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Patriots need their best game in Round 3, but trends don’t favor them

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Patriots need their best game in Round 3, but trends don’t favor them

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The Bills are healthier, have the best quarterback and are at home, while the Patriots have lost three of their last four.

Damien Harris scored the Patriots’ lone touchdown in the win over the Bills in Week 13, and all three in the loss in Week 16. Count on him to shoulder the charge once again. Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Welcome to Season 10, Episode 18 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet light-hearted, nostalgia-tinged look at the Patriots’ weekly game.

And so we have the rubber game, the third meeting between AFC East champion Bills and the Patriots, who enter the playoffs as wildcards for the first time since the 1998 season.

The Patriots won Game 1, a resounding 14-10 victory in Week 13 at Buffalo in which they ran the ball 46 times on 49 offensive plays in a windstorm. The Bills got their measure of sweet revenge three weeks later, winning 33-21 at Foxborough behind a feat from quarterback Josh Allen.

The teams know each other well and mutual contempt has developed long ago. The specific matchups are of course also familiar: Patriots cornerback JC Jackson vs. Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs; Allen against anything Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ second defense (17.8 ppg) can throw at him; Mac Jones against the double barriers of the Bills’ No. 1-ranked defense (17 points per game) and the proverbial rookie wall.

The Patriots had an assortment of recurring problems in their 1-3 close to the season, which included losses to the Colts, Bills and Dolphins. They had at least a chance to win those three late games, but with each loss the defense couldn’t get the necessary stoppage.

There were also all-too-familiar self-inflicted errors, including the inexcusable infractions of essentially lining up in the wrong place by Christian Barmore (encroaching on fourth-and-7 against the Bills) and Lawrence Guy (illegal formation on a punt clearance against the Dolphins). We’ve said it on and off all season, and we have to say it again at the start of the playoffs: the Patriots need to clean up the unruly stuff if they’re going to have any chance of staying in the playoffs beyond Week One. end.

These are the most important questions. The most discussed issue, though perhaps a little less important given the Patriots have already beaten the Bills in a game in which he threw for 19 yards, is Jones.

Overall, he had an incredibly encouraging rookie season. If in August, when Jones was battling scattergun Cam Newton for the starter, someone told you the Patriots would make the playoffs and he’d be throwing for 3,801 yards, 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions and would complete 67.6 percent of his passes, most Patriots fans would have been thrilled.

And they still should be. The quarterback of the present has a bright future. But what would have surprised us if we had had a working crystal ball in August is the shape his season has taken. The reasonable assumption would have been that he gradually improved from week 1 to week 18.

But the reality is his last month was his toughest, and his worst game as a pro came in that second game with the Bills, when he went just 14 for 32 for 145 yards and a pair of d interceptions.

Overall, he had a great rookie year. But if the Patriots want to win Saturday night, he’ll have to reverse his recent trend.

Fire it up, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started…

Three players I will watch besides QBs

Damien Harris: There’s a tendency, I think, to recall the Patriots’ ability to run the ball against the Bills this season as a one-game achievement. When you win a game, like the Patriots did in Week 13, running 46 times for 222 yards, it’s only natural that such a dominant performance becomes a dominant memory.

But the reality is that the Patriots were also able to run the ball very close at will in the loss to the Bills, with Harris delivering the best performance of his career. With running mate Rhamondre Stevenson sidelined, Harris rushed for 118 of the Patriots’ 149 yards last game. He scored all three touchdowns for the Patriots.

Harris gained 111 yards on just 10 carries in the first meeting, including a 64-yard touchdown run to open the scoring, before Stevenson (78 crucial yards) took on the heavy lifting after Harris tweaked his hamstrings. leggings.

Hey, Josh McDaniels: Feed Harris, feed Stevenson and watch the yards pile up.

Matt Judon: Don’t dare compare his recent performances to Belichick’s latest big-money free agent ripped from the Ravens’ defense. Do not do it. Don’t even talk about Adalius Thomas, can you hear me?

After the way Judon played for the first two-thirds of the season – through Week 13, he had 12.5 sacks, 25 quarterback hits and looked like a true defensive player candidate for the year – he deserves the benefit of the doubt. (Since you mentioned it – it’s true, you – Thomas had 14.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits over his entire three-year career with the Patriots).

