Tom Brady fires a pass against San Diego (Steve Balestrieri photo)

The New England Patriots (2-0) go to meet the Buffalo Bills (2-0) on Sunday in Orchard Park, NY. The Bills under Chan Gailey are gaining confidence and are playing well after the first two games and there is reason for optimism in Buffalo as the Bills are seemingly turning the corner after a long period of middling to poor teams.

Gone are the days for a conservative, predictable offense of pounding the ball with the running game and short, ineffective passes. With the emergence of Ryan Fitzpatrick the Bills are now throwing the ball very well. They still have a very ground game but now have the balance needed to succeed in the NFL.

The Patriots behind a prolific passing offense has been setting the league on fire the past two weeks. Tom Brady has passed for 940 yards in just the first two games of the season. And neither team was a slouch defensively, Miami was a top ten defense last season and the San Diego Chargers were the #1 team defensively a year ago.

Despite the Patriots dominance in the past decade against Buffalo, 15 in a row and 20 of the past 21, the Bills have to feel like they are closing the gap and can play with the Patriots. Little is a surprise between these two teams who play each other twice a year, so the teams know each other well. It will come down to execution and limiting mistakes. So with that, it’s on to the match-ups.

Patriots Running Game: With so much emphasis being placed on the passing game, one tends to treat the Pats running game as an afterthought.  The Patriots ran with authority on the Bills porous running defense (Last in the NFL in ’10) last year. But the Bills added DL Marcell Dareus through the draft and LBs Nick Barnett and Andra Davis through free agency.

Look for the Patriots to test the Bills by pounding BenJarvus Green-Ellis inside and Danny Woodhead outside to test the Buffalo defense and keep them honest. If they start having some success, it will bring the safeties closer to the box and make the Patriots passing game that much more effective.

Just the fact that Bills will expect another aerial assault by Brady should open up some big holes for the RBs. Look for C Dan Connolly and NT Kyle Williams to have a good battle upfront. Green-Ellis should have a nice day on Sunday.

Patriots Passing Game: What can one say about a passing game that has nearly 1000 yards in just two weeks. Even with the loss of Aaron Hernandez, which is huge, the Patriots have a plethora of weapons for Brady to throw to.

The Bills have struggled to rush the passer, after a nice start to the pre-season OLB Shawn Merrimam has disappeared. Couple this with the loss of their best CB, Terrence McGee is out with an injury, it adds up to a huge mismatch for the Patriots.

Brady picked apart two Top 10 defenses in Miami and San Diego and now the Bills will field Drayton Florence opposite Leodis McKelvin, whom the Pats have picked on in the past. With Chad Ochocinco starting to find his way in the offense and Deion Branch off to a fast start, the Bills corners will be tested.

Brady also has his safety blanket in Wes Welker out of the slot and huge TE Rob Gronkowski who will be a matchup nightmare. Gronk is impossible to cover with a linebacker, so if they move one of the safeties (George Wilson or Jarius Byrd) over to Gronk, it will leave someone else singled up.

No disrespect to Jason Campbell, but if he and the Raiders could pass for 300 yards on this secondary, there is no reason to think Brady and the Pats shouldn’t be able to pass at will. If the Bills bring the blitz to rush Brady, Woodhead or Ridley should provide the safety valve. Either way, it should add up to another big day for Brady and the Pats passing offense.

 

Jerod Mayo fills the hole and stuff Tolbert on 4 & 1 at the Patriots goalline (Steve Balestrieri photo)

Bills Running Game: Fred Jackson is off to a great start this year, averaging nearly 115 yards per game and a gaudy 6.8 yards per rush. The underrated Jackson has given the Pats fits at times and he will team up with C.J. Spiller who himself is averaging nearly nine yards per rushing attempt this season.

Spiller had a huge game last fall, scoring 2 TDs in the first meeting, returning a kickoff and another on a screen pass. C Eric Wood and LG Andy Levitre will have their hands full trying to double team Albert Haynesworth in the middle of the Patriots line. That leaves Vince Wilfork singled on RG Craig Urbik.

I don’t see Buffalo’s offensive line getting to the second level here, so LB Jerod Mayo should have a big game tackle wise once again. With Haynesworth and Wilfork clogging the middle, the Bills running attack will have a hard time finding consistent yards inside.

Bills Passing Game: Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick is off to a superb start in 2011, throwing 7 TDs to just 1 INT so far, with a stellar 109.6 QB rating to go along with 472 passing yards. The Bills have a good WR corps with Stevie Johnson, David Nelson and Donald Jones. Taking a page out of the Pats book they are utilizing big TE Scott Chandler in the red zone.

Last season, Fitzpatrick tore up the Patriots secondary in Foxboro, and then tried to force everything in Buffalo. So far this season, he’s been avoiding the poor decisions that hurt him in the past.

