NFL Predictions Week 3: Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots Preview
The Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots are two of the seven undefeated teams in the NFL so far in 2011, and the AFC East rivals will be battling this Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. EST.
The Bills have the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL, and they will go up against the Patriots' Tom Brady and the NFL's No. 1 passing attack. The game will feature the top two ranked quarterbacks in the NFL in Brady and Ryan Fitzpatrick. The winner will claim at least a share of the AFC East division lead. There is also the matter of the Patriots' 15-game winning streak over the Bills on the line.
While many experts expected another banner season out of Brady (the reigning NFL MVP) and the Patriots, few would have predicted that the Bills offense would be so high-powered. Fitzpatrick has been able to match Brady's touchdown output, as both QBs have thrown seven TD passes already.
Coming into this game the Bills lead the NFL in scoring as they are averaging 39.5 points a game, while the Patriots are third with 36.5 points a game. So, Bills fans in attendance will probably be treated to a scoring fest, as it is anyone's guess how effective either defense will be.
We will look at some key developments and matchups to determine how this game could play out.
Fred Jackson Leads the NFL in Rushing After 2 Weeks
Who knew that Fred Jackson would be leading the NFL in rushing after two weeks? Usually, the Bills were throwing the football around to their wideouts in four- or five-wide receiver sets and occasionally handing the ball off to keep defenses honest.
Jackson's effectiveness has forced defenses to respect the Bills running game, which in turn helps out the passing game.
Jackson has been finding larger holes to run through this season, and when he gets past the first wave of defense, he has been able to accelerate and use his speed to break off longer runs. He ripped off a 43-yard touchdown run against the Oakland Raiders that sparked the second-half comeback victory.
So far, Jackson has 35 carries for 229 yards for a very high 6.5 average yards per rush. Jackson has generated four runs over 20 yards this year, and has picked up nine first downs on the young season. Jackson has also added two touchdowns via the rush and has also chipped in with three catches for 28 yards.
The other positive development is that Jackson's backup, C.J. Spiller, is really starting to mature this year. Spiller had some dynamic runs in the Oakland game, and scored his first career rushing touchdown against the Chiefs in the season opener. So far Spiller has rushed nine times for 79 yards, which is a whopping 8.8 yards per carry. He is becoming a true weapon in his second year.
Due to the Bills placing Roscoe Parrish on IR this week, Spiller will also be taking over as the primary punt returner. It would also make sense to see Spiller become more involved in the Bills passing game, now that Parrish is out. He would give the Bills a quicker option that could have a field day in the open field when he has his hands on the ball. We all recall that he scored his first two NFL touchdowns against the Patriots last year, with one of them coming as a wide receiver.
New England Secondary Has Been Getting Lit Up
The New England Patriots secondary has been torched so far in their first two games, giving up 381 yards per game. The Patriots are ranked at No. 31 in the NFL in pass defense. They are allowing 66 percent of the passes against them to be completed to the tune of 8.9 yards per pass attempt.
Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills wide receivers should be able to put up some strong numbers on this secondary, which is very banged up now. We will detail all the injuries later in the presentation.
Speaking of the wide receivers, it is time to alert all Bills fans that University of Buffalo alum Naaman Roosevelt is back on the active roster again. The Bills promoted him from the practice squad this week, due to losing WR Roscoe Parrish to the IR.The Bills filled the practice squad vacancy by adding guard Keith Williams, who is a 6'5", 310-pound rookie from Nebraska.
Roosevelt was coming on very nicely in the offense in the final month of the 2010 season, and will probably see more snaps than Ruvell Martin, who was not very impressive in the offense against the Raiders.
Steve Johnson has a groin injury, but promises that he will play on Sunday. David Nelson is coming off of a huge game against the Raiders, where he caught the game-winning touchdown and also came up with 10 catches for 83 yards. Donald Jones had two very big plays in the game-winning drive, and tight end Scott Chandler added his third touchdown catch of the year.
The Patriots defense will be hard pressed to cover everybody, as the Raiders defense found out. The Patriots pass rush is better this year, as they have generated six sacks. The Patriots secondary has come up with three interceptions in two games, so Fitzpatrick will have to be careful with the ball.
Early-Season MVP Candidates: Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Tom Brady
It seems awfully early to be talking about the 2011 NFL season MVP award, but there is an article out this week by Pro Football Weekly, that is listing Tom Brady (ranked first) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (ranked 10th) as candidates for consideration at this point in the season.
What is wild about that is just one short year ago, this is the week that Fitzpatrick was just taking over the offense from Trent Edwards and getting his first start under Chan Gailey. My how things have changed in just that one short year.
