Patriots quarterback Mac Jones directs receivers against the Buffalo Bills during a Dec. 26 game at Gillette Stadium. In that game, Jones went 8 of 23 for 104 yards and an interception on passes thrown after he had held the ball for 2.5 seconds or longer. Winslow Townson/Associated Press

The last New England Patriots quarterback to throw a touchdown pass against the Buffalo Bills?

That would be Tom Brady.

On the surface, that might surprise.

Then again, Cam Newton threw eight touchdowns all of last season. In his debut against the Bills last month, Mac Jones attempted three passes total. Three weeks after that, Jones scuffled through the worst outing of his career, a 12-point home loss.

So perhaps the Pats’ passing drought is a fluke.

Except there’s this: in his six games against the Bills since Coach Sean McDermott took over in 2017, Brady threw four touchdowns and five picks. Meaning the Patriots’ passing woes run deeper than quarterback and even predate their last Super Bowl run. Now slumping as they head into the playoffs, can the Pats solve those problems Saturday to extend their season?

Buffalo safety Micah Hyde reacts after his interception a Mac Jones pass during the Bills win over the Patriots on Dec. 26 in Foxborough, Mass. Steven Senne/Associated Press

That probably depends on the definition of “solve.”

“They make you drive the ball, convert first downs, get into the low red zone, and then they try to keep you out when you get inside the 5. So it’s a big challenge,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for this staff and this group of players. It’s always a huge burden to try to figure out how we can get that done.”

Asked about Buffalo’s history of handcuffing his passing game, McDaniels cited two reasons: disguise and discipline. Bills safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are interchangeable, Pro Bowl-caliber pieces who routinely keep their intentions hidden until after the snap. They might blitz, rotate late into a zone coverage or cover man-to-man, and they’re seldom out of position.

That poses a fundamental problem for the Patriots, whose passing attack relies heavily on option routes to function at its highest level. Pats quarterback and receivers must both diagnose the defense, occasionally reading up to three to four coverage indicators correctly on a given play. Those reads then determine how the Patriots’ routes will declare downfield.

Failing to identify coverage pre-snap – or worse, misreading it – puts added stress on an already complicated and delicate post-snap operation.

“This game is going to be about executing what you have to execute in front of you, not anticipating,” said Patriots wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

Usually, these option routes serve as an advantage for the Patriots. They embody two ideas fundamental to any good offense: taking what the defense gives you and understanding every coverage has a weak point. If the Pats can identify that soft spot, theoretically they should exploit it.

That is, except against the Bills, who have held them to 20 offensive points per game since 2016.

“It’s a huge challenge to diagnose what they’re doing defensively,” McDaniels said. “They have two really, really good safeties. They’re very smart. … They’re in sync always with the rest of the unit. They hide their intentions, and they’re very disciplined. Whenever somebody is supposed to defend the deep part of the field, that’s what they’re doing.”

Furthermore, by majoring in only a handful of complementary and well-camouflaged zone coverages instead of every defensive call, the Bills can focus on opponents’ preferred route concepts and jump them come kickoff. That formula, brought to life by several fast and sound tacklers, yielded the league’s No. 1 pass defense by completion percentage allowed and yards per attempt.

Against the Patriots, Buffalo blanketed several of Jones’ favorite routes in Week 16, forcing him to hang in the pocket longer than desired.

This proved devastating.

According to Pro Football Focus, Jones went 8 of 23 for 104 yards and an interception on passes thrown after he’d already held the ball for 2.5 seconds or longer. He also took a sack and scrambled three times.

The zone-heavy Bills also leaned into a higher rate of man coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, Buffalo played man-to-man on roughly 40% of Jones’ dropbacks in Week 16, confident in its matchups against a Pats receiving corps down Agholor and supported by a rusty Kendrick Bourne who’d come off a battle with COVID-19. The Bills surely farmed some of their confidence from Hyde and Poyer’s ability to cover Hunter Henry, Jones’ go-to receiver on key downs, either in man-to-man or by tilting their zones toward him.

Henry went without a catch until the fourth quarter. That catch, a 9-yard out route, was one of the few completions Buffalo allowed on the perimeter or deep. On passes delivered 10 or more yards downfield, Jones went 3 of 15 for 54 yards and two picks.

Akin to their first meeting, the only way the Patriots cracked Buffalo was hammering away with the run. Damien Harris scored two second-half rushing touchdowns to pull the Pats within 26-21 in the fourth quarter after a 13-point deficit. He scored one back on Dec. 6, a Monday night game best remembered for its blustery conditions.

McDaniels indicated Saturday night’s projected single-digit temperatures wouldn’t affect the team’s passing plan. He described the intense cold as “a mental thing,” much different than strong wind, rain or snow.

Though considering their history, the Patriots might just hope for Mother Nature to intervene once again.


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