Chad Finn

This Patriots-Bills matchup is the kind of game we missed last season

The outcome of Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium will go a long way in determining the AFC East champion.

Sunday's Patriots-Bills is sure to be as intense as the last meeting between the teams. JEFFREY T. BARNES/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Welcome to Season 10, Episode 15 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

This is the stuff we missed last year, during the Patriots’ one-season layover in irrelevance, isn’t it?

A late-season matchup of great consequence and high stakes against a division rival. The chance to thwart an opponent bent on revenge. A playoff atmosphere at Gillette Stadium a few weeks before the playoffs actually begin.

Yeah, this is the good stuff. The Patriots, who saw their seven-game winning streak end last Saturday with a mistake-laden 27-17 loss, host the Bills, the defending AFC East champions after ending New England’s 11-year string of consecutive division titles.

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Given the stakes — the outcome will go a long way in determining the division champ — it qualifies as the most important game of the season.

The Patriots embarrassed the Bills in their first meeting earlier this month, running 46 times for 222 yards while attempting just three passes in a 14-10 victory in windy Buffalo in Week 13. The Bills moped as if they’d just lost the Super Bowl but have recovered fairly impressively, mounting a furious comeback before losing to Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in overtime in Week 14, then beating the Panthers by 17 points last Sunday.

The Bills, who have the NFL’s 16th-ranked run defense (112.4 yards per game), are going to be desperate to prove they can slow the Patriots on the ground. That could leave some opportunities to be seized by rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who struggled early against the Colts before leading the Patriots to a 17-point fourth quarter. But Jones may have an additional degree of difficulty to deal, depending on the status of receivers Kendrick Bourne (COVID-19 protocol) and Nelson Agholor (concussion).

Chances are this meeting isn’t going to look much like the last one, but it should be even more intense.

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Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …

Three players I’ll be watching, other than the QBs

Damien Harris: In the aftermath of the loss to the Colts, it seemed to go unmentioned that the Patriots did not have Harris, who missed the game because of a hamstring injury suffered in the Bills game two weeks earlier. Perhaps mentioning his absence would have seemed like excuse-making considering how many self-defeating blunders the Patriots committed … but then again, he might have made a difference. Rhamondre Stevenson managed just 36 yards on 10 carries, and as a team they ran for just 81 yards, with the Colts succeeding in their stated quest to make the Patriots’ offense one-dimensional. Harris was a tone-setting force in the previous meeting with the Bills, running for 111 yards on just 10 carries. Ninety-six of those yards came in the first quarter, when he broke loose for a 64-yard touchdown on third and 5. With Stevenson absent from practice late in the week, it’s crucial to have Harris back and healthy Sunday.

Stefon Diggs: While he has not produced at his 2020 pace, in which he led the NFL in receptions (127) and yards (1,535) in his first season with the Bills, Diggs remains one of the league’s most dangerous and prolific receivers. He had four catches for 51 yards in the first meeting, pedestrian numbers on a normal day, but rather impressive given that the game might as well have been played in a wind tunnel. Diggs, who has 82 catches for 1,007 yards and eight touchdowns, is sure to draw the attention of J.C. Jackson, who has allowed just one touchdown reception all season. Diggs has had past success against Jackson, including a nine-catch, 145-yard, 3-touchdown highlight-reel of a performance in Week 15 last season. The Patriots should be able to deploy extra support to Jackson in defending Diggs if necessary. Cole Beasley is usually a slot machine for Allen, but to the surprise of no one with functioning brain cells, the vocal anti-vaxxer caught COVID-19 and will miss the game. Then, on Friday, fellow receiver Gabriel Davis, who had four receiving touchdowns in the past three weeks, was also ruled out after entering COVID protocol.

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Hunter Henry: It sure is a good thing that the Patriots didn’t just say, “Welp, we’re all set at tight end,” after signing Jonnu Smith in the early hours of free agency back in March. After giving Smith $31.25 million guaranteed to come over from the Titans, the Patriots signed the other highly regarded tight end on the market, adding Henry, the ex-Charger and longtime Bill Belichick favorite, the next day for $25 million guaranteed. While Smith has struggled, Henry has emerged as perhaps Jones’s most trusted target, with Jakobi Meyers the only other candidate for such a designation. Henry has nine receiving touchdowns, tied with 1996 Ben Coates for the most in a season by a Patriots tight end not named Rob Gronkowski. (Gronk had five seasons with at least 10 receiving TDs as a Patriot.) Henry is coming off his most productive game as a Patriot, after catching six passes for 77 yards and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns against the Colts. The Bills, who remain the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense (175.6 yards per game) despite losing Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL on Thanksgiving, will almost certainly prioritize taking away Henry.