While Brady continues to excel and seemingly is getting better with age, Fitzpatrick is finally emerging now that he is the true No. 1 quarterback in Buffalo.
Finally given his chance to start from opening day, he is relishing the opportunity, playing with higher degree of purpose and having more fun to boot. If you caught the shot of him walking off the field after the touchdown pass to David Nelson, he was waltzing around like a little kid. He then went over and started doing mid-air bumps with O-line coach Joe D'Alessandris.
The common thread between Brady and Fitzpatrick is that they both will throw the ball to whomever is open and are willing to let their guys go up and make a play on the ball. What is different about them is that Brady has excelled for a long time, and has the Super Bowl rings to prove his excellence. Fitzpatrick is working on a two-game winning streak.
Yes, they are miles apart but that is not all there is to the story.
ESPN has come up with a new QB performance measurement that they refer to as Total QBR, which is a QB rating that takes into account all of a quarterback's contributions (passing, rushing, sacks, fumbles, penalties) to his team's scoring and winning, and summarizes them into one number on a 0-100 scale, on which 50 is average.
It should be noted that after two weeks in the season, Brady holds the top QBR rating of 89.7, while Fitzpatrick is ranked No. 2 with a 84.8 rating. So this unlikely pair (for now) are viewed as the cream of the crop of the NFL. A link to the story is right here.
This might not have been the best time, but the Bills recently made a contract offer to Fitzpatrick, and they are still working on negotiating a new deal. Fitz probably has more leverage now with his fast start than he ever will.
Bills Are Finally Earning Some National Respect
One area of the Bills improved play that is finally getting some recognition is the offensive line. Thanks to Chris Brown at BuffaloBills.com for calling our attention to this article by SI.com that cites a study done by Stats Inc, which measures the effectiveness of every offensive line. You can find a link to the article here.
The Bills offensive line graded out as the top offensive line in the NFL in Week 2 with a 107.6 mark, according to the STATS LLC proprietary formula. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw the ball 46 times and was never sacked by the Raiders defense, which ranked No. 2 in the NFL last year. Fitzpatrick was hurried three times and knocked down twice. The Bills offensive line did not have a single penalty in the game. For a unit that has taken so much abuse, they have really stepped up their game.
Not only is the offensive line getting national attention, but FItzpatrick and David Nelson are as well. Nelson is one of the leading waiver wire claims nationally in fantasy football leagues. Fitzpatrick received a ringing endorsement yesterday from Kurt Warner on NFL Network. Warner lists Fitzpatrick as the No. 5 QB in the NFL this year. That goes to show how dramatic the rise is this year for the Bills and their offense. Here is a link to the Warner video on NFL Network.
Injuries Are Mounting for Both Teams
It just seemed like yesterday when the Bills had wrapped up their preseason schedule that we wondered aloud how refreshing it was to escape many serious injuries coming into a new season. Now we know that we will not be making that mistake again, anytime soon.
The Bills lost WR/PR Roscoe Parrish to the IR this week. Parrish hurt his ankle badly enough that he had to be carted off of the field. This was the final year of his contract, so it is possible that he just played his final game in a Bills uniform.
Kraig Urbik was also injured in the Raiders game, and he will be out this week. Urbik will be replaced by Chad Rinehart, but that leaves very little depth at guard for the Bills, as untested lineman Colin Brown would be the next guy expected to fill in.
Now with Naaman Roosevelt being called up to the active roster, Karam Aiken is now one more injury away from making the active squad. He would love to follow the path that Donald Jones and Roosevelt have laid out for him, as both made the jump from the practice squad to the active roster in 2010.
As for the Patriots, they are suffering their own share of injuries too. They lost tight end Aaron Hernandez due to a MCL sprain, and he will not play this Sunday. The Patriots also saw the other injuries happen last Sunday against the San Diego Chargers: CB Ras-I Dowling (leg), CB Kyle Arrington (concussion), P Zoltan Mesko (knee), DL Myron Pryor (shoulder) and C Dan Koppen (fractured ankle and fibula).
The Patriots have already placed Pryor and Koppen on IR. Corner Patrick Chung had surgery on Wednesday to repair his thumb. He will probably be playing with a cast on his hand, which will limit his effectiveness. The Patriots are pretty banged up coming in to the Bills game, which is very much how the Raiders were last weekend. Sometimes timing is everything.
Here Is This Week's Injury Report
New England Patriots Injury Report this week
Injured reserve: C Dan Koppen (ankle) and DT Myron Pryor (shoulder).
Did not practice: CB Kyle Arrington (concussion), Patrick Chung (hand), TE Aaron Hernandez (knee),
OT Sebastian Vollmer (back) and DE Mike Wright (concussion).
