BOSTON (CBS) — When the Patriots and the Bills got together a few weeks ago in Buffalo, it was one of the most unique and unforgettable football games of the season. Now they’ll meet again at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, with the AFC East on the line.

New England’s Week 15 loss in Indianapolis opened the door for Buffalo to win the AFC East — a door the Patriots can pretty much slam shut with a win on Sunday. But if the Pats let the Bills even the season series, Buffalo will then have the inside track to win the division. If the Patriots lose Sunday, they’ll have to beat the Jags and the Dolphins (winners of six straight at the moment) to close out the regular season and hope that Buffalo loses to either the Falcons or the Jets (both at home) in order to claim the division.

New England’s best path to an AFC East crown is to win this weekend. They would then claim the division with a Miami loss to the Saints on Monday night, or with a win in Week 17 over the Jaguars. (They could clinch a playoff berth with a win and a little bit of help elsewhere on Sunday.)

This weekend’s Patriots-Bills showdown should be a lot more evenly matched than the last time they tussled, considering the weather will be a lot closer to normal than the windy, frigid night that the two engaged on three weeks ago in Buffalo. Expect the Patriots to throw a lot more than three times this time around, though they’ll be looking to once again run the Bills over with their talented rushing attack.

Here’s what we’ll be watching for in what is essentially a playoff game at Gillette Stadium this weekend:

Righting The Ship

The Patriots can’t feel great about themselves after what just happened in Indy. The Bills still can’t feel great about what happened a few weeks ago, especially considering they followed up that loss to the Patriots with an overtime loss to the Buccaneers. But Buffalo bounced back last weekend with a solid win over the Carolina Panthers, and could really right their ship with a win in Foxboro.

The Patriots are now looking to get a bad taste out of their mouths after their seven-game win streak was snapped last Saturday night. Mac Jones is looking to bounce back from one of his worst games that saw him throw a pair of costly — and downright bad — interceptions. (Solid fourth quarter, though.) The New England special teams unit is looking to shake off their third blocked punt of the season. The defense played well for the most part last week, but that 67-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Taylor to seal Indy’s victory is fresh on everyone’s mind.

New England looked a step behind and sluggish throughout Saturday’s loss, and Jones spent the days that followed pointing out that the team did not have a good week of practice out of its bye week. It has led to some doubt about the seven-game win streak, and if the Patriots have the mettle to beat a good opponent.

Expect a much better and more aggressive team to take the field come Sunday. A fast start will go a long way to securing an important win.

Get Running Again

Damien Harris is back, which is good news, but Rhamondre Stevenson is now sidelined for this one due to an illness. The Patriots are going to want to beat the Bills on the ground again, because that is where Buffalo struggles.

It would be silly for the Patriots to do anything else, because Harris is damn good at picking up large chunks of yards, and he showed a few weeks ago that he is damn good at doing that against this Bills defense. Along with Stevenson, the duo had nearly 200 yards and averaged 5.6 yards on their 34 carries three weeks ago in Buffalo.

The Patriots were much less successful on the ground last weekend in Indy, with Harris sidelined and Stevenson held to just 36 yards on his 10 carries. The Pats will look to establish the run early and often on Sunday, with the offensive line looking to shake off an uninspiring performance in Indy. Without Stevenson, Brandon Bolden will be a big part of the game plan, and J.J. Taylor could even see a few carries out of the backfield.

Letting the Patriots run wild all over them didn’t sit well with the Bills defense a few Monday nights ago, and that was on full display when safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer took offense to a reporter asking if they were embarrassed by the performance. They clearly were, and they’ll be out for some revenge on Sunday.

Whether or not they’ll be able to stop New England’s power run game remains to be seen. They know it’s coming, but that didn’t really help them much a few weeks ago.

Who Will Catch Passes?

The Patriots had plenty of guys to catch passes when Mac threw just three of them in Week 13. This time around, his receiving options will be a little light.

Nelson Agholor and N’Keal Harry both left Saturday night’s loss with injuries, and though Harry has been on the practice field, Agholor has been missing. Kendrick Bourne’s status remains up in the air after he was added to the COVID list on Monday.

Update: Bourne was activated on Saturday and is set to play against Buffalo.

So there is a very good chance that Jones goes into this one with Jakobi Meyers (his leading receiver with 65 receptions), Harry (just 15 targets on the year) and Gunner Olszewski (who has just one catch this season) as his top receiver options. That would greatly impact New England’s ability to pass against the Bills secondary, though Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith will likely get a lot more looks.

