Chad Finn

Bills will be a true test, but the Patriots and Mac Jones should have the answers

As the division rivals butt heads in this crucial Monday night matchup, the Patriots are on a roll — and the Bills are not.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen pretty much had his way against the Patriots last season, but a lot has changed since then. JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

Welcome to Season 10, Episode 13 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

Remember when Tom Brady said, “I have all the answers to the test now”? That was almost five years ago, in February 2017. The Patriots had just defeated the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, 34-28. (You won’t believe this, but they actually trailed, 28-3, late in the third quarter. It’s true.) It was his fifth Super Bowl victory, in his 17th NFL season. He was 39 years old.

Brady already was established as the greatest ever to play, but that was the first time he ever made such a declaration. There’s a reason why. Playing quarterback consistently well is hard. It takes many years for even the best quarterbacks to be confident in their answers, to be able to solve playing the most important and complex position in professional sports at the highest level.

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Monday night, a quarterback who has been performing an awful lot like the 2001 version of Brady is going to face the toughest test yet in his NFL career. Mac Jones, so poised and efficient that the rest of the NFL should be furious it allowed him to get to New England, will be prepared. But we’re going to find out just how many answers he really has.

Save for perhaps Brady’s Bucs in Week 4, the Bills are the toughest matchup Jones and the Patriots have faced this season. The AFC East rivals are pursuing the same immediate goal — win the division, and commence a deep playoff run from there — and they have strikingly similar strengths.

The Patriots are first in the NFL in point differential (plus-146). The Bills are second (plus-144). Both teams have 25 takeaways, tied for second in the NFL behind the Colts (27). The Patriots’ pass defense is ranked third (200.9 yards per game). The Bills’ ranks second (178.5). The Patriots allow the fewest points per game in the league (15.8). The Bills allow — can you guess? — the second-fewest (16.5).

The Bills feature a versatile, opportunistic defense (16 interceptions, including eight by interchangeable safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer) that is certain to give Jones looks that aren’t immediately familiar. Buffalo is also tough against the run, at least against anyone not named Jonathan Taylor, which may put more burden on the young quarterback’s right shoulder.

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And the Bills have other advantages: They’re home, in front of their lunatic fans. They’ve had extra time to prepare, having played on Thanksgiving. And since they’re a half-game back of the Patriots, their stakes are slightly higher.

But Jones has been a model student during the Patriots’ six-game winning streak, the longest in the NFL. He threw for a career-high 310 yards in the 36-13 thumping of the Titans. He hasn’t just had the answers, he’s been the answer. It’s going to be fascinating to see if the Bills can stump him, or if the Patriots and the kid QB can keep rolling right along.

Kick it off, Bailey (or will it be Folk?), and let’s get this thing started.

Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs

Matt Breida: Buffalo’s speedy veteran running back barely played early in the season, getting 12 snaps over the first two games without a touch, then being inactive for the next six weeks. But the Devin Singletary/Zack Moss tandem kept producing uninspiring results. When Breida got a chance in the Week 11 loss to the Colts, he made the most of it, gaining 51 yards on five carries.

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He played 32 percent of the snaps against the Colts, and 32 percent again on Thanksgiving against the Saints, when he ran nine times for 26 yards and caught a 23-yard touchdown pass.

The Patriots run defense allowed 270 yards to the Titans, with a pair of nondescript running backs (Dontrell Hilliard and D’Onta Foreman) gaining over 100 yards each. Breida had success against the Patriots during his Niners days, totaling 108 yards on 17 carries in two games.

Singletary (459 yards) is the primary back, and perhaps Moss (265 yards) will escape the doghouse. But the Bills are going to need to drop some surprises on the Patriots, and an enhanced role for a back who has had success against them might be one way to do it.

Dane Jackson: There is one spot on the Bills’ defensive depth chart that might have been adorned with a bull’s-eye as Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels prepared his game plan.

The Bills lost All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White, arguably the most important player on their defense, to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the Saints game. He is out for the season. White is a true lockdown corner who didn’t allow a touchdown in the 11 games he played this season.

He is expected to be replaced by Jackson, a seventh-round pick out of Pittsburgh in 2020 who has played just 16 NFL games, 12 this season. Jackson has played more than 14 defensive snaps just twice: 47 in Week 2 against the Dolphins when White was out, and 36 on Thanksgiving after White’s injury.

