What to Watch For: Patriots vs. Bills, Round Two
Friday, December 27, 2013
What do the New England Patriots do for an encore? After earning a standing-O against the Ravens in Baltimore last Sunday, expectations may be at an all-time high.
But that might be an unfair burden for these Patriots to bear. Just when you think you have them figured out, you don't. This New England team clearly marches to the beat of its own drummer. Tom Brady might be the drum major of this band, but Bill Belichick is still the maestro...and his composition in 2013 may be his best work yet.
There are two different story lines playing out for the regular season finale at Gillette Stadium this Sunday - one has a team trying to build for the future, and the other has a team trying to build for a playoff run in January. In Buffalo, first-year head coach Doug Marrone hasn't had a healthy quarterback at all during the year, as rookie opening game starter E.J. Manuel has had knee problems plague him for most of the year and is doubtful this week. Just having him back there under center against New England should, at the very least, help the Bills' staff evaluate him for next season and beyond. Thad Lewis, who started the stunning 19-0 win over Miami last week, and Jeff Tuel combined to go 2-3 in Manuel's absence...not bad, but not good enough to win long term in the AFC East.
The Bills are just 6-9 overall and doomed to a last-place finish in the East for a 6th straight year. Nevertheless, they boast the AFC's top rushing offense (146 yards per game) and have averaged more than 200 rush yards per game the past two weeks. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are arguably the best one-two running punch in the NFL, and in the season-opener (a 23-21 NE win) the Patriots keyed on Spiller, allowing Jackson to average more than five yards per carry. Defensively, the pass rush numbers are solid - with Mario Williams leading four starters across the front, each owning eight or more quarterback sacks. They made life miserable for Miami's Ryan Tannehill last week, sacking him seven times.
For the Patriots, the resounding win at Baltimore wasn't so much a surprise that it happened, but perhaps in HOW it happened. Taking advantage of numerous Ravens' mistakes, the Patriots blew open a tight game late by cashing in on turnovers...something that had been missing the previous three weeks. In order to get the playoff express moving, the defense will need to continue to give the offense a chance to shine on a short field - and they did that against Baltimore, with the offense cashing in on three red zone chances in three attempts and the defense scoring twice itself. The running game behind LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley was stout, and Shane Vereen rushed for 100 yards in Game One back in Buffalo in September, before injuring his wrist. With a strong ground game, playoff runs in colder weather can usually be had, and the Bills are not a strong run-stopping team.
The X-factor in all of this...the Patriots have won 19 of the last 20 games between the two. While one team builds for the future, another builds for the present...with an eye still focused on what has been a very successful past.
Go clock, go
Both teams feature ground games that could have real success Sunday. Considering the personnel weakness up the middle for the Patriots, it's hard to imagine Buffalo doing anything but run the ball at New England. The Pats will be geared up as best they can to slow Spiller and Jackson, perhaps forcing Manuel (or Lewis or Tuel) to use his arm to beat them. The thinking here is that the Patriots also try to manage the tempo by running the ball at a run-challenged Bills' defense, to lessen the potential pass rush on Brady. Who stops who best stands a good chance of coming out on top.
Don't give, receive
Forcing turnovers for the defense can certainly help take the heat down in the pressure-cooker NFL, as evidenced by last week's surprising romp in Baltimore. Both teams have had their success this year in forcing mistakes, but the Patriots are a little bit better at it...at +10 on the season (6th in the NFL) compared to +2 for the Bills. Takeaways are everything, and they can be demoralizing for a team without much to play for in the present - like Buffalo.
The end of the regular season is always a tough time to figure for most teams. When you think a playoff-bound team should be going strong, they can stumble and lose if caught looking ahead to future opportunities. Conversely, teams with nothing to play for can sometimes surprise and rise to the occasion, as New England has learned in the past (like in a 28-26 New Years' Day loss to then-lowly Miami in 2006). New England, however, has plenty to play for...namely a first round bye in the playoffs which would give some of the still-walking wounded a chance to return stronger for the playoff push. This year, in the regular season finale against Buffalo, that might be enough motivation to give the Pats an edge.