The New England Patriots vs. Buffalo Bills matchup in Week 1—a 23-21 victory for New England—provided a template for the rest of each team's season: a close win for the Patriots and a close loss for the Bills.
A bookend win over Buffalo in Week 17 would give the Patriots a week off to get healthy before the start of the playoffs. However, as the Bills showed last week in their dominating 19-0 win over the Miami Dolphins, they will be anything but a pushover.
Here is what New England needs to do to wrap a first-round bye.
Patriots Defense vs. Bills Offense
Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia seemingly always find a way to take away a team's best weapon on offense. C.J. Spiller knows he—and fellow running back Fred Jackson—might be getting that treatment come Sunday. He explained in a conference call with media earlier this week:
They tackle well, they really get after it. I’m pretty sure coach Bill Belichick is going to do a good job. He’ll have a game plan ready for us to try to stop our running game. We have to make sure we’re able to adjust on the run because I’m pretty sure they’re going to do some things differently. They’re always tough against the run game, so we have to make sure that we’re able to try to put our hats them early on each guy and just take what they give us.
With the emergence of Logan Ryan, the Patriots defensive backfield won't be in the mood to give much via air either.
Whether Thad Lewis or EJ Manuel ends up behind center, the Patriots will need to keep track of rookie receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. Veteran receiver Stevie Johnson isn't certain to play following the death of his mother.
With the secondary banged up—Steve Gregory, Devin McCourty, Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington are all nursing injuries of some sort—youngsters Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon may be called upon for big roles.
I expect the Patriots to employ a toned-down defensive game plan with this in mind. Keep the receivers in front of them. Tackle well. Make the Bills earn it.
This will help cut down on communication issues—Goodwin and Woods can make you pay—in the back end, while allowing more chances for the defensive linemen and linebackers to create a turnover or a negative play.
Patriots Offense vs. Bills Defense
The Patriots gave up 14 quarterback pressures the last time these two teams met. Sixteen weeks later, Sebastian Vollmer is on injured reserve, while Nate Solder, Will Svitek and Marcus Cannon are all battling injuries.
Needless to say, protecting Tom Brady will be at the forefront of the offensive game plan on Sunday. Belichick mentioned the dynamic rushers in Buffalo's front four in a press conference this week:
They get a lot of pressure without bringing anybody, just letting those guys rush. They have good depth up there. They kind of roll six guys through; they’re all pretty good, they’re all productive. You have to be able to block the four guys and then they have more guys in coverage and they play a lot of different combinations of coverage – some man, zone, combination man.
Then they’ll bring five, sometimes six and sometimes they’ll bring seven or key blitz and they’ll peel and stuff like that. They give you the overloads, all the things that we’ve seen from the Jets, they have those in their system and they mix them in there along with their regular four-man rush coverages. They do a good job mixing it up.
One point that Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is surely addressing this week in practice is the passing off of defenders on end-tackle stunts. Kyle and Mario Williams have mastered this stunt over the course of this season. Guards Josh Kline and Dan Connolly have struggled with this stunt in the past.
Look for the Patriots to employ plenty of play action and misdirection in order to take advantage of the speed and aggressiveness on the second level of the Bills defense. If you give rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso an easy diagnosis, he will get to the ball quickly.
Screens, counters, reverses and even a trick play could be in the cards this weekend. Julian Edelman—who can run, pass and catch—is one to keep an eye on. He needs only four catches on Sunday to eclipse the 100-reception mark.
What They're Saying
While Andy Reid's performance is certainly worthy of winning the NFL Coach of the Year award—the Chiefs turnaround is truly remarkable—don't discount what Belichick has done this year. Ben Volin from the Boston Globe said it very well:
The Patriots enter Sunday’s regular-season finale against Buffalo with an 11-4 record (again), and a chance to wrap up a first-round bye and possibly even the No. 1 seed (again). When making preseason predictions, many of us expected the Patriots to be in this position, but the way they have gotten here has been pretty incredible.
The list of injuries and obstacles the Patriots have had to overcome has been talked about ad nauseum, so we don’t need to go over it again. There has been a lot of talk locally and nationally about Belichick deserving the NFL’s Coach of the Year award, and whether this has been the finest coaching job of his 14-year Patriots tenure. That’s not something to take lightly given the three Super Bowl championships and perfect regular season on his résumé.
Even though he might not win the award, Patriots fans should appreciate just what a masterpiece Belichick has painted in 2013.
Tale of the Tape
EJ Manuel might be the future of the AFC East, but Tom Brady is the present. Even if Manuel is able to play, he can't match Brady's experience in big games.
If Fred Jackson weren't nursing a rib injury, this would probably be in the Bills' favor. Shane Vereen could be a deciding factor. If he is able to go—he seemed to tweak his groin against the Ravens—he will provide a matchup nightmare for the Bills defense.
Julian Edelman has quietly turned into what everyone thought Danny Amendola would become—Wes Welker. Robert Woods has played very well for the Bills, but Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins aren't far behind.
Scott Chandler isn't flashy, but he gets the job done. I can see him being a target for Belichick come free agency.
Cordy Glenn and Kraig Urbik have played well this year for Buffalo. That said, the Patriots have the more talented group if Nate Solder is able to play.
Kyle Williams is the best player in the NFL that nobody talks about. He stuffs the run and is able to rush the passer. Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus are just icing on the cake.
Kiko Alonso has been flashy for Buffalo, but I think he'll struggle against the Patriots running attack. Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are playing their best football right now.
If the Patriots are anywhere close to full strength, they take this category with ease. Unfortunately for New England, they are quite banged up. Nickell Robey—an undrafted free agent—has been a revelation for Buffalo as of late.
While Brian Moorman has been pretty awful this year—36.4 yards net average—Ryan Allen has provided the Patriots with great punting on a rookie contract. Stephen Gostkowski is having a phenomenal year, having missed just three kicks.
Overall: Patriots 3-2-4
The tale of the tape favors the Patriots by a slight margin. That said, the battle between the Bills defensive line and the Patriots offensive line will decide this game. If Tom Brady's jersey stays clean, the Patriots should walk away with their 12th win of the season.
Thursday's Injury Report Analysis
Did Not Participate: Josh Boyce, Devin McCourty
Limited Participation: Kyle Arrington, Marcus Cannon, Alfonzo Dennard, Aaron Dobson, Dane Fletcher, Steve Gregory, Rob Ninkovich, Nate Solder, Brandon Spikes, Will Svitek, Kenbrell Thompkins, Shane Vereen
Full Participation: Danny Amendola, Tom Brady, Michael Hoomanawanui, Aqib Talib
Rob Ninkovich was added to the injury report with an ankle injury. It wouldn't be surprising if the Patriots rested McCourty and Solder even if they are able to play.
For the Bills, EJ Manuel is the big story. He was a limited participant with a knee injury. If he plays, he gives the Bills a bit of an offensive boost over Lewis.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com and the Patriots Media Relations Department.