1. An inside track to the division title
While there will still be five games left in the regular season for both the Patriots and the Bills after the Monday night game, the outcome of this game will give one of these teams the inside track to the AFC East title.
If the Patriots win, it'll give them a two-game cushion in overall record (9-4 to 7-5) as they head into their bye week. A win also means New England has a chance to close the gap on the division record tiebreaker as it would hand Buffalo their first division loss and drop them to 3-1 in the AFC East, while improving their mark to an identical 3-1 versus division opponents.
A victory for Buffalo would give them an edge in the division race. It would also allow the Bills to pull ahead of New England in terms of overall record at 8-4 with the Patriots dropping to 8-5. It would additionally give them a temporary head-to-head advantage. More importantly, the Bills would also have an unblemished division record at 4-0 while dropping the Patriots to a 2-2 mark.
A team's division record is the second tiebreaker after head-to-head to break a tie between two teams within the same division. A Bills win would leave New England in a difficult position to make up ground in terms of division record. They'd have to beat Buffalo in their second meeting and beat Miami in Week 18 and hope the Bills lose in Week 18 to the Jets in Orchard Park. And that would be just to pull even in the division record tiebreaker at 4-2 to move to the next tiebreaker of record versus common opponents.
Another note about the matchup could provide some foreshadowing for the winner of this game. In Week 13 or later, Monday's game between the Bills and Patriots marks just the fifth time in the last 30 years that a team ranking first in scoring defense (New England) faces a team ranking first in fewest total yards allowed (Buffalo). In each of those games, at one of the teams advanced to at least its conference championship, including two Super Bowl champions (Denver in 2015 and Washington in 1991).
Washington was the only losing team in those meetings to still persevere and win a conference title as well as the Super Bowl.
2. Cavalry call?
Buffalo has had a tough time defensively with smash-mouth offenses and their offense has struggled to reset the line of scrimmage against physical defensive fronts. That's why the return of three of their most physical linemen to the active roster would be a welcome sight on Monday night.
Buffalo has been without defensive tackle Star Lotulelei for the last three games after he landed on the COVID/reserve list the day of the Jets game in Week 10. The veteran run stuffer was removed from the COVID/reserve list on Tuesday but was limited in practice on Thursday with an illness.
His interior run presence would be a valuable addition as the Bills face a committee rushing attack led by RB Damien Harris with rookie Rhamondre Stevenson serving as the second part of a one-two punch.
As much as the Bills would like to have him back in the lineup, veteran DE Mario Addison believes their sixth-ranked run defense is capable of winning enough battles at the line of scrimmage.
Help also could be on the way for Buffalo's offensive line as RT Spencer Brown came off the COVID/reserve list Tuesday and LG Jon Feliciano returned to practice this week from a calf injury that landed him on injured reserve. Brown practiced fully and appears ready to return to the lineup. Feliciano had no limitations at practice but remains on injured reserve as of Thursday evening.
Brown and Feliciano are seen as the physical tone setters on Buffalo's offensive line and will bring a welcome edge to the front if they're able to return. Due to injury and COVID designations, Brown and Feliciano have been in the starting lineup together in just two games this season, in Week 5 at Kansas City and Week 6 at Tennessee. Buffalo's offense rolled up 38 and 31 points in both of those games.
3. Critical absentees
The Bills know they will not have Tre'Davious White in the lineup due to injury for just the second time in his four-plus year career after suffering a season-ending ACL tear in his left knee on Thanksgiving. While Buffalo has had 10 days to find ways to fill that void and adjust their defense accordingly, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier knows there are a number of plays he'll have to pull from his call sheet.
"We obviously believe in Dane (Jackson)," said Frazier. "He competed in training camp for a starting job. We have confidence in him. But we do have to be mindful of the fact that Tre'Davious is a Pro Bowl corner and we're missing him. So, we'll be conscious of the fact that Dane is replacing Tre'Davious, and we'll do the things that are necessary to help him and really help our defense. It's not the same with Tre'Davious not being there, and we will have to be cognizant of the fact that he's not out there."
The Patriots, however, could be in a much more difficult spot with respect to an absence for their defense, due to how recently it has cropped up.
