Hunter Henry’s right, Monday’s trip to Buffalo is a ‘defining game’ for Patriots

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No rings will be given out following this coming Monday night’s game between the Patriots and Bills in Buffalo.

Not even any hats or t-shirts will be distributed.

And technically speaking New England veteran captain Devin McCourty was accurate that it’s not “going to be like the end of the season if we win or lose” for his 8-4 team playing the 13th game on a 17-game schedule.

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But if you don’t think that this Monday Night Football battle in Buffalo in front of the infamous Bills Mafia is worth more than just a simple one-game swing in the AFC East standings, then you haven’t been paying attention.

The Josh Allen-led defending division champions are supposed to be the team to beat, not just in the East but a legitimate Super Bowl contender a year ago set to annually aspire for a spot in the biggest game in sports.

Conversely, New England is supposed to be the squad in the midst of the post-Tom Brady rebuild trying to find its quarterback before figuring out if it can get back to division champion-caliber, never mind return to reaching for rings in the twilight of Bill Belichick’s career.

Except there is a funny narrative that’s developed over the course of 2021. The Bills aren’t as good as they’re supposed to be and the newly-minted quarter-of-a-billion-dollar man Allen might not be the foundation for automatic Super Bowl hopes that was assumed. And the Patriots, well rookie starting QB Mac Jones has Patriot Nation dreaming big – Super Bowl big! – after the team’s recent six-game winning streak.

Supposedly analytics-based websites like Football Outsiders now have the Patriots not the Bills as the most likely team in the AFC – and actually all the NFL – projected to go to the Super Bowl.

Supposedly unbiased analysts like NBC’s Rodney Harrison – yes, he’s indeed a former Patriot who helped the team dominate Buffalo for years -- has declared that the Patriots should go into Buffalo and “take care of business” against what he deems a “one-dimensional” opponent.

The Patriots have been put on pedestal at 8-4, a Super-sized pedestal.

Monday night in Buffalo, they have a chance to prove themselves actually worthy of that spot.

Unlike most of New England’s recent run of opponents, the Bills are not banged up beyond recognition, even if they will be without their best defensive player after Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White tore his ACL.

And similar to some of the opponents from the Patriots “better than our record” early-season phase of losses to the likes of the Bucs and Cowboys, Buffalo has the breadth of offensive weapons to actually challenge a New England bullying defense that’s feasted on lesser foes over the last month-plus.

So it was this week that many of our ears, those of media and fans alike, perked up a bit when Patriots tight end Hunter Henry made the kind of honest assessment about New England’s Monday night matchup with the Bills that just isn’t too common for a Belichick-coached team. Henry did nothing wrong mind you, he simply told the truth, which of course can be a cardinal sin under Belichick’s watch.

“It’s huge,” Henry said honestly when asked about the big game in Buffalo. “It is what it is with all the standings. It’s a division opponent, on the road, Monday Night Football. We’re both neck-and-neck right there in the standings. It’s definitely a defining game for both teams. We just have to be locked in and ready to go come Monday night.”

He’s not the only Patriots player that feels that way, even if it’s seemingly only the New England newbies that are willing to admit it publicly.

As developing Patriots playmaker Kendrick Bourne rightfully acknowledged after last Sunday’s win over the undermanned Titans, a team at that point atop the AFC standings, the trip to Buffalo is an opportunity for he and his teammates to “certify ourselves.”

Are the Patriots a true Super Bowl contender with a rookie quarterback capable of making history, an ice-in-his-veins joker ready to do whatever it takes to win like go into a hostile environment for a prime time battle and come out the other side ready to continue to march on unscathed?

Or, might New England be a bit of an overrated, opportunistic pretender that’s pounced on its circumstantial chances to build a much-hyped winning façade that so many across the country have been overly willing to buy into?

Henry and Bourne, bringing uncharacteristic honesty to their first season in Foxborough are right, Monday night in Buffalo we’re going to take a huge step toward finding out exactly what kind of Patriots team this really is.

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