Limited in practice: CB Ras-I Dowling (hip), TE Dan Gronkowski (hamstring), LB Gary Guyton (hamstring), LB Jerod Mayo (thigh), P Zoltan Mesko (knee), WR Taylor Price (hamstring) and C Ryan Wendell (calf).
Full practice: S Josh Barrett (thumb), CB Leigh Bodden (hand) and LB Dane Fletcher (thumb).
Buffalo Bills Injury Report this week
Injured reserve: WR Roscoe Parrish (ankle).
Did not practice: DL Spencer Johnson (hip), WR Stevie Johnson (groin), CB Terrence McGee (hamstring), OL Kraig Urbik (knee) and LB Kirk Morrison (hamstring).
Full practice: DT Torell Troup (lower back).
As we stated in the last slide, you can see that the Patriots are pretty banged up right now. We know that Hernandez is out, and the surgery yesterday on Chung will no doubt influence the Bills to test him out and see how effective he is on making plays on the ball and in tackling. Losing Pryor to IR means that the Patriots' depth on the defensive line just took a major hit.
Can Anybody Slow Down Tom Brady?
Now in his 12th NFL season, Tom Brady looks like he has reached a new apex, if that is even possible.
He is completing an unbelievable 71.6 percent of his passes and is averaging 470 passing yards per game. Brady has a QB passer rating of 128 and he is averaging a ridiculous 10.68 yards per pass attempt. He currently is looking at setting career highs in yards per attempt, completion percentage, and QB passer rating.
Brady started out the year on Monday Night Football and absolutely shredded the Miami Dolphins for a career-best 517 yards. He only completed 66 percent of his passes that night. Brady followed that up by tearing apart the NFL's No. 1 rated defense from 2010, as he blew up the San Diego Chargers by completing an amazing 77 percent of his passes for 423 yards.
Between defensive coordinator George Edwards and assistant head coach Dave Wannstedt, they have to come up with a creative game plan to try to find a way to slow Brady down. The Bills pass rush has to step up in this game, and we are hoping to see more from Shawne Merriman this week. He had some great flashes in the preseason, but has not repeated it in the regular season to date. Now would be a good time for "Lights Out" to step up his game.
Bills fans are concerned with the way that corner Leodis McKelvin has been giving up so many big plays in the passing game, and no doubt Brady will test him early and often. McKelvin is usually in position, but he sometimes fails to react enough to the ball, choosing to react instead to the receiver. If he can't do the job, it might be time to replace him with Aaron Williams and let rookie corner Justin Rogers get his feet wet also.
The Bills will need to try to disguise some coverages and dial up some blitzing packages in hopes of either getting to Brady with some big hits, or at least forcing him to throw the ball sooner than he wants to. Facing Brady as often as the Bills have over the years, we all know that letting him stand back there in the pocket unmolested is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Been there, and done that. No thank you.
Looking Inside the Numbers
The Patriots have the No. 1 overall offense in the NFL in 2011 and the No. 1 passing offense. Their rushing offense is ranked No. 16. The Bills defense is ranked No. 14 overall. Their pass defense is ranked No. 13 and their rush defense is ranked No. 22, which is up 10 spots from last year.
The Bills have the No. 7 overall offense in the NFL and the No. 1 rushing offense. The Bills pass offense is tied for No. 18. The Patriots overall defense is ranked No. 31, next to last in the NFL. The Patriots pass defense is also ranked next to last at No. 31 and the rush defense is ranked No. 11.
In the red zone, the Bills have converted eight of 10 chances, while New England has done it eight out of 11 tries. Both offenses are converting at a very high percentage.
The Bills offense has generated 57 first downs, while the Patriots have come up with 55 first downs. The Bills have converted 11 of 25 times on third down, while the Patriots have converted on 15 of 24 times. In regards to defense and third-down conversions, the Bills defense has allowed 11 of 25 while the Patriots defense has allowed 12 of 26 opportunities.
The Bills have run 137 plays for 845 yards, while the Patriots have run 138 plays for 1,126 yards. You can see how dynamic the Patriots offense is based on that comparison. In regards to a balanced offense, the Bills have ran the ball 63 times compared to 72 passes, while the Patriots have run the ball only 47 times compared to 88 passes.
So far both teams have generated five turnovers on defense this year, and have done a good job at protecting the ball. The Patriots have turned it over just once, while the Bills have turned it over twice.
When the Bills Have the Ball
You know that Tom Brady can't hurt you when he is sitting on the bench. So, it is paramount to the Bills chances that they have as many long, extended drives as is possible on Sunday.