This version of Judon — the one who seemed to threaten Andre Tippett’s franchise record for sacks (18.5, 1984) — has been missing for a month now. Almost unbelievably, Judon hasn’t had a sack or quarterback hit in the past four games.

And in what sometimes feels like his desperation to reach quarterback, he shied away from his containment responsibilities against the run. He was out of position on Duke Johnson’s 27-yard run late in the loss to the Dolphins, as well as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s decisive run for a first down.

Come back, pre-goodbye week Matt Judon. The Patriots miss you.

Cole Beasley: It should be of significant concern for the Patriots that Allen separated their pass defense in Game 2 without Beasley, who, along with fellow receiver Gabriel Davis, missed the game while in COVID-19 protocol. .

Beasley is perhaps the league’s most reliable slot receiver, finishing this season with 82 receptions for the second year in a row. In his absence in Week 13, little-known Isaiah McKenzie suddenly transformed into 2007 Wes Welker, catching 11 passes for 125 yards.

McKenzie’s role will be significantly reduced with the return of Beasley; he has just two catches for 15 yards since his star turn. But Allen has more trusted receivers this week than the last time he shredded the Patriots.

Grievance of the week

Special teams coach Cam Achord has had too much TV face time this season, and that face usually seems somewhere between confused and angry after his unit’s latest mistake. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Belichick bring back deposed and seemingly despised Giants coach Joe Judge as some kind of de facto special teams coach this week. But it’s high time for this group (and its now familiar trainer) to live up to the Do Your Job mantra.

Game to watch

Bills quarterback Josh Allen against Patriots passes defense

Allen was just OK statistically in the Week 13 meeting, completing 15 of 30 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown in high winds, and running for 39 more yards. In the second meeting… well, he looked like the most complete quarterback in the league, and maybe also the best prepared.

Allen took what the Patriots defense gave him early on and then he just took what he wanted later, finishing with 30 completions on 47 attempts for 314 yards and 3 touchdowns. He resisted the Patriots’ bait and didn’t try to make risky throws down the field, but instead made the right play every time.

His improvement since entering the league — heck, since his last season at Wyoming, when he completed just 56.3 percent of his passes — is staggering.

The Bills’ offense was so precise in Game 2 that bettor Matt Haack got the day off. Allen led the Bills in points on six of their first seven possessions, and they should have scored on the other. (Emmanuel Sanders dropped a fourth pass in the end zone.) Allen turned McKenzie into a star for a day — he had seven catches the season before the game — and connected seven times with Diggs for 85 yards and a touchdown.

As if his laser arm wasn’t enough trouble, Allen also makes dynamic plays with his legs. He finished the season with a team-leading 763 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns. He iced the victory over the Patriots with a fourth and a conversion in which he got away from Jamie Collins and gained 8 yards.

And the Patriots may be shorthanded in the defensive backfield. Cornerback Jalen Mills (COVID-19 protocol) and safety Kyle Dugger (hand), who would be key in preventing Allen from improvising successful running plays, were both unsure of playing at the end of the week.

Prediction, or hoping no one takes Bart Scott’s advice…

Belichick has said a few times this week that the Patriots need to play their best game of the season on Saturday. That’s a pretty obvious statement given the opponent and the stakes, but it leads to a question that, when answered, will go a long way in determining how we ultimately view this edition of the Patriots:

Can they play their best game?

Are they capable of it now?

The trends are not in their favor. But we know at least two things that must be done for them to win:

· The Patriots can’t start slow. They trailed the Dolphins, 17-0, after the first quarter. They trailed the Bills, 17-7, at halftime. The Colts led 20-0 at the start of the third quarter. The Patriots have lost all three of those games. The offense needs to put points on the board early. Bills are known to start slowly on their own. The Patriots need to take advantage of that.

· They must win the turnover battle. The Patriots are 8-0 when forcing more turnovers than they commit. But Jones has five interceptions and two fumbles (one lost) in the aforementioned three losses. The offense needs to protect the ball better than it did in the botched last month of the regular season. And they definitely need to take advantage of the off-target shot(s) Allen will make. I gotta catch those potential interceptions, JC Jackson.

So… can the Patriots do all needed to win Round 3? I think Belichick really likes his team. But the Bills are healthier, have the best quarterback and are playing at home. It’s hard to believe that the flaws that have plagued the Patriots the past four games will magically disappear on Saturday. Bills 22, Patriots 16.

Patriots need their best game in Round 3, but trends don’t favor them

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