; if Belichick and Josh McDaniels try anything similar to what they did against Buffalo in the Cold War in December, Harris’s role (along with rookie Rhamondre Stevenson) multiplies in significance.


Mac Jones vs. Himself

Let’s get real, everyone - none of us expected Mac Jones to have even made it to this moment. So, hat tip to the Alabama rookie for quarterbacking this team (literally and physically) to the playoffs, erasing a year-long hiatus that felt like an eternity.


Mac Jones has the tools to succeed at this level. He’s got great accuracy, he’s not afraid to throw the deep ball, and he’s arguably above average in pocket-passing. Jones was not the same player he is now during the first few weeks of the year, and that’s probably for a few reasons…maybe play-calling, maybe chemistry, or good-ole-fashioned rookie stage fright. Over time, he became visibly more comfortable.


He’s had his blunders, and as I mentioned last week, his growing pains are coming at a bad time heading into the playoffs. He knows he’s accountable; now it’s just a matter of executing. “There’s no excuses, and there’s really nothing to talk about. I can play a lot better and I can lead a lot better; it starts with me,” he said after the 33-21 loss to the Bills on December 26th.

Mac Jones can't beat himself on Saturday against the Bills. PIC: Adrian Kraus/AP

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