For weeks, a black-and-white photo hung taped in Mac Jones’ locker.
It showed him walking away from a joyous Bills team, retreating toward his sideline. Two numbers were scribbled in red ink on the left side of the 14-by-8-inch photo.
“47 – 17”
The picture and the score served as a reminder. How the Bills thoroughly dominated the Patriots in the Wild Card round of the playoffs last season, unleashing the greatest offensive performance seen in NFL postseason history. Jones hardly stood a chance, particularly after he threw an interception on his opening drive and the team punted at the end of his next two possessions.
Now, the Pats must return to Buffalo to, in all likelihood, save their playoff hopes. The Patriots can clinch the AFC’s third and final Wild Card spot with a win, otherwise they’ll need three other teams to lose over the weekend. Instead of counting on their downfall, here’s how Jones and Co. can avenge last year’s loss and extend their season.
1. Prioritize yards after catch
By most metrics, Buffalo’s defense ranks among the league’s best.
The Bills are stout against the run, and stingy against the pass. A veteran group, they aren’t fooled by much. There is one measure, however, that casts Buffalo as not just below-average, but as the NFL’s worst in one particular area: tackling.
The Bills’ are the NFL’s worst tackling team, per Pro Football Focus, and have missed 76 tackles this season, a bottom-10 mark, according to Pro Football Reference. To exploit this, the Pats should prioritize plays that force the Bills to tackle in space. Feed Rhamondre Stevenson and Kendrick Bourne.
Yes, that may mean more of the dreaded screens, but also jet sweeps, shallow crosses and pick-route combinations. Anything to get your playmakers free in space where they can generate yards on their own.
2. Target the safeties
The Bills once boasted the NFL’s best safety duo.
Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were the gold standard of interchangeable parts tying together a secondary. Now, Hyde is out with a neck injury, and Poyer missed practice this week with a knee injury.
Even if Poyer plays Sunday, look for the Pats to target their safeties in either man-to-man coverage or with misdirection. Without Hyde and Damar Hamlin, Buffalo will be down to a third-string safety next to Poyer. After the Bills declared themselves fit to play after Hamlin’s incident Monday night, don’t expect the Patriots to hold back.
They’ll be targeting Buffalo’s weaknesses, just as the Bills will attack theirs, and for once, that means the deep end of the Buffalo secondary.
3. Play keep-away
You know the cliché.
The Patriots’ best defense against Josh Allen and the Bills? A good offense. More specifically, a great time of possession.
The Patriots must shorten the game with long drives, which will limit Allen’s possessions. Allen and Buffalo wide receiver Stefon Diggs will be the two best players on the field Sunday. The less the Patriots see of them, the better.
To sustain long drives, expect a steady mix of RPOs, misdirection runs and short passes. Such an approach should also help offset the Bills’ pass rush, which generated a 39.5% pressure rate against the Patriots in their last game on Dec. 1.
Avoid a repeat of history Sunday, and make some of your own.