Kevin Hoffman-US PRESSWIRE
The Pats return from their week off to face division rival Buffalo. The results should be along the lines of the two teams' Week 4 meeting, a 52-28 win for New England.
It may be a but tough to recall given everything that's unfolded since, but the Patriots destroyed the Buffalo Bills 52-28 back on Sept. 30, erasing a 21-7 deficit in the early stages of the third quarter and winning going away.
The Bills looked legit in the first half of that game before the Pats exposed their revamped defense and turned their offense one-dimensional thanks to some typically stout play against the run. Since that game, Buffalo has lost four out of five and once again, for what feels like the 100th straight year, are en route to missing the playoffs and also ran status as it staggers into Foxboro to take on the Pats at Gillette Stadium this week.
Meanwhile, the Pats are fresh and seemingly healthy coming off their 45-7 whipping of the Rams in London back in Week 8 and the subsequent bye week. Just three players weren't present for the start of practice on Thursday and none of them were Aaron Hernandez, Logan Mankins, Steve Gregory or Patrick Chung.
We'll have to wait until Sunday to see if all of those guys return to action. But it has to be confidence inspiring for Pats fans to see their team rested and playing at home after a week off on the heels of two straight wins. The next four weeks should go a long way toward determining the Pats' postseason status with three division games and a fourth against a fellow AFC contender (Indianapolis) on tap.
And it all starts this week against the Bills, who have beaten the Patriots once since 2003 and haven't won in Foxboro since 2000, when Pats home games were played in old Foxboro Stadium and Bill Belichick was in his first year at the helm.
So with that, let's get into some of the more intriguing match ups this game has to offer.
When the Bills run the ball.
Buffalo is ranked sixth in the league in rushing and second in yard per rushing attempt. The Bills have two feature backs who are capable of breaking off big runs at any point in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Spiller in particular has been terrific this season, amassing 562 yards on just 78 attempts, a 7.2 average.
So naturally, because they are the Bills, they went into last week's game at Houston and threw the ball two and a half times more than they ran it, 38-16.
Yes, the Bills are poorly coached. But that's another discussion. For our purpose here, it would seem that as weak as the Pats pass defense has been (though it was better against the Rams), the Bills are at their best when they stay committed to the running game. Spiller is a game changer, yet he only had six attempts against the Texans (at over six yards a pop) and just 30 in his last three games.
Maybe the Bills are trying to conserve him, though for what is anyone's guess. The bottom line is that theirs is an offense that functions best when the running game is consistent and working and you can bet Belichick and his defensive staff have been drilling their troops, the front seven in particular, on that very fact.
The Pats are seventh in the league in run defense, allowing just 88.6 yards per game on the ground. But if the Bills see hat statistic and again choose to abandon their greatest strength on offense, then they are dumber than they look. Their best chance to beat the Pats is to get Spiller, Jackson and the running game going, control the clock and keep Tom Brady and the Pats' offense off the field.
It may be too much to ask, though. The Pats will be ready for Spiller and Jackson. Again, even though defending the pass is their biggest weakness, the Pats must take away or at least slow down the Bills running game and put their offensive fortunes in the hands of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is a bad mistake waiting to happen. The Pats controlled the Bills on the ground in their first meeting to the tune of just 98 yards on 27 attempts. Forcing Fitzpatrick to throw more, the Pats wound up with four interceptions that day.
The Bills' greatest strength plays right into that of the Pats. This should spell doom for the Buffalo offense.
When the Patriots run the ball.
The Pats hung 580 yards on the Bills back in the Week 4 match up but what surprised most was that 247 of them came on the ground.
Stevan Ridley put up one of his typically good showings with 106 yards and a couple of TDs on 22 attempts. But it was Brandon Bolden who exploded onto the scene in that game with 137 yards on just 16 attempts. Bolden would hurt his knee the following week against the Broncos and hasn't been heard from since. But his performance combined with Ridley's gave life to the on-again, off-again idea that this year's Pats are, or at least could be, a running team.
Since that day, we've learned that the Pats are still a group that is most successful when Brady is in the shotgun, the formations are spread out and he has time to find mismatches and exploit them in the passing game. But Ridley, who was tremendous in the win over the Rams (15 rushes, 127 yards) has proven that he's still a force as well. He's more than halfway to 1,400 yards for the season, which would mark the best mark for a Patriots' back in a single year since Corey Dillon went over 1,600 yards in 2004, the last time the Pats won the Super Bowl.
As for the Bills, they've changed some things up on defense since then. Brady noted after the Week 4 meeting that Buffalo had its nickel and dime personnel on the field so much that day that the Pats would have been foolish not to run the ball as much as they did given the mismatches that occurred. The Bills play more base looks these days but they are still 31st in the league against the run, allowing over 170 yards per game on the ground.
We know that Brady, who threw for 380 yards and three scores in Week 4, can shred the Bills pass defense if given the time and the right looks. But it seems pretty logical to assume that while the Pats may not roll up another 247 rushing yards or run the ball 40 times in this meeting, they will still be able to get theirs on the ground behind Ridley and Shane Vereen, who has looked decent since Bolden's injury. The fact that the Pats O-line looks to be intact come Sunday is a big plus as well.
When the Bills pass the ball.
One more week until the Patriots' debut of recently acquired corner Aqib Talib, who could be the team's savior or the spawn of hell depending on who you ask. But that's another column; this week, it will be the same ragtag bunch of defensive backs who were torched by the likes of Russell Wilson and Mark Sanchez before bouncing back (after a gloomy start) against Sam Bradford a couple weeks ago.
For now, and hopefully for the rest of the season, Devin McCourty looks to be staying at safety. Both Gregory and Chung were limited at Thursday's practice but both have been out there all week which seems to suggest they will both be active on Sunday. If that stands up, McCourty could see some time at his traditional spot at left corner. But as ugly as things were against the Jets, the last line of defense has looked slightly better with him at safety and given how much the Bills throw the ball, or at least have thrown it of late, that might be a signal to keep him back there, at least in place of the regressing Chung.
The Pats, as we all know, are very susceptible to downfield throws but Fitzpatrick has attempted just 19 passes of 20 yards or more on the season. He wound up with 350 yards passing in Week 4 and completed a pass of at least 24 yards to five different receivers including one a 68-yard TD. But most of those plays still weren't the result of throwing the ball down the field.
Fitzpatrick throws a lot of slants, quick ins and out and so forth. The 68-yarder was a simple quick slant that Donald Jones broke because Chung still doesn't know how to take the proper angle over the middle. If the Pats can clog up the middle of the field and get in Fitzpatrick's throwing lanes, he'll be forced to try to beat them down the field. And even though the Pats aren't exactly proficient in defending plays like that, Fitzpatrick isn't exactly proficient in making them.
If Talib lives up to his potential once his suspension is up, he'll be a huge help to the Pats secondary. Until then, the Pats couldn't have asked for a better match up for their pass defense. If the pass rush can pressure Fitzpatrick and force him into low percentage throws, this one won't be much of a fight.
Prediction: Patriots 38, Bills 14
The Bills allow 31 points per game, second to last in the NFL. The Pats score 33 points per game, first in the NFL. The last two times these teams have met, the Pats have scored 49 and 52 points, respectively. The Bills, once again, have tightened up a bit on defense since Week 4 - holding Houston to just 21 points on the road last week was something of an accomplishment - and have to be embarrassed at how thoroughly the Pats beat them six weeks ago. But don't expect any of that to matter too much come Sunday. The Pats are too much at too many positions for Buffalo, especially at home. This one may not even be as close as the score above suggests.