BUFFALO -- Because this matchup is so critical to the standings, because the contrast of styles featured will be so stark, and because we've got an extra day to look ahead, we're diving deeper into the on-the-field chess match between the Patriots and Bills than we have with any other matchup this season. The more you look at it, the more fascinating it becomes.
Here are five under-the-radar names to keep an eye on Monday night because they could end up determining the outcome ...
Star Lotulelei, DT, Bills
The Bills are expected to have their best run-stuffing defensive lineman back on the field after he was removed from the COVID reserve list last week. While the Bills have been trampled on the ground at times this year, they haven't always had Lotulelei. He missed the massive run-game performance by the Colts late last month, for instance.
What do the Bills get with Lotulelei's return, Bill Belichick was asked on Friday?
"Another good player," he said. "They’re very good up there. They have good depth and good talent. They just keep coming in waves. They've got a couple of waves of guys there. They're all tough. They're good playmakers. They're consistent. They have a good defense, obviously. They're one of the best defenses in the league."
Nelson Agholor, WR, Patriots
This is the kind of game where Patriots quarterback Mac Jones is going to have to be on the same page with his receivers. Because the Bills have arguably the best safety duo in the league -- and because Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are interchangeable -- they can be hard to read. Before the snap. After the snap. Is it a two-high safety coverage? Is it single-high? Poyer and Hyde are always moving to try to disguise their intentions. It's a challenge.
If Jones is not on the same page with someone like Agholor or Jakobi Meyers or Kendrick Bourne, it could mean a game-changing defensive play for Buffalo. Say, for instance, Agholor sees the coverage as a two-high look. If Jones doesn't see it the same way, and if Agholor doesn't change his route to attack the void in Buffalo's defense, maybe Poyer or Hyde come away with a pick.
The communication between Patriots wideouts and Jones has been good of late, but they'll have to be on their Ps and Qs in Orchard Park.
"The more practice we've gotten together," Meyers said, "...Mac wasn't really taking [starter] reps during camp so it was kind of hard to gauge what he was thinking. But the more I've gotten to talk to him, watch him play, watch him just go out there and handle his business, I've learned more about him and it's definitely helped on the field."
Dane Jackson, CB, Bills
If the Bills opt to spin one of their safeties down into the box to take away the Patriots running game, that will leave their cornerbacks in one-on-one situations on the outside.
Normally, that might not be an issue for Buffalo. And it still might not be an issue because of the wind expected. But without star corner Tre'Davious White, the Bills will be asking Levi Wallace and backup Dane Jackson to handle their business outside the numbers. Jackson was a seventh-round pick out of Pitt in 2020.
Spencer Brown, OT, Bills
The Bills have been hearing it for a week now. They're "soft." It's the way they're built. They've added talented piece on top of talented piece to help Josh Allen in the passing game. But their offensive line has struggled at times this year when it hasn't been fully healthy.
Well... it's healthier. Buffalo is expected to have rookie third-round tackle Spencer Brown -- a Prototypical Patriot from this year's draft class -- back in the lineup along with veteran guard Jon Feliciano.
While some of the Bills' run-game numbers have been inflated because of Allen's ability in scramble situations, getting those two back in the lineup should help Buffalo make some gains in the running game.
Myles Bryant, DB, Patriots
With Kyle Dugger expected to miss Monday's game, the Patriots are going to have to fill in somehow. There is no one-for-one replacement for the second-year safety-linebacker hybrid. But Myles Bryant could help.
When the Patriots want to deploy their nickel defense, Bryant could be the fifth defensive back in the game alongside J.C. Jackson, Jalen Mills, Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillps.
Bryant doesn't have nearly the size that Dugger does, but he does have experience practicing at safety, and he hasn't been afraid to lay the wood when given the opportunity. He recorded one of the hardest shots of the year on Chargers wideout Keenan Allen back in Week 8 to force a pass breakup.
Bryant said last week that playing the "star" position, what the Patriots call their slot corners, is a heady position. His football IQ may help him fill in for a critical player like Dugger.
"I would just say it's a combination of three positions, in my eyes," Bryant said of the slot corner spot in New England's defense. "You gotta play corner so you gotta play man-to-man, follow a guy around the whole game. There's a safety aspect to it so you might roll down. You might blitz. You might play zone coverage. And lastly, I think there's a linebacker element to it. You might end up in the box. You might have to take on linemen. You might have to take on tight ends, fullbacks, whatever it may be.
"Being able to know certain techniques, being able to know your leverage, being able to know your position in the defense, it all starts up top... It's a pretty cerebral spot."