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How obscure is Jackson? Google his name, and you’re likely to get a match for a world-class whitewater kayaker by the same name before his various NFL pages come up.

There’s little doubt the Patriots will try to get him lots of air time on prime-time television, especially if he’s matched up with the ascending Kendrick Bourne.

Devin McCourty: Speaking of superb defensive backs who could be absent, the Patriots could be without do-it-all free safety Kyle Dugger, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday. If the hard-hitting Dugger, who leads the Patriots with 80 tackles, can’t go, that only increases the responsibilities assigned to fellow free safety McCourty and versatile strong safety Adrian Phillips. Dugger would have been the ideal matchup on tight end Dawson Knox.

Grievance of the Week

Antonio Brown long ago proved himself to be morally bankrupt, among many other character defects, but he still possesses the ability to surprise, apparently.

Brown and two other players (Mike Edwards, a teammate with the Buccaneers, and free agent John Franklin III) were suspended three games each by the NFL Thursday for “misrepresenting” their vaccination status.

That Brown pulled such a stunt wasn’t the surprise; his former at-home chef told the Tampa Bay Times in November that Brown had asked him to procure fake vaccination cards. But the level of callousness required to lie to your teammates and coaches about your status and put their health at risk is pathetic even for Brown. It’s a shame he was ever associated with the Patriots.

Key matchup

Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson vs. Bills receiver Stefon Diggs

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The Bills throttled the Patriots, 38-9, in Week 16 last season on “Monday Night Football,” completing the season sweep after winning the Week 8 matchup, 24-21. The second meeting held some suspense for a while — the Patriots trailed 17-9 in the second quarter — but then Diggs seized the stage.

Josh Allen found him for three touchdown passes to blow the game open. Diggs finished with 9 catches on 11 targets for 145 yards. Jackson, elevated by attrition to No. 1 corner with Stephon Gilmore’s season-ending injury, was usually the nearest Patriots defensive back to Diggs.

Some things have changed as they prepare to meet again on a Monday night. For one, the Patriots are playing much more zone. More importantly, Jackson has elevated his game, and looks the part of an authentic No. 1 cornerback.

Jackson is second in the NFL in interceptions with seven, trailing only Diggs’s brother, Trevon, who has picked off nine passes for the Cowboys. Jackson leads the NFL in passes defensed (16). Most encouragingly, he’s been at his best during the winning streak, with five interceptions. He is a major reason the Patriots have not missed Gilmore, who was traded to the Panthers in early October.

The next step in Jackson’s progression is to play a significant role in neutralizing Diggs, who is tied for seventh in the NFL in receptions (67), is ninth in receiving yards (847), and is tied for seventh in receiving touchdowns (7).

With Allen at the helm, the Bills rank seventh in the NFL in passing at 271 yards per game. Receivers Emmanuel Sanders (559 yards) and Cole Beasley (530) are both productive options. But Jackson doesn’t need to be told that Diggs is the favorite option. Perhaps this time he’s ready to take that option away.

Prediction, or do they still sell Flutie Flakes in Buffalo?

In their last four games — wins over the Panthers, Browns, Falcons, and Titans — the Patriots have averaged 32.5 points, with a low of 24 against Carolina. They have allowed a total of 26 points, with an average margin of victory of 26 points. They are rolling.

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The Bills, who are 3-3 in their last six games, with losses to the Jaguars, Titans, and Colts, are not. But that doesn’t matter much. These teams are stylistically different but closely matched, and the Patriots will have to play their most complete game of the season to emerge with a victory.

The Patriots’ running game had a rare spotty week against the Titans, with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson combining for 67 yards on 19 carries. Their workload and production should be far greater against a Bills defense that tends to remain in nickel in most situations.

Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds were sidelined when the Colts’ Taylor shredded them for five touchdowns (four rushing) two weeks ago. Both are expected back, but it’s imperative that the Patriots get early production from Harris and Stevenson.

Defensively, the Patriots have to force Allen into mistakes. Bill Belichick praised him at length this week, noting, “It’s remarkable how good he has become.” But Allen hasn’t quite matched his breakthrough 2020 season, when he threw for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns.

He has already thrown as many interceptions as he did a season ago (10), and his completion percentage and passer rating are both down. He still has a knack for taking a terrible sack here and there. Hello, Matthew Judon.

As talented as he is, Allen is more likely to make a crucial mistake than the preternaturally poised rookie at quarterback for the Patriots. It will make all the difference. Patriots 20, Bills 19.

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