The New England Patriots return to action in Week 10 after enjoying their bye week. They face a Buffalo Bills team trying to avoid their fifth loss in six games. It was these same Patriots who initiated the Bills six-week slide, rolling to 31 fourth-quarter points in a Week 4 blowout in Buffalo. Now, the Bills are searching for answers on the defensive side of the ball while the Pats will be well-rested after crushing the St. Louis Rams in London.
New England enters Sunday with a one-game lead in the AFC East with a chance to take control as the second half of the season commences. But we've seen the Pats get complacent at times at Gillette Stadium, giving a game away to Arizona and blowing a fourth-quarter lead against the New York Jets. Their second-half performance against the Bills in September is undoubtedly their best stretch this season, but can they replicate that in Week 10? Tom Brady and the offense should have plenty of opportunities to light up the scoreboard.
Meet the Patriots
Are the Patriots ready to hit their stride as the second half of the season begins? The offense rolled over St. Louis in London and now Brady, the league's second-ranked passer, will face one of the worst defenses in the league. While Buffalo has been particularly woeful against the rush, they also have the 24th-ranked pass defense. Brady picked apart the Bills in their first meeting, throwing for 340 yards and three touchdowns.
If there's one thing the future Hall-of-Famer doesn't do well, it's moving outside the pocket and creating on the run. Brady is the best in the game at setting up in the pocket and hitting his targets deep and short. Buffalo has a mediocre pass rush, but the duo of Mario Williams and Kyle Williams can apply pressure if they get going. Kyle is questionable with an ankle injury, but he's become one of the better defensive linemen at getting push up the middle. Despite those potential pass-rushing weapons, Brady shouldn't have much of a problem finding time to hit his receivers down the field. The Patriots don't have a true deep threat on the outside, but their wide receiving corps manages to find room and hit their routes on time for their quarterback. Wes Welker, along with the dynamic tight end duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, continue to be the game's best in the middle of the field.
While Brady and his pass-catchers get all the headlines, it's the Pats' running game that has quietly buoyed the offense at times this season. Led by Stevan Ridley, New England currently holds the league's fourth-best rush offense – and there should be plenty of room to operate against the Bills. Buffalo has yielded one career day after another it seems, and have the league's second-worst rush defense. For the first time in almost eight years, the Patriots have a true go-to rusher who's a No. 1 option out of the backfield. Ridley is averaging 4.8 yards per carry and on pace for 300 rushes this season. Expect those numbers to go up and for New England to feed him early and often against the Bills.
On defense, it will be strength-on-strength as the Patriots rush D attempts to bottle up the duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Spiller is one of the game's best working in space and he's a constant threat to break off the long run and take it to the house. New England is yielding less than 90 yards per game on the ground, but Buffalo's best shot to pull off the upset is on the ground with the home-run threat in Spiller. New England was successful stopping the run in the their first meeting, but Chan Gailey will likely try to set the tone early on the ground.
Meet the Bills
Buffalo staggers into Week 10 barely holding on to the hopes of a meaningful second-half of the season. After keeping it relatively close with Houston Texans, they now face another AFC elite on the road. New England's offense dominated the Bills in their first meeting, and the Pats should absolutely feast on Buffalo's defense again. Gailey will try to establish Spiller and Jackson on the ground to keep his defense off the field.
Buffalo averages 141 yards per game on the ground, but they fell well short of that in their first meeting with the Pats. Spiller is dealing with a shoulder injury, but he's probable. Jackson had to deal with an early-season knee injury, and has had a relatively quiet year for his standards. Against the league's best rush defense last week, the Bills averaged nearly five yards per carry. But Buffalo rushed it only 19 times – that number should increase this week against another stout run D.
Buffalo's run game will have to get some support through the air, or else the Pats will just key in on the run the entire game. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't have the strongest arm in the league, and is not exactly a threat to wing it down the field. But the biggest weakness of this Patriots team is their porous secondary, so Fitzpatrick will have to take shots outside the numbers. His top target on the outside is Stevie Johnson, who sustained a thigh bruise last week. Johnson was limited in practice this week, but he's expected to go on Sunday. Fitzpatrick will have to have a productive day and avoid costly turnovers if the Bills are to have any shot. With their defense, they'll need to come away with points on their early possessions in order to avoid a repeat blowout.
Local Takes: Patriots
In looking at the different position matchups, Jeremy Gottlieb of Pats Pulpit examines how New England's vulnerable pass defense might have one of its better weeks against the Bills:
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 touchdown. 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.
Local Takes: Bills
Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings stresses the importance of the run game for both teams:
It'll also be important for the Bills to establish their own running backs, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, this week. Gailey may be tempted to replicate last week's pass-happy game plan against a Patriots team that has given up an average of 304.8 passing yards per game to Ryan Fitzpatrick since the two started working together in 2010 (over a total of five games). As we saw in Houston, however, if the Bills can't get their running backs going, they're largely playing right into their opponent's hands – and that's especially true of New England, owners of the NFL's top-ranked offense.
The big question, then, entering this weekend's key AFC East matchup: will the Bills re-emphasize the run on both sides of the ball, or maintain the status quo and hope something changes in the win column? We're bound to find out in a little over three days.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
Patriots vs. Bills: 3 Players to Watch Out for On Buffalo sbn.to/SSgdUE— Greg Knopping (@patspulpit) November 10, 2012
@MikeReiss – Patriots beat writer
@ByTimGraham - Bills beat writer
One for bad, two for good: Buffalo by the unconventional numbers bit.ly/RJGXqr— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) November 9, 2012
The Bills pulled off a stunner in the first game against the Patriots last year, 34-31. They followed that up by getting beat by 28 points the next time the teams met. I think the latter result is more accurate in this week's matchup. The Bills' defense will get shredded. Play Tom Brady on your fantasy team.The pick: 45-14, Patriots
The Patriots opened as 9½-point favorites, but that has ascended to at least 12 in most places, according to OddsShark.