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In playoff matchup with Patriots, Bills’ defense hopes to get the last word

Bills safety Jordan Poyer, who bristled at questions about Buffalo's "embarrassing" defensive performance in a 14-10 home loss to the Patriots Dec. 6, had plenty to say to New England fans as he walked off the field at Gillette Stadium following Buffalo's dominant 33-21 win in Foxborough on Dec. 26.Stew Milne/Associated Press

The story of the Buffalo Bills 2021 season cannot be told without mentioning the uncomfortable exchange between Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, and reporter Jerry Sullivan.

The low-point of the Bills season was their 14-10 loss at home to the Patriots on Dec. 6. The Patriots grinded out a win despite throwing the football just three times, something that had not been done in 40 years.

Sullivan asked whether the defense, through its performance, was “embarrassing.”

The question seemed like a fair one to Sullivan. Poyer and Hyde, leaders of the Bills defense, took instant umbrage and made a mental note of it.


From that point on, the Bills went 4-1 to close out the regular season and finished with the league’s top-ranked defense. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said the unit’s performance down the stretch was less of a response to a loaded question and more a point of pride.

“They hurt when we don’t win as a team or when we don’t play up to our standard as a defense, no matter what’s written or said,” Frazier said. “And if nothing is said, they’re their harshest critics. They’re going to get on themselves when they watch tape and if something isn’t right — because of who they are, and the type of people that they are — they’re going to try to fix it, they’re going to try to get it corrected. That’s one of the reasons our guys have constantly been able to rebound from a difficult period.”

The 33-21 win over the Patriots later in December offered some vindication. The Bills held New England to just 288 total yards. The Patriots went 1 for 10 on third down.

“That first matchup, we’re just going to be frank with it, they came out there and they punched us in the mouth,” said defensive end Jerry Hughes. “So we knew going back to their place, we had to return the favor. But we’ve got to do it our style, our way. I think guys rose up to that challenge, and we were able to do that.”


The Bills will see the Patriots for the third time in barely more than a month when the two teams meet on Saturday in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Bill Belichick and the Patriots got the better of the Bills in their first matchup in Buffalo.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“Now we know this is Round 3,” Hughes said. “They’re coming back in our home, the stage is now even heightened because loser goes home. And I guarantee you nobody in this building wants to go home, so we’re going to do everything that we can.”

Familiarity, however, won’t mean much. Defensive lineman Ed Oliver was prepared for the Patriots to have an entirely different game plan for the postseason.

“It takes all 11 to play defense, especially against this group,” Oliver said. “They’re very fundamentally sound, they’re going to come in here and give us their best shot and we’ve just got to take it and handle that. Everybody has to be in their gap. And then when they do decide to pass — I don’t know how much depending on the weather.

“Last time they came out here they didn’t throw worth a lick, so this time when they come out here, they might switch it up and it might be a different game. But whatever they decide to do, we’ve just got to be on it. Whatever they call on defense, we’ve got to execute. And last but not least, we’ve got to protect our reputation.”


Mac Jones and rookie QBs

Before the season, it was virtually impossible for rookie quarterbacks to get a win against a Sean McDermott-coached team.

The Bills were 5-1 against rookie signal-callers and hadn’t allowed any of them to throw more than one touchdown pass in a game.

But two rookies managed to pull it off this season. Trevor Lawrence led Jacksonville to a 9-6 win in Week 9 and Mac Jones led the Patriots to a 14-10 win in Week 13. Jones’s role in the Patriots’ win was minimal. He threw just three passes and his two completions went for 19 yards. In Week 16, Jones threw 32 passes, completing just 14 and throwing two interceptions.

Mac Jones was one of only two rookie quarterbacks to beat the Bills this past season.Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

“I think our guys do a good job of just honing in on what each opposing quarterback likes and what he doesn’t like as well,” Frazier said. “I don’t know if it’s as much about the fact that a guy’s a rookie as much as it is about our guys studying and really having a good understanding their opponent — and not just the quarterback position but what the overall offense is trying to accomplish.”

No Bowlers for Bills D

Despite having the league’s best defense, no one from the Bills defense was tapped for the Pro Bowl. Frazier made a case for safeties Hyde and Poyer.

“Those guys are outstanding and they are deserving of being in that Pro Bowl,” said Frazier. “They are the backbone of our secondary. They lead us in so many ways with their communication and they just create havoc for opposing quarterback with their movement, giving them different looks, their disguises. I don’t know where we’d be without them.”


Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.