COVID-19 caused some major problems for the New England Patriots in 2020.
From losing a league-high eight players to the opt-out policy to having Cam Newton miss a pivotal matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs due to a positive test, the much-discussed coronavirus undoubtedly represented a major hurdle for Bill Belichick to overcome.
This year, however, the Patriots haven’t run into personnel issues as a result of COVID-19.
At least, not until their most important game of the season.
The Patriots face a daunting challenge to slow down the Bills’ second-ranked scoring offense
Seeking their seventh straight win, the Patriots have a prime opportunity to cement their case as the top team in the AFC. In order for that to happen, though, they must find a way to slow down a Buffalo Bills offense that ranks second in the league in scoring at a robust clip of 29.6 points per game.
Accomplishing that feat begins with shutting down supremely gifted quarterback and top MVP candidate Josh Allen, who ranks third with 25 touchdown passes. A big, strong athlete with impressive wheels and a cannon for an arm, he has all the physical tools that make scouts drool. But with 10 interceptions and six fumbles in 11 games, it’s clear Allen still has room to improve in terms of ball security and decision making.
In fact, his biggest weaknesses bode well for a Patriots defense that has made life miserable for opposing signal-callers since early October. With highly paid outside linebacker Matthew Judon and promising rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore proving difficult for offensive lines to handle, quarterbacks simply haven’t found much success against a unit that ranks No. 1 in points allowed at a mere 15.8 per game.
Of course, the Patriots have benefitted from facing several short-handed opponents, which has raised questions about the validity of their six-game winning streak.
Ironically, their trip to Buffalo could end in disappointment due to a key player potentially being unavailable.
A positive COVID-19 test could bring a swift end to New England’s six-game winning streak
Patriots fans received some unfortunate news Wednesday that should have Bills Mafia feeling more confident about Monday’s matchup.
New England placed Kyle Dugger on the reserve/COVID-19 list following a positive test. If he is vaccinated and asymptomatic, he must produce two negative tests taken 24 hours apart to be activated for the Bills game. Obviously, though, the fact one of the team’s most impactful players could miss the biggest game of the season has to be viewed as a massive blow.
Although Dugger may not be a household name just yet, Patriot Nation can attest to his value.
Selected 37th overall in the 2020 draft, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound safety brings physicality and playmaking ability to a defense that’s held its last four opponents to a total of 26 points. After showing some struggles in coverage earlier this season, Dugger has developed into a key matchup weapon against tight ends. The second-year defensive back rose to the occasion against the Atlanta Falcons, limiting uber-athletic rookie Kyle Pitts to a mere 29 yards on three catches.
If Dugger can’t suit up against the Bills, that could result in a rare loss for a Patriots team that hasn’t tasted defeat since Oct. 17.
Sure, New England has two solid safeties in Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips. But neither possesses Dugger’s physical profile. Meanwhile, Buffalo boasts one of the best touchdown-producing tight ends in the league: Dawson Knox.
Tipping the scales at 6-foot-4, 254 pounds, the 2019 third-round pick has excellent athletic ability and a knack for finding the end zone. Knox’s seven touchdown receptions put him in a tie for the lead at the position with New England’s Hunter Henry. Dugger has the skill set to keep Knox in check, but if he can’t go, the Bills could take advantage and make Belichick’s defense pay in the red zone.
In a game that should be a physical, defensive-minded affair, the Patriots could be without their leading tackler, who also serves as the top coverage option against tight ends.
Needless to say, their odds of moving to 9-4 took a dip once Dugger landed on the COVID-19 list.
Key matchups that will determine the outcome of the Monday Night Football battle between two top AFC contenders
Stopping Knox should be high on the Patriots’ priority list. Whether they succeed at doing so depends largely on whether Dugger gets cleared to play. But the showdown between two of the best teams in the AFC will also come down to several other matchups.
Can Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, and Nelson Agholor inflict major damage against a secondary that just lost Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL? With their No. 1 corner (and best overall defensive player) sidelined for the rest of the season, the Bills face an uphill battle to slow down opposing passing attacks. Expect Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to dial up a few plays to test the rest of Buffalo’s corners.
The battle in the trenches will be pivotal, too.
New England’s offensive line has been firing on all cylinders lately, which helped Mac Jones rack up seven passing touchdowns in November. Buffalo counters with a front seven that features a mix of established veterans (Jerry Hughes, Star Lotulelei, and Mario Addison) and high draft picks (Ed Oliver, Tremaine Edmunds, and Gregory Rousseau). On the other side of the ball, New England’s deep group of defensive linemen and linebackers will go up against an offensive line that allowed Allen to get sacked nine times in four November games.
After beating up on some inferior opponents, the Patriots have to prove they can handle business against a playoff-caliber team. But if Kyle Dugger’s positive test forces him to miss the Week 13 edition of Monday Night Football, don’t be surprised if the Bills snap their division rival’s six-game winning streak.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.