By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots (12-3) finish the regular season by hosting the Buffalo Bills (6-9) in Foxborough on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m.
The Bills come in fresh off a 40-14 thumping of the Denver Broncos picking off Tim Tebow four times and the Patriots enter off of a come from behind 27-24 win over the Miami Dolphins, where they found themselves down 17-0 at halftime.
The Bills after a promising 5-2 start watched their season implode with a rash of injuries to key players, having put 17 on IR since the start of the season. The Patriots, since hitting a speed bump with 2 straight losses in the middle of the season, have won 7 straight and have clinched the AFC East and a playoff berth for the ninth time in eleven years.
Since 2001, the Patriots are 41-5 in December games, as Bill Belichick always has the team focused and prepared, looking forward. Tom Brady needs only 103 yards passing to break the 5000 yards barrier for the fourth time in NFL history.
So without further ado, it’s on to the matchups:
Patriots Running Game:
The Bills front seven, like their entire roster is decimated by injury, however even before those hit, they were a mediocre run defense at best. With the playoffs looming and Tom Brady’s shoulder hurting, this may be a perfect recipe for running the football.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is finally off of the injury report with a bad toe that has been bothering him, so perhaps he will show the burst he’s been missing a bit. Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and now newly signed FB Lousaka Polite should have plenty of room to run behind a Patriots OL with injury concerns of their own.
With Logan Mankins already ruled out, Sebastian Vollmer having been out for a number of weeks and Matt Light’s status unknown yet, once again the line will be tested, but they should be able to push the pile and keep the Patriots offense balanced.
Patriots Passing Game:
Tom Brady is nearing in on 5000 yards passing for the season and needs less than 200 to break Dan Marino’s record of 5084 set back in 1984. The Patriots pass offense can spread it around and attack many places on the field provided Brady has time to throw. The Bills are not a good pass rushing team, having lost OLB Shaun Merriman and Pro-Bowl DL Kyle Williams will make matters worse.
In the first game back in September, Wes Welker had a field day catching 16 passes for 217 yards; likewise Rob Gronkowski torched the Bills for 7 catches for 109 yards. With Aaron Hernandez’s play peaking lately, Brady will have him and Deion Branch to add into the mix and it adds up to another big passing day for Brady.
The Bills early in the season during their 5-2 start were feasting on turnovers; they are right up there with 20 interceptions for the season, last week picking off Tim Tebow 4 times in a blowout win. But with Terrence McGee gone for the year on IR, it hurts an already beleaguered secondary. Jarius Byrd and George Wilson are excellent safeties but they will have their hands full trying to cover the Patriots tight ends as everyone else has. With having to help underneath with Welker it opens up the seam for deep passes to either of the tight ends.
Had not Brady made some uncharacteristic mistakes in the first matchup as well as a few unfortunate bounces the Patriots may have put 50 points on them in that game. This matchup is a huge mismatch for New England and going into the playoffs they will want to exploit it.
Bills Running Game:
Buffalo took a huge when Fred Jackson went down with an injury being lost for the year. In the first meeting Jackson tortured the Patriots defense for 161 total yards; they had no answer for him. Also missing will be Donald Jones who had over 100 yards receiving, C Eric Wood and LT Demetrius Bell as well as WR Roscoe Parrish.
In Jackson’s place, RB C.J. Spiller has been very capable rushing for over 200 yards the past two games and averaging 7.2 yards per carry and catching the ball out of the backfield with 103 yards receiving on 11 catches during the same time span. Stopping him will be the key for the Patriots. Look for Dane Fletcher to have the responsibility of watching Spiller out of the backfield, as his speed will be tested.
The first meeting had Buffalo’s offensive line dominating the game, allowing zero sacks and just 5 QB pressures. The Bills ran the ball very effectively, but right now their offensive line is beat up and ravaged by injury. The Patriots defensive line during early downs especially DEs Brandon Deaderick and Shaun Ellis will have to set the edge and turn everything inside.
Bills Passing Game:
Fitzpatrick torched the Pats during the September game passing for 367 yards as the Bills spread the NE defense out and kept them off balance the entire game. He’s been the least sacked QB in the league but is prone to make poor decisions when facing pressure.
Stevie Johnson and David Nelson also had big games the first time around as the Bills offense rolled up 448 yards of offense on a day where the Patriots could find no answer. The New England secondary much like Buffalo’s stops opponents via the turnover; they also have 20 interceptions and will be looking to force Fitzpatrick into making the critical mistake.
The Patriots I believe will try to force the issue by bringing pressure on Fitzpatrick this week and forcing an errant throw into coverage. He also had two interceptions in the first meeting and got away with a couple of other bad throws. The Bills are going to get their yards, as everyone against New England has, but not to the extent the first meeting did.
Buffalo always has one of the top Special Teams units in the NFL, look no farther than the Denver game for evidence of that. Due to injuries, Leodis McElven was pressed into service returning punts and ran one 80 yards for a touchdown against the Broncos.
The Bills have one of the best punters in the business in Brian Moorman who averages more than 48 per kick. But the injury bug has lit into the kicking game as well as the normally solid and underrated Rian Lindell went down and replaced by the inconsistent Dave Raymer. Now Raymer went down and has since been replaced by Brendan Coutu.
The Patriots STs have improved the past month but still lack the explosiveness in the kick return game. However K Stephen Gostkowski and P Zoltan Mesko are both having solid years. Mesko in particular has been superb at pinning opponents inside the 20 yard line. With the uncertainties of the Bills kicking game, the Pats get a slight advantage here.
The Patriots come in having already clinched a first round bye for the playoffs and have won the AFC East for the ninth time in the past eleven years. A win and the Patriots have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Buffalo has the current longest drought for the playoffs in the NFL, now reaching 12 years.
They have little incentive to play for, so if the Patriots get off to a lead such as the game in September, don’t expect the big comeback this time around. Buffalo also gave the Patriots some added fodder for the bulletin board when after their blowout win over Denver, they made statements to the effect that they want to finish the season by sweeping the Patriots.
You know that this got plenty of play by Bill Belichick and the coaches this week. While never publicly acknowledging it, it’s a point that will be driven home to give the players and added incentive to play hard this week. Belichick was testy on his Wednesday press conference saying “if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, everyday would be Christmas” when asked a question by the media so, he isn’t taking this game lightly
This will be an interesting matchup since both teams rolled offensively in the first game piling up yardage but will have to do it this time with different offensive lines to protect their QB. In that meeting, Tom Brady while still passing for nearly 400 yards also was picked off 4 times leading to a Buffalo win.
This time, with Buffalo decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball, I expect the Patriots to once again roll offensively. The Bills didn’t have an answer for Wes Welker in the first game, and this one will be no different.
The Patriots should be able to enforce their will both running and passing the ball and the bookend tight ends of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will both have big games as the Bills don’t rush the passer particularly well so Gronkowski won’t be forced to stay in and block.
Ryan Fitzpatrick will get his yards and score some early points but this time around, I see the Patriots getting better pressure on him and forcing some turnovers. It won’t be enough this time around as Brady will pass for a couple of TDs and pass 5000 yards for the season by halftime with little fanfare. Patriots 38-24
**Please be sure to check out our other writers at PatsFans.com we have some excellent in-depth reporting and Ian Logue’s stat sheets are being used and touted by some of the Patriots beat writers as some of the more detailed around.
**Also tune in to our Weekly radio podcast Patriots Fourth and Two as host Russ Goldman, Damien Jarrett, Derek Havens and I go over the recap of the Bills game. We always have a plethora of interesting guests as well as fun and interesting discussions on the game.