Patriots

Q&A: The Athletic’s Tim Graham talks Patriots-Bills

Boston.com gets an outsider's perspective on this weekend's Patriots-Bills playoff game and the future of Mac Jones from Buffalo reporter Tim Graham.

Mac Jones Patriots
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
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The Patriots might not have been able to keep the Buffalo Bills from their second consecutive AFC East title, but New England will have a chance at a much bigger fish when the two teams meet on Saturday: getting closer to a Super Bowl.

The winner of this weekend’s rubber match wins bragging rights for the season series as well as divisional round berth the following week. It could also answer pressing questions about the future of each team.

Boston.com talked with Tim Graham, a Buffalo-based reporter with The Athletic, to get a perspective from the Bills’ side about the upcoming wild-card game and what people in Buffalo think of rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

The Bills come into this game having won their last four, including that Week 16 win in Foxborough. The Patriots finished the season 1-3. How much is momentum a factor in this game?

I think that momentum is a factor, especially when you look back on the first Bills-Patriots game and how desolate things were feeling around western New York about the Bills’ chances heading into the playoffs. Even at that time, “Are they going to make the playoffs?”

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They hadn’t won consecutive games since beating Kansas City in October, and there was a lot of doubt regarding how good this team is. At that time, you’re thinking, can they win two games in a row? Let alone the four that you need to win once you get into the playoffs. And so here they are. They’ve now won four in a row. They can win consecutive games. They can stack wins. You’d hear the players talking about it in news conferences after a win back when they couldn’t win two in a row, “This is good, but we got to start stacking wins.” And here they are. I think kind of proven themselves as a team that can sustain week-to-week success.

It all circles back to being able to dominate the Patriots [in Week 16]. I think you look at the score, and you say, well that’s not domination. But that game, there was no doubt from start to finish that the Bills were clearly in control with a starting offensive line combination that it never played together before, down their second and third-best receivers. Josh Allen was able to raise everybody up around him, and they played a really complete game in Foxborough with all of the doubt and with all of the slings and arrows that they’ve faced.

As someone who’s watched him since he came into the league, how much has Josh Allen grown in the last two seasons?

He’s a complete quarterback now. I believe Josh Allen is a top-five quarterback in the NFL, and that includes Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes –maybe he’s even No. 4.

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He has matured into a complete quarterback, and I don’t just mean in terms of what you do on the field. It is the leadership aspect of it. The field generalship aspect of it. He had times even last year, that great season that he had last year, in which he still looked like a young quarterback. He hasn’t really had that this year. He seems like he’s calm. He is handling everything as it comes. That doesn’t preclude him from having a bad performance here or there or misfiring on some passes. But he has the ability to raise everyone around him.

He’s had this “hero-ball” aspect to him since he entered the NFL. It was thrilling to watch. It was fun for the fans, but it would result in a loss just as easily as it could lead to a win. He’s gone from putting on the cape–which he can still do, by the way–to having this ability to use everyone around him in a much better way because of how he sees the field, because how he understands the game. He doesn’t need to do it all himself. I think what convinced me of this was the [Week 16] game in Foxborough this year.

Allen’s home splits aren’t quite as good as his road stats. How much of that is because of the weather, and how much do you think Saturday’s weather could affect him and Mac Jones?

The weather is something that I think can be overrated. It was a bad weather game when Atlanta was in here, and I think it was only the second time in Matt Ryan’s career that he played in the snow. And he came into Orchard Park and was whipping the ball with no issue. This is just me talking as opposed to a scientist who’s done a deep dive on this: I think it’s still your ability. Whoever’s the better team, whoever’s the better quarterback is going to play better in those conditions. Cold doesn’t matter as much as the wind. It’s not like Ken Anderson in the Freezer Bowl 40 years ago.

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But the wind is an issue in Orchard Park. Quite a bit. So a player like Josh Allen who can whistle the ball–he can throw it through the wind. The problem is, can a receiver catch that brick, what’s going to be a five-pound brick a 65 miles-an-hour? Conversely, Mac Jones maybe throws a more catchable ball in these conditions. But where’s the ball going to go? The wind is going to alter Mac Jones’s ball more than it’s going to alter Josh Allen’s. Is a receiver even have a chance to catch it by the time it gets to them?

What’s the perception in Buffalo about Patriots’ rookie Mac Jones? What do people around town think of him?

Not a lot, but I don’t think they view him as a stiff.

Every conversation that you have in western New York, you’re going to be compared to “our guy.” Is he as good as Josh Allen? No. But what is in the back of everyone’s minds here, meaning Bills fans, is, “My God, I hope they can stop the run and make Mac Jones throw because if Mac Jones doesn’t have to throw, then what point does it make whether or not our quarterback is five times as good as theirs? If all he has to do is hand the ball off, then we might be in trouble.”

There’s a rush to judgment on whether or not Mac Jones is the answer or not. And I think it’s been fun to see what Boston media was saying about Mac Jones after the first Bills game versus what they said after the second. Now it’s like, “Should they put Hoyer out there if Mac Jones is struggling?” Man, that was just a month.

[Josh Allen’s] first playoff game in his second season, he lost that game. Of course, that was a classic “hero-ball” Josh Allen performance in which they were losing late, then all of a sudden, there’s an interception, there’s a lost fumble because he was trying to do it all himself. That was not that long ago, and the Bills stuck with this guy. If you look at a lot of really good quarterbacks’ first playoff game, they’re probably not lighting it up. Rookies don’t win in the playoffs. I guess my advice to Patriots fans would be, don’t start thinking about who’s the best quarterback available in the 2022 draft [if New England loses].

Which Patriots player could give the Bills the most trouble?

Well, based on the first game, Damien Harris. I mean, he’s looking at a record-breaking performance before the hamstring caught him. He had 11 yards a carry.

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I guess it’s just the backfield and that’s the way it’s always been with the Patriots. Historically, the Patriots have had two or three guys back there that if somebody gets hurt or somebody gets gassed, they just put a different running back out there who can do a little something different and there’s not a lot of drop-off.
And the Bills have had problems with running teams all season. Tennessee stampeded them. The Colts stampeded them in Orchard Park, by the way. A dome team came in and out-weathered, the Buffalo Bills on their home field. Based on the Bills’ major vulnerability in stopping them, I have to take a look at those running backs.

The Bills have better players. The Patriots have the better coach in Bill Belichick. Which do you think wins in this playoff matchup?

I’m going with the players. I think the better players win the game, weather aside. There could be a great equalizer with Mother Nature, and then it just comes down to a one-facet game of Bills run defense vs. Patriots run offense. It is not as though they have Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor back there. I mean, we’re talking about Harris and Stevenson– pretty good players, but I don’t see a ton of hardware going their way this year. The Bills just have to be able to stop those guys. That doesn’t sound like an unsolvable mathematical equation to me. If it turns out to be, then it’s an indictment on the Bills’ coaching.

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