First and foremost, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you reading this piece. This year has been a trying one for all of us, with the pandemic and changes going on around us in the world. It’s been hard, but we’ve perservered and have made it to the holiday season, inching ever so closer to 2021. I’m proud of us, and we will continue to improve and grow as new challenges arise.

Now to the game at hand. The New England Patriots were eliminated from postseason contention last week after losing to the Miami Dolphins 22-12 and fell to 6-8. New England couldn’t manage to put the ball in the end zone and couldn’t stop the run, giving up 122 yards to Salvon Ahmed. With nothing  to play for, they face an even tougher matchup at home against the 2020 AFC East Champion (did anybody else just gag a little?) Buffalo Bills, who sit as the second best team in the conference with an 11-3 record. Quarterback Josh Allen has stepped up in a big way and is an outside contender for the MVP award in a campaign in which he has passed for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns with just nine interceptions. He’s quickly becoming the greatest signal caller the Bills have had since the days of Jim Kelly in the ’80s and ’90s. The Bills are looking like a real threat in the AFC, and are more than likely not going anywhere for a long time as it pertains to being contenders for the AFC East title, or even being the representative of the conference in the Super Bowl.

As for the Patriots, 2020 began very similarly to how it ended. With more questions than answers, they will have a head start on the off-season and will begin preparing for the 2021 campaign, in hopes to reclaim the division that they had won for a dozen straight seasons until now. Without further adieu, set it up Bailey. Let’s get this one underway.

Three Keys To The Game

Patriots vs Dolphins snap counts: Injuries force New England to adapt - Pats Pulpit
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Key #1: J.C. Jackson Vs. Stefon Diggs

If you didn’t hear the news already, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore suffered a partially torn quad in last week’s game ahainst Miami and will miss the rest of the season. Meaning the matchup of the game is going to be J.C. Jackson in Gilmore’s place versus Pro Bowl receiver Stefon Diggs who is having a career year in Buffalo. Jackson hasn’t been matched up with a true No. 1 receiver since Gilmore returned from his initial knee injury, and will have the toughest duty of just about anybody playing this game. Diggs torched the Patriots in Week 8, catching six passes for 92 yards. If the Patriots want to play “spoiler” (not sure what there is to spoil though, they have the division wrapped up) they can’t allow Diggs to do what he did last time.

Key #2: Finish Drives

The offense did not sway from it’s usual ineffectiveness last week in Miami. New England managed to only put up four field goals against the Dolphins despite sustaining long drives. The Bills aren’t going to make it any easier on the Pats come Monday night. Quarterback Cam Newton crossed 200 yards for the first time in a month last week. Unfortunately, those yards don’t mean much when they only resulted in field goals. Moving the chains only goes to the 10 yard line, and settling for three points every time doesn’t win very many games. Newton hasn’t led a touchdown scoring drive in 21 possessions, the last one coming three weeks ago against the Los Angeles Chargers. If the Patriots don’t get six points at the end of a handful of the drives that they’re going to have, this game will be ugly. The Bills are going to get their points one way or another, and the Pats need to keep up if they’re going to pull off the upset.

Key #3: Don’t Get Burned

Allen has an absolute cannon for an arm. He can accurately throw the ball for about 70 yards at any given point in the game. With receivers like Diggs, Cole Beasley and John Brown, they can all beat the Patriots deep and will more than likely aim to do so. If the Patriots are going to contain and limit this explosive Buffalo offense, keeping the opposing weapons in front of them will be key in at least giving their offense a chance to keep up because, as mentioned earlier, the Bills are going to get some points one way or another.

X-Factor: Safety Devin McCourty

Patriots' Devin McCourty went from contemplating retirement to one of the best stretches of his career -
Adrian Kraus, AP Photo

With Gilmore out, it’s probable that Diggs will be double-teamed on nearly every snap, seeing as how when Jackson covered him in Week 8, Diggs played the better game. Enter Devin McCourty. When a receiver needs to be doubled, McCourty is almost always the safety that the Patriots look to give the corners some help. On receivers like Tyreek Hill, you’ll often see the captain hanging overhead in case the receiver burns the corner off the spot. You’d have to imagine that Diggs is such a threat that he will command this attention. If the Patriots are going to put a damper on this Buffalo passing game, neutralizing their best receiver is the way to go about it. It may not be Jackson who covers Diggs, but I would not be surprised if McCourty pairs up with any of the corners to make Allen throw the ball somewhere else.

Closing Thoughts

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So this season didn’t meet expectations. The Patriots made it to just Week 15 before being eliminated from postseason eligibility. This is the first time since 2000 that the Pats were eliminated before the final week of the year (they missed the playoffs off of tiebreakers in 2002 and 2008) and having two games that essentially are just a formality. Not having any Patriots football to watch come January is what fans across the tri-state area are forced to live with, but hopefully not become accustomed to. There is a long off-season ahead, addressing how to go about the gaping hole at the quarterback position that Tom Brady left on St. Patrick’s Day is at the top of the Patriots to-do list. No immediate changes ahead of Week 16, as Bill Belichick has deemed Newton the starting quarterback, leaving Jarrett Stidham to hold the clipboard, and Brian Hoyer to continue to remain buried under Gillette Stadium after his disaster in Kansas City.

As for the game at hand, I don’t see a world where the Patriots win this. It’s a new era of AFC East football and the Patriots missed the invitation last off-season preparing so poorly for year one of the post-Brady era. This game is going to be sloppy and tough to watch, but one could hope that the Pats at least showcase some players the viewers at home didn’t get to witness too much (Isaiah Zuber anyone?) as the season went on. Although outside of this being a divisional rivalry, I don’t see why this game should be close. Brace yourselves Patriots fans, it’s going to be a tough pill to swallow come Monday night in Gillette, in front of a whole lot of empty seats.

Final Score: 34-10 Buffalo wins (Patriots fall to 6-9)

Photo Source: USA Today Sports