FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots have some depth questions heading into Saturday night’s wild-card game — 13 of them, to be exact.
That’s the number of players listed as questionable for the playoff rubber match against the Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Before getting too deep into triskaidekaphobia theories, the number is actually 15, as cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Shaun Wade remain on the reserve/COVID-19 list and are exempt from the roster. Both still have a shot to play against the Bills.
The defense, and in particular the secondary, will need several players to step up if starting safety Kyle Dugger — who was not spotted by reporters at Wednesday’s or Thursday’s practice but was still listed as a limited participant — or Mills can’t go.
Dugger, who missed the regular-season finale because of a hand injury, has 86 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 5 passes defensed this season. He’s a versatile defender who is stout enough to play in the box against the run and also possesses cover skills to help blanket tight ends.
Replacing Dugger is a tall task and could fall to Myles Bryant, who is back after missing a week on the COVID list, or Joejuan Williams, both of whom have played multiple positions in the secondary. Sean Davis is a possible practice squad call-up.
Williams got some time in the cornerback rotation during the middle of the season but was a healthy scratch for three games down the stretch before returning for the finale.
“He’s been in some different roles, depending on who else has been available, really, over the course of his three years here,” coach Bill Belichick said. “At times playing inside, at times playing outside.
“We’ve shifted schematically a little bit in terms of probably our man/zone breakdowns and so forth. He’s adapted to all those things, but it’s been a little bit of a transition and he’s had to plug in at times when we needed him as opposed to just really being able to stay in one spot.”
As for who might play the boundary corner opposite J.C. Jackson in place of Mills, it could be an all-hands-on-deck approach. The Patriots have corners D’Angelo Ross, Cre’Von LeBlanc, DeVante Bausby, and D.J. Daniel on the practice squad.
Ross has been called up three straight weeks, while LeBlanc has more than 50 games of experience and some familiarity with the system.
Jackson, who likely will be charged with matching up against Buffalo’s top receiver — Stefon Diggs — expressed confidence in the group.
“We had to switch a few things up, but we still prepared the same. It was tough not having [Mills] this week, but when a guy goes down it’s next man up,” Jackson said. “So, we’ve been preparing all week for the next guy. He’s going to be ready, whoever it is.”
According to an ESPN report, Jerod Mayo, who coaches the Patriots’ inside linebackers and assists in play-calling, will be on the Texans’ list of potential candidates to replace David Culley as head coach.
Mayo, who confirmed earlier this week he will interview with the Broncos, maintained his focus has been on his current job.
“It’s a very humbling experience; I mean, it’s great,” Mayo said Tuesday of being offered interviews. “At the end of the day, I will say this: I’m fully focused on the Buffalo Bills, but it’s definitely a huge opportunity. Hopefully one day I get a chance to coach a team.”
Mayo is very popular with the players and staff.
“I think the world of Mayo,” said safety Devin McCourty, who was once a teammate. “Coming in as a young player, how much he taught me. Watching his leadership. Watching him day to day. He’s been the same way as a coach.”
Mayo has had a long relationship with Houston general manager Nick Caserio as both a player and coach.
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who is nursing hip and ankle injuries, was the only active-roster player to miss the session. He was listed as questionable, and if he can’t go, he would likely be replaced by Justin Herron.
In addition to Dugger, others listed as limited/questionable include linebackers Jamie Collins (ankle) and Dont’a Hightower (knee); defensive linemen Lawrence Guy (shoulder) and Christian Barmore (knee); safety Adrian Phillips (knee); center David Andrews (shoulder); running back Damien Harris (hamstring); receiver Jakobi Meyers (thigh); special teamers Brandon King (toe) and Cody Davis (wrist); and kicker Nick Folk (left knee).
The Bills didn’t list any players as out or questionable.
Folk dropped a little Bill Nye knowledge Thursday when asked if it is indeed tougher to kick in frigid conditions. “That’s simple physics there,” Folk said. “Science, if you will. Air molecules don’t move as freely inside the ball, so you can’t compress it as well. When things are cold, things don’t move as well.” Folk, 37, who is enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career (36 of 39 on field goals), said he’d love to keep playing after this season. “I feel pretty good where I’m at right now,” he said. “I’m kicking well with [holder] Jake [Bailey] and [long snapper] Joe [Cardona], so I’d love to keep playing. But I think the biggest focus is just on Buffalo. I haven’t really given it too much thought.” … This will be the 125th meeting between the franchises but just the second in the postseason. In their first playoff game, the Patriots scored a 26-8 win over the Bills at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo on Dec. 28, 1963 … The Patriots hold a 77-46-1 edge in the overall series.