New England learned on Thursday that big nickel safety Kyle Dugger tested positive for COVID and was placed on the COVID/reserve list. While there is a chance he could return to the team in time to play on Monday night, testing negative twice in 24 hours before the game isn't a lock.
Dugger is a critical part of the Patriots base defense, which is a three-safety nickel defense which includes Dugger and fellow safeties Adrian Phillips and Devin McCourty. If the second-year player is unavailable the trickle-down effect could be troublesome with respect to plugging in reserves in New England's secondary.
"It's a significant story line," said ESPN.com's Patriots Insider Mike Reiss who appeared on the ‘Bills by the Numbers’ podcast this week. "There's still a chance he could play if he can test negative twice in 24 hours, but big nickel, the Patriots have three safeties getting over 80 percent of the snaps. It's their base defense. They've been fortunate because their depth at safety drops off after their top three players. Their next best safety is their current nickel corner, a result of losing their top slot corner Jonathan Jones to a season-ending injury earlier this year. I think this is the story within the game, because that's an area where the Patriots are a bit vulnerable."
Their current nickel corner, Myles Bryant, might be forced to man Dugger's role if he's not available. And replacing Bryant at nickel corner could be J.C. Jackson, who might move inside if they bring JoeJuan Williams on the field to play corner outside.
Of course, the Patriots could completely scrap the three-safety formation as their base defense Monday night and play something completely different, knowing the above situation could cause a major mismatch in the slot for Cole Beasley to exploit.
Whichever one of these top ranked defensive units adjusts more effectively to the personnel losses could give their team the edge that makes the difference in the game.
4. High efficiency
New England rookie QB Mac Jones has been a model of efficiency for the Patriots offense this season. Though he is a bit risk averse, he has made enough plays to pair with the team's strong rushing attack to move the ball into scoring territory.
Last week in what wound up being a lopsided victory, Jones had his second career game of 300-plus passing yards with two passing touchdowns and no interceptions. Jones is only the sixth rookie since 1950 to have multiple such games.
"Last Sunday's game is actually a pretty good example of what you want from a young guy that you don't often get from a young quarterback, and he was sacked twice. He certainly didn't have a perfect day, but I think what he's done a better job of is no turnovers," said NESN Patriots analyst Matt Chatham in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "In the moments that he gets sacks it's not the retreat portion where you end up 12 and 15 yards down the field. He sort of has a knack for knowing when the play is dead and sort of getting rid of it. That doesn't mean that there aren't still occasionally mistakes but as you saw last Sunday lots of crossing routes, a lot of flat work, a lot of work to the backs and tight ends and things along that line.
"He also does a really nice job in the event of a mistake which all pros have, he hasn't been a tank guy, which I think is really unusual for young guy. You see that when you get in the guy's head, they have a couple bad quarters in a row. A lot of his best play this season, curiously enough has come after a mistake. So, he's a right the ship guy, real good frame of mind type dude. Having gone through college with Nick Saban, you know the screws as tight as they could ever be for a college player and then transitioning right into Bill (Belichick), you're going to be as mentally tough is as a person possibly could going through that particular wash. So, I think he's built for this."
His statistics would certainly be an indication of that. Jones is currently ranked third in the league in completion percentage (70.3%) and was just named AFC Offensive Rookie of the Month for November in which he led the Patriots to a perfect 4-0 mark, completed almost 77 percent of his passes and threw seven touchdowns. He also had a quarterback rating of 117.2.
If there's one area where the Patriots are looking to be better offensively it's in the red zone. New England ranks 24th in the league in red zone touchdown efficiency with a success rate of just over 55 percent (55.6%). In their last two games they've been just three for eight, although the team was ahead on the scoreboard in both contests and may have chosen to be more conservative with play calling and execution.
5. The key to New England's streak
On New England's league-leading six-game winning streak, they've essentially dominated their opponents. Over their last six games, the Patriots have won by an average score of 35 to 10. The turnover margin has naturally played a big role in it. On their six-game win streak, New England has 17 takeaways, while turning the ball over only four times themselves. That plus-13 turnover margin has handed extra possessions to the offense and lifted them to the best point differential in the league at plus-146, which is two points better than the Bills at plus-144.
Having coaches on Bill Belichick's staff for several years, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll knows all too well how the Patriots' opportunistic defense provides additional possessions for their offense.
