The real refs are back. Hallelujah.
Now that we have that out of the way, we can start paying attention to the Patriots' first division game of the season, which will come this Sunday against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, NY. The Pats, at 1-2 following last Sunday night's tough loss at Baltimore, are currently looking up at the Bills, who are 2-1, in the standings.
That may seem odd, but don't forget about a year ago at this time, when the Bills came from three TDs down in Week 3 to upset the Pats at Ralph Wilson Stadium, upping their record to 3-0 and knocking New England down a peg to 2-1.
From that point, the Bills, who have had one winning season since 1999, lost10 of their next 13 games, while the Pats won 11 of their next 13 and went to the Super Bowl.
Last year's games between these two longtime rivals have no bearing on what will go down on Sunday, however. The Pats will be looking to bounce back from two straight losses by a combined three points, while the Bills, who were smoked by the Jets in Week 1, have recovered to win their last two, both in convincing fashion.
Buffalo has some injury problems on offense, and are still breaking in two big, new faces on D in Mario Williams and former Pats' pass rushing demon Mark Anderson. The Pats continue to look for continuity on offense and will be looking to solve some old problems that reared their heads on D against the Ravens.
So with that, let's get into this game and take a look at a few of its more compelling match ups.
When the Bills run the ball.
Buffalo has two explosive backs but they're both hurt. Starter Fred Jackson sprained his right knee in Week 1 against the Jets and is questionable to play this week. His backup, former first-round pick C.J. Spiller, took over and busted out, gaining 308 yards on just 33 attempts (9.3 yards a pop) in a little over two full games before suffering a left shoulder injury last week against Cleveland. Spiller practiced on a limited basis on Thursday, but the shoulder will more than likely sideline him on Sunday.
Enter third stringer Tashard Choice, a former Dallas Cowboy, who picked up 91 yards on 20 attempts against the Browns and has gained 1,347 yards at 4.3 yards per attempt over the span of his six-year career.
If Jackson can go, you can bet the Pats won't be happy to see him. Jackson, who has been practicing on a limited basis this week, was huge in that Week 3 win last year, gaining 74 yards on just 12 carries with a TD (6.2 YPA) and catching five balls out of the backfield for another 87 yards.
The bottom line is, no matter who lines up in the backfield for the Bills on Sunday, the Pats had better be careful. Their run defense, so stout in Weeks 1 and 2, was shredded by the Ravens to the tune of 121 yards on just 26 attempts.
Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love got off to a very good start anchoring the Pats' run defense against Baltimore. But when they went out for a breather and were replaced by Ron Brace and the now released Marcus Fortson, the Ravens picked up some momentum that they wouldn't lose even after the two starters came back into the game. It will be up to Wilfork and Love to set the tone early again against the Bills. Controlling the line of scrimmage is key against a running team like Buffalo.
In addition, Brandon Spikes, the Pats best run stopping linebacker, will need to do a lot more than he did last Sunday night, which was pretty much nothing. If he can be more aggressive in following Wilfork and Love to the point of attack, there should be plenty of plays to be made.
In the end, a good deal of this match up may come down to who plays for Buffalo. Choice is a solid back but if Jackson winds up joining Spiller in some shiny, new Nike Bills swag on the sideline, that would be a big break for the Pats.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
One of the more disappointing aspects of the Pats loss to Baltimore was that Tom Brady's performance, his best since late last season, pretty much went by the wayside in favor of scab referee talk, reactions to Bill Belichick's arm grab of an official and the fact that with two fourth quarter chances to ice the game, Brady and the offense couldn't close the deal.
Brady and the O will get a chance to redeem themselves against a defense that ranks 19th in passing yards allowed (248.3 per game) and 23rd in points allowed (26.3 per game).
This match up should provide a big test for the Pats offensive line, which was stellar against the Ravens. Williams and Anderson are each monster pass rushers and the Bills have registered nine sacks through their first three games sixth most in the league.
Leading the charge for their defensive line has been tackle Kyle Williams, who missed a lot of last season with an Achilles injury, but has come back to ring up three sacks thus far.
It will be on the O-line to give Brady the time needed to avoid all that pressure. Logan Mankins hasn't been seen at practice yet this week but he was limited last week too and still provided a typically big time performance once the game rolled around.
The Ravens game gave a look into the progress Brady is making with his receiving corps. Brandon Lloyd had his best game as a Patriot by far and Wes Welker looked like, well, Wes Welker. With Julian Edelman missing the second half of that game as well as both of this week's practices thus far, that could mean more work ahead for Deion Branch, who returned to make a couple of catches against the Ravens.
And then, there's Rob Gronkowski. Gronk hasn't had a breakout game yet and has made more news regarding holding penalties and cereal than catching passes from Brady. Given the Bills pass rushing prowess, it stands to reason that Gronk will be kept home to aid in protection a fair amount on Sunday. Still, with Aaron Hernandez still out, getting Gronk more involved with the passing game would be a big plus for the Pats.
Again, this match up comes down to Brady having enough time to throw. If the Bills pressure can be contained, Sunday should be another big day for Brady.
When the Bills pass the ball.
Between Devin McCourty's woeful fourth quarter, Kyle Arrington's tough game and the complete lack of anything resembling a pass rush, the Patriots pass defense took a step backward in the loss to Baltimore. Joe Flacco carved them up while not even playing a great game and while he was aided at times by the replacement officials, there were still plenty of opportunities for the Pats to make plays and they made none after Steve Gregory's early first quarter pick.
Against the Bills passing game, the Pats may just be able to regain a bit of their swagger. Buffalo QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started last season off on fire, signed a huge contract extension and then promptly went in the tank, has been a bit of a mixed bag this year. His high in passing yards is just 208 and he's completed more than 57 percent of his passes just once in three games.
But he's also thrown eight TD passes against just three picks, all of which came in the Bills Week 1 blowout loss to the Jets. He has a passer rating of 95.2 and has only been sacked once, a testament to his O-line.
Fitzpatrick's top target remains boisterous receiver Steve Johnson, who has 13 catches for 172 yards and three scores thus far. The Bills will also look to get the ball to tight end Scott Chandler in the deep middle; Chandler has averaged 14 yards per catch so far this season.
It stands to reason that McCourty will spend a lot of time shadowing Johnson while Dont'a Hightower, among the many invisibles on defense against the Ravens, will see a good deal of snaps in coverage. And more pressure will be key against Fitzpatrick, who has been known to get very jumpy in the pocket when facing a stout rush. This is a guy who has thrown 38 picks over the past two seasons. Make him uncomfortable and wait for him to give you the ball.
This is a match up the Pats can win and win convincingly. If the make the Bills more one dimensional on offense and/or get a nice early lead, Fitzpatrick will be forced to throw more than he would like. That's just what the Pats want.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Bills 17
The Pats don't lose to the Bills very often. Buffalo's comeback win last year marked the first time it beat the Pats at home since Week 1 of 2003. And while the Bills are much tougher on defense than in recent years, it may be a moot point if their running game is slowed to the point that Fitzpatrick has to throw the ball 35-40 times. And don't underestimate the pride factor here at all. The Pats could easily be 3-0 right now instead of 1-2 and they know it. There should be an edge to their game on Sunday afternoon. They're going to play angry. And that will help their cause in a big way.