The New England Patriots’ 2022 season was always going to be defined by how well they faced the league’s elite teams, with the Buffalo Bills being the biggest measuring stick of them all.

Buffalo dominated New England in its final two meetings last season, including a 47-17 playoff rout in which the Patriots were embarrassed in all phases of the game.

That game is why Mac Jones has an image of himself looking defeated from that game hanging in his locker–to serve as motivation for his second season. Both teams are set to faceoff for the first time on Thursday since that playoff throttling last winter. Both teams are in the playoff hunt, with the Patriots sitting at 6-5 in hopes of looking to bounce back after their Thanksgiving Day loss while the Bills are 8-4 and still have Super Bowl hopes.

Jones is looking forward to the situation that awaits him and the Patriots.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Jones said Sunday. “Like I said, they’re playing as good as anybody in the NFL right now. Last year is last year, but at the same time, we know what happened and we’ve got to come in here and work and kind of work through it all and go out there and compete.

“That’s what it’s all about and then see where we’re at. It’s a good defense. Like I always say, we’re going against their defense, and they provide that challenge better than anybody we’ve played so far, so hat’s off to them. They’ve done a great job, so we’ve got to be ready to go.”

Mac Jones has certainly been battled tested in the time between that playoff loss and his first game against the Bills this season. He struggled out of the gates before suffering an ankle injury in Week 3 that sidelined him for three-plus games. When Jones came back, he struggled again as the Patriots scored just two offensive touchdowns in his first two complete games back.

However, Jones’ play has noticeably improved over the last two games. Against a tough New York Jets defense in Week 11, he completed 23-of-27 passes for 246 yards. Just a few days later, Jones completed 28-of-39 passes for a career-high 382 yards with two touchdowns in New England’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving Day.

But there’s still been one big concern for the Patriots’ offense over those two matches: their inability to convert in short-yardage situations. They were 4-for-15 on third-down conversions and 0-for-2 in the red zone against the Jets. On Thursday, there were 3-for-10 on third-down conversions and 0-for-3 in the red zone.

Jones recognizes that the Patriots have to improve in those two areas as they enter the homestretch of the season.

“I think you put emphasis on things, and I think that’s definitely something we need to improve at,” Jones explained. “Keep staying on the field and letting our defense get some rest and being able to do that. We have to improve obviously that area. I don’t know what teams around the league, or the best teams are doing right now, but you obviously want to be better than what we’ve been these past couple of games.

“But, yeah, I think it’s also important to realize that it’s just plays. You can’t overlook the situation, but you have to execute the plays and then the results will come. So regardless if it’s first down, second down, third, red zone, backed up, two-minute, it doesn’t matter as long as we’re doing the right things on that play. Definitely want to improve there and see what we can do better.”

The Patriots’ inability to execute in those situations might be their biggest downfall, though they’ve still won three of their last four games despite that. If Thursday’s loss is any sign, the Pats can’t leave points on the field if they’re up against the better offenses in the league. New England could have scored 12 extra points had it scored a touchdown in each of its three red zone drives against Minnesota, which would’ve made a huge difference in a 33-26 loss.

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The Bills’ offense presents a similar challenge for the Patriots’ offense, especially when you consider that they didn’t punt once in their final two matchups against New England last season.

Jones acknowledged that while he isn’t the one going up against the Bills’ offense, the Patriots will likely have to put a big number up on the scoreboard in order to win.

“You want to play your own game, but understand we have a really good defense too, and they have a great offense,” Jones added. “It’s always hard, you don’t want to look at the scoreboard, but at the same time, you want to win the game and have more points.

“For me, it’s always been trying to focus on stacking up good plays and I know our offense is trying to do that and then the points will come. You can’t force it or force a play that’s not there. Let those things happen and compete and play with effort and toughness. Obviously, like I said, our defense has done a great job and we’ve got to play together as a team and once we do that, I think the results will be good.”