Those takeaways are created by a potent pass rush led by Matt Judon (11.5 sacks). New England also boasts the number three red zone defense in the league.
"The last four games they've given up about six points per game," said Daboll. "They're surrendering 15.8 points per game (all season), and they've got a lot of really good players on all three levels. They're very well coached. They play their techniques well. They're fundamentally sound, they tackle well, they get the ball out. It's a typical New England defense. Well-coached, good, smart players, physical, tough and they take the ball away.
"Coach Belichick, obviously one of the greatest ever. Had the privilege to be around him and that's always been a trademark is to take the ball away. I think he's 174-18 or something like that with a +1 turnover ratio or somewhere around there. It'll be a huge challenge. Biggest one yet."
The Patriots currently lead the league in points allowed and have finished first in scoring defense three times in their history (2003, 2016, 2019). Two of those three seasons (2003, 2016) New England went on to win the Super Bowl.
Their 19 interceptions on defense also lead the NFL. CB J.C. Jackson has been the team's most effective takeaway artist with seven interceptions this season. He leads the NFL with 24 interceptions since 2018.
6. Special teams standoff
It's a true heavyweight bout between the Bills and Patriots special teams units. New England brings the top scorer in the league into the game in Nick Folk, who has been extraordinarily accurate with 122 points on the season hitting 31 of his 34 attempts in 2021.
"Nick Folk their kicker, 50 straight field goals from inside 50 yards stretching back to last season," said Reiss. "It's the second-longest streak in NFL history. Nick has really settled things down there. It's vital for them when they play field position football with the rookie QB."
Folk's three misses on the season are all from beyond 50 yards, but even from long range he's five for eight on the year.
Buffalo's Tyler Bass isn't far behind. Third in the league with 94 points this year, the second-year kicker has also only missed three attempts with two coming from beyond 50 yards and a 49-yard attempt on a rainy, windy day in Orchard Park in Week 11.
New England's special teams also excels in the return game. Gunner Olszewski is second in the league in punt return average with a mark of 12.5 yards a return. Meanwhile Isaiah McKenzie ranks fifth in the league in kick return average.
As a unit Buffalo's coverage units have been better than New England's ranking third in punt coverage and ninth in kick coverage this season. Those are areas where the Patriots rank middle of the pack. As for the return game, New England is slightly better on punt and kick return to Buffalo.
"The hidden yardage is there," said Reiss. "Last week you look at the Patriots average drive start and it's their own 33-yard line, you look at the Titans and it's their own 23-yard line. That's an extra first down before they even line up to run a play."
Buffalo's coverage units did even better in their last outing. The Bills average drive start for their offense was their own 38-yard line. New Orleans average drive start? Their own 21. The 17-yard difference was instrumental in Buffalo's control of field position.
"Both teams have core guys, they value that part of the game," said Reiss. "Fourth down on Monday night could be incredibly exciting in this game."
7. Road warriors?
One of the other things New England has done very well is win games on the road. The Patriots are 5-0 are the road this season, but their victories away from Gillette Stadium haven't been against overly impressive opponents. Their handful of road wins came at New York (Jets), at Houston, at Carolina, at L.A. (Chargers) and at Atlanta.
Perhaps most important is none of those road venues presented hostile environments for rookie QB Mac Jones and the offense. That will not be the case on Monday night in a venue where Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has confirmed is not friendly.
"They definitely don't like me," he said of Bills Mafia earlier this week.
But as ESPN.com's Patriots Insider Mike Reiss points out Orchard Park could be their stiffest road test both in terms of opponent and environment.
"The Patriots have been playing their best football over the last month and they had five of their first seven games of the season at home. They were still trying to find themselves early in the season. They're 5-0 on the road, but they have not been in a hostile road environment," said Reiss. "At the Jets, Week 2, pretty mild. At the Texans, Week 5, the place was half empty. It was like bring your own energy day. They were at the Chargers, and they don't have a great fan base. There were more Patriots fans there. At the Panthers, not tough and then at the Falcons, the place was maybe half full.
"You know what the atmosphere is going to be like Monday night. It's going to be what it should be for a primetime division game."
Whether the crowd noise impacts Jones and the Patriots' offense remains to be seen, but it's safe to say Highmark Stadium will be the loudest New England has encountered this season.