All those questions at receiver could also lead to practice squad elevations from second-year receiver Kristian Wilkerson and rookie Tre Nixon, both of whom have been with the team since training camp. Wilkerson has two seasons with the Patriots under his belt, and on Wednesday, Belichick said that he’s a “guy we have trouble covering” when Wilkerson emulates the opponent’s best receiver on the scout team. He played one game last season and against the Panthers this year, when he played four offensive snaps. He had 13 receptions for 147 yards during the preseason.

The Bills are still trying to find their way without Tre’Davious White leading the secondary, but they’re still a really good defense against the pass, allowing just 175.6 yards per game. They didn’t play a big factor in Week 13, but they’ll have a bigger impact this time around with Mac playing a bigger role — even if he has limited options at receiver.

This is a HUGE weekend for Jones. The rookie is going up against a solid defense that is going to try to do what Indy just did — force him to throw. These are the big time moments that the Patriots need their quarterback to thrive in.

Allen’s Canon

Considering Mac will be able to throw the ball this weekend, that means Josh Allen is really going to be able to throw the ball this weekend. The wind kept him from really rearing back and letting it rip in Week 13, but that won’t be an issue this time around.

It will give the New England secondary one of its best tests of the season. Because they really haven’t been tested much as of late.

The last time the Patriots went against an elite passer was way back in Week 6, when Dak Prescott torched them for 445 yards. The secondary’s best game of the year came a few weeks later, when they stymied Justin Herbert and picked off the second-year QB twice.

Allen had a lot working against him a few weeks ago, but he did manage to rack up 145 passing yards and a touchdown. It won’t be hard for him to surpass those numbers this weekend, even if Cole Beasley is not among his receiving options.

He still has the always dangerous Stefon Diggs, who accounted for 51 of those 145 yards back in Week 13. And last year, when Allen lit up the Patriots for 320 yards and four touchdowns in Week 16, Diggs had nine receptions for 145 yards. At least Bill Belichick has a Pro Bowler in J.C. Jackson to try to keep Diggs on an island.

Gabriel Davis is in line for a big day with Beasley out of the mix, and is coming off a two-touchdown afternoon against Carolina last week. He only had two catches against the Pats in Week 13, but one of those was a 14-yard touchdown grab where he essentially dragged Jalen MIlls into the end zone.

Update: The Patriots won’t have to worry about Davis anymore, as he is joining the COVID list, along with lineman Cody Ford.

The Josh Allen that the Patriots saw a few weeks ago is not the same Josh Allen that they’ll see on Sunday. The Bills offense goes as far as Allen takes them, so all eyes will be on the Buffalo QB and his cannon arm this weekend.

Bonus: Madman McDermott On The Sideline

Sean McDermott gets pretty miffed on the sidelines, especially when his team is playing the Patriots. Don’t expect any lingering Christmas cheer from the Bills head coach come Sunday.

This guy gets a bit nuts when things don’t go his team’s way. Heck, he goes a bit nuts even when things do go Buffalo’s way. Sometimes he forgets the rules of football during these moments of lost composure.

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott argues a call with field judge Joe Blubaugh during Week 13 against the New England Patriots during the 2021 NFL season. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

McDermott looks for a call during a game against the Patriots in the 2019 NFL season. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

McDermott argues for an illegal contact penalty against the Patriots on during the 2018 season. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

McDermott protests a call during a game against the Patriots on December 3, 2017 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

He must be a South Pole elf.

Now we’ll see how he handles all the pressure this weekend. This is a pretty huge game for Derm and the Bills. They appeared destined to win the AFC East for the second straight year, finally ending New England’s supremacy at the top of the division. Yet, here they are, in a must-win against their fiercest foe.

The Bills cannot afford any more losses if they want a spot in the playoffs. McDermott needs to redeem himself after his last meeting with the Patriots, and if the Bills lose this game and end up missing the playoffs, his job could be on the line. He’s done an incredible job building up the Bills over the last few years, but he’s shown that he isn’t a great in-game coach. And if he can’t beat the Patriots, then Buffalo will have to consider a change.

The pressure is on, and there’s a good chance McDermott will completely blow his stack at some point during Sunday’s game.

Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Bills game on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins at 11:30am with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 1pm, and after the game switch over to TV38 for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!

CBSBoston.com Staff