So what about the Patriots pass defense? Well when it comes to that, New England fans have been a glass half-empty lot. The numbers are certainly bad, but looked at in its entirety, it isn’t as bad as it seems.

The Patriots went into Miami with the plan of limiting slot WR Davone Bess, who had burned them the year before. They accomplished that, however in doing so they left talented WR Brandon Marshall in single coverage against second year CB Devin McCourty. Marshall had a huge game and Chad Henne passed for over 400 yards but they accomplished what they set out to do and got the win. Are the coaches, notably Bill Belichick happy about giving up that many yards? Of course not, they expected better performances from the rest of the team but didn’t get it.

The team took a similar approach with the Chargers this weekend. The Patriots took away TE Antonio Gates (zero catches) but again left McCourty alone with WR Vincent Jackson who had a career day with 10 catches for 172 yards. But the plan was to keep the play in front of them, and it was obvious with the very deep drops by the linebackers.

This took away the big play options to Gates and forced Rivers to make the majority of  his throws to dump-offs to his RBs. Again, would the coaches be pleased with the amount of yardage given up? No again, but if going in, you were told that you would hold the Chargers to just 21 points, most people would take that all day long.

The Patriots have been obviously vanilla in their schemes so far, yes they have gone to 4-3, 3-4 and all kinds of sub-packages in their coverage schemes, but we’ve yet to see much in the blitz, attacking schemes yet. That may change this week, if Buffalo balances their attack with Jackson and Spiller, Fitzpatrick may have another big day.

But if the Patriots get ahead and the Bills go one-dimensional, look for Belichick to take the reins off a bit and go after Fitzpatrick and the Bills offensive line who are for the most part, an ordinary unit. Expect McCourty to have some help this week with Johnson.

Special Teams: The Bills are always one of the better STs squads in the league. This year is no different, they have the excellent duo of K Rian Lindell and P Brian Moorman, it seems that they’ve been together there for a long time.

The team has the always dangerous Roscoe Parrish running back punts and former Jet Brad Smith who is always a stand-out special teams performer running back kicks. Their coverage teams are excellent.

The Patriots STs have been ok but not great, Stephen Gostkowski is as solid as they come at kicker but P Zoltan Mesko is hurt and doubtful that he will play. Julian Edelman is a threat running back kicks but the fact of the matter is Buffalo is at an advantage on STs no matter whom they play. And this Sunday, this could be the great equalizer for the Bills to turn this game.

“X”-Factors: The Bills are sky high after a 2-0 start and playing at home where they had a superb comeback in the last minute to beat the Raiders last week. Their offense is balanced and running on all cylinders.

But they have to be aware that they’ve dropped 15 in a row to New England and 20 of the past 21 games. Tom Brady is 17-1 against the Bills, so this has to be a weight on their shoulders. If they get behind early, this could snowball into the Bills taking chances and turning the ball over.

The Patriots have moved the ball and scored almost at will so far this season. The Bills know this and will have to find a way to slow them down to have any chance of an upset. Until they find a way to beat the Pats, this is a huge psychological advantage for New England.

Conclusions: The Bills are improving and their additions on both sides of the ball have them turning the corner. Chan Gailey has them believing in one another and the fact that they’re off to a 2-0 start is reason for great optimism. Now they have a chance to compare themselves against one of the AFC’s elite teams.

Their offense is very balanced with RB Fred Jackson who is leading the league and Fitzpatrick who is playing extremely well with an improved group of WRs. They can score a lot of points and will test the Patriots new look defense. They’ve actually outscored the Patriots this season averaging 39.5 points a game.

But the Patriots offense is also firing on all cylinders, and they shredded two Top10 defenses the past two weeks. The last thing Buffalo can afford is to get into a shootout, where their offense feels it has to score every time it gets the ball. Fitzpatrick fell into that mode last year, and he made poor decisions, especially in the second game in Buffalo and he ended with 5 INTs against New England during the two meetings.

Buffalo, to win this game will have to make some stops and generate some turnovers and take some of the pressure off of their offense. They will also have to have some big plays by their special teams to pull off the upset.

But I don’t see that happening, even with the absence of Aaron Hernandez, Tom Brady has this offense clicking. The Bills gave up 31 points and over 300 yards to the Raiders and Jason Campbell and the Patriots offense is far better than Oakland’s. The Patriots need to find a player or players to pick up the slack of the loss of Aaron Hernandez and that person is Chad Ochocinco. Look for Ocho to become more involved now with Uno y Dos.

By mixing up the play calling, the Patriots will move the ball against the Bills defense, they will have to live or die from the blitz which could result in quick points. On defense, I think the Patriots will limit Fred Jackson and dial up some blitzes against the Bills offensive line.

This one will be close but the Patriots will pull away in the second half as Brady grinds down the Bills defense with another 300 yards and 3 TDs passing. Patriots 35-21