Grievance of the week

During Belichick’s first 21 seasons as head coach (2000-20), the Patriots had a total of nine punts blocked. You want the breakdown? I’ll give you the breakdown.

Lee Johnson had a punt blocked in 2000. Ken Walter had one blocked in ‘01 and another in ‘03. Josh Miller — the most trustworthy punter the Patriots have had for my money — was blocked once in ‘05. Chris Hansen had one blocked in ‘07 and another in ‘09. Zoltan Mesko was blocked once in ‘12, and Ryan Allen once in ‘14 and again in ‘15.

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Twenty years. Nine punts blocked, or 0.45 per season. Never more than one in a season. And none since 2015 … until this year.

Jake Bailey, a very good punter, has been blocked three times this year, including against the Colts in a game-changing play resulting in a touchdown and a 14-0 Indianapolis lead. All three have come in losses (Week 3 vs. New Orleans, Week 6 vs. Dallas), but this one was the most costly.

Patriots special teams coach Cam Achord took the blame for the blunder this past week. Accountability is nice, but what he really must do is repair the flaw that Colts special teams coordinator and ex-Patriot Ray “Bubba” Ventrone spotted and exploited.

On this week’s edition of “Hard Knocks,” the HBO program currently trailing the Colts, Ventrone is shown identifying the weakness and telling Matthew Adams that there would be a play to be made.

That’s exactly what happened, with Adams slipping between Jakob Johnson and Jamie Collins and swatting Bailey’s punt, which was recovered in the end zone by E.J. Speed.

It was a nice bit of coaching by Ventrone, and another frustrating special teams mistake for the Patriots. Three blocked punts in a season is inexcusable.

Key matchup

Bills quarterback Josh Allen versus the Patriots’ run defense

That’s right, run defense. Allen’s passing exploits are not to be overlooked — he’s third in the NFL in touchdown passes (31) and sixth in passing yards (3,734), and his arm is so powerful that he was able to zip some impressive throws through the wind gusts in the first meeting.

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After making the Pro Bowl last year, Allen was a snub this year. He’s having a much better season than the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, who was one of three quarterbacks (joining the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert) selected.

The Patriots, who have the NFL’s third-ranked pass defense at 185.1 yards per game, held Allen to 15-for-30 passing for 145 yards in the first meeting. Unless the weather conditions somehow end up being a defense’s accomplice again Sunday, he’s almost certain to have more attempts and more production this time.

But it’s the running element of Allen’s game that may have a bigger say in determining the outcome. Allen, who has run for 555 yards and four touchdowns this season, was the Bills’ leading rusher in the previous meeting, but with a modest 39 yards. It was almost as if Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, in his quest to outwit former boss Belichick, forgot how much pressure Allen’s mobility can put on a defense.

He didn’t forget against the Buccaneers, when Allen ran for 109 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries two weeks ago. Allen sparked the Bills’ rally from a 24-3 deficit with an 18-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. But he took a number of hard hits in that game, and he ran just three times for 24 yards last week against the Panthers while dealing with a foot injury. If Allen has his normal mobility come Sunday, it will likely fall on safety Kyle Dugger (who missed the first game) and perhaps Collins to keep him contained.

Prediction, or Steve Tasker and Matthew Slater both deserve to make the Hall of Fame

You know who needs this game — I mean, really needs this game? Sean McDermott.

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Since taking over as Bills coach in 2017, he’s been a success, winning 46 games in the regular season and a pair of playoff games. His .590 winning percentage is fourth-best in franchise history, trailing Marv Levy (.615), Wade Phillips (.604), and Lou Saban (.601).

But he’s 2-7 against the Patriots, and Belichick is in his head. After the loss three weeks ago, he said, “Let’s not give more credit than we need to” regarding Belichick’s masterful game plan. McDermott tried to walk back those words a couple of times since, but it did not go unnoticed that in the locker room after the Bills’ win over the Panthers last Sunday, he told his team that it was “as tough a game as we’re going to be in the rest of the way.”

There’s no way his players believed that, with the Patriots looming. There’s no way he does, either.

McDermott’s attitude toward Belichick reminds me of a scene from “Mad Men,” when a frustrated underling whose work was dismissed tells boss and protagonist Don Draper, “I feel bad for you.” The cutting response: “I don’t think about you at all.”

The Patriots have to think about the Bills, of course. They must be, and will be, prepared. Buffalo is a talented and motivated team. But the main priority for the Patriots is making sure they don’t repeat their blunders of a week ago, when Jones threw two interceptions, a blocked punt turned into 7 points, and they committed eight penalties, more than one coming at an inopportune time. Eliminate the mistakes, and they’ll emerge with the win. And at least for a while, there will be no reason to think about the Bills at all. Patriots 27, Bills 23.

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