They will want to run the ball to try to control the pace of the game and to wear out the Patriots defense, which is already thinned out in the defensive line and in the secondary due to injuries. Handing the ball off to Fred Jackson, mixed in with C.J. Spiller, seems like a sound game plan.
Ryan Fitzpatrick will look to take advantage of the secondary that is not only hurt, but just plain not very good. There will be the shorter passes to Steve Johnson and David Nelson to move the chains, and don't forget about tight end Scott Chandler, who is emerging as a pretty consistent threat from the tight end position.
The offensive line will face another stiff test, as the Patriots pass rush is definitely better this year. Albert Haynesworth is not contributing that much yet, as he didn't even register a single tackle last week against the Chargers. They did sack Philip Rivers twice last week, so Fitzpatrick will need to rely on shorter, quick passes again like he did last week. You can't sack a QB that has already thrown the ball away.
As dynamic as the Patriots offense is, the Bills will need to maximize their scoring opportunities with as many points as they can possibly generate. Since Chan Gailey knows full well what he is up against, I would not be surprised to see the Bills do a bit more gambling on fourth down, and you might see a trick play or two come out of the playbook for this game.
We also need to talk about Brad Smith, who continues to be a valuable asset for the Bills.
Smith has done a great job at converting on third-down opportunities when running the Wildcat offense. Those first downs are huge, and no matter what his stat line shows, he is worth his weight in gold to this team because of his ability to extend drives. Smith does need to work on his passing, but that is something that can evolve as the season goes on.
When the Patriots Have the Ball
If Tom Brady is allowed to remain upright for the entire game, then it will probably be a sad day for Bills fans. The Bills defense has to plant an idea in his mind that he only has a certain amount of time to hold onto the ball before he is about to get hit. If he does not feel much pressure and is allowed to survey the field, he will find the best available target to throw to.
Having watched the Patriots closely this year, it is assumed that Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski will probably have their standard strong game. You can't possibly stop all three of them, as one of them will usually be open.
But, you also don't want to let the wild cards in the Patriots offense beat you either. I am referring to Chad Ochocinco and Danny Woodhead. They are the two players that have the ability to step up and have more of an impact, as somebody will have to emerge to replace Aaron Hernandez in the offense.
The Bills will need to create some turnovers like they have done in the first two games. Whether it is stripping the ball away, or getting a pass deflection to come up with an interception, the Bills can only generate turnovers by working hard to get them. If they fall behind early, they need to keep the faith that they exhibited in the Raiders game, knowing that they have the ability to come back.
Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams will need to take advantage of the Dan Koppen injury to blow up the interior of the Patriots' O-line to wreck havoc in the Patriots backfield. If they can lay a couple big licks on Brady early on, all the better. If Merriman, Chris Kelsay, Danny Batten or Nick Barnett can come in with a few blitzes to knock Brady off of his feet, that will help Buffalo's chances. I also would not be surprised to see George Wilson or Bryan Scott come on some blitzes this week as well.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
As the Patriots have owned the Bills during the current winning streak, there have been some close games that have eluded the Bills. We all painfully recall the Leodis McKelvin kickoff return fumble that lost a game last year on Monday Night Football.
To my way of thinking, the Bills are due for a couple of good bounces against New England. Maybe it is a penalty call here or there at the right moment. Maybe a fumble bounces the right way or a pass is deflected to the Bills defender. The Bills scored a kickoff return last year when C.J. Spiller returned a kickoff for a score against the Patriots, so the special teams unit can be a factor this week. We don't know if the Patriots punter will be healthy enough to go, but it's not like they have to use him very often.
The Bills hope to jump out to an early lead on Sunday. They want to run the ball enough to keep the tempo and pace of the game in their favor. The Bills have enough depth on defense that they should be able to keep their front seven rested enough and have guys coming hard at Brady for the whole game. Torell Troup looks like he is ready to play again, and he could be a difference maker.
I was asked to write an article earlier this week, where I had to predict all of the Week 3 games. If you are interested, here is the link. I have to stay true to my earlier prediction, so I am on record as calling this game going to the Bills, 33-30 in overtime.
I had predicted the Bills would upset the Chiefs in the season opener and again called for them to beat Oakland, so now am pushing for a 3-0 start to the year. A win gives the Bills even more confidence that they can beat anybody in the league.
Let's see what they can do.
Bills fans should be packing the Ralph this weekend, and need to be loud and proud about their team.
Follow us here at Bleacher Report this Sunday, as I will write an article about halftime adjustments the Bills need to make, as well as a recap right after the game of the top five things we learned from the Patriots contest.