New England Patriots vs. Buffalo Bills: 3 Keys to the Game
The Patriots are coming off wins against the Dolphins and Chargers with Tom Brady throwing for a total of 940 yards and seven touchdowns. Brady has claimed both AFC Offensive Player of the Week awards.
The Bills, meanwhile, have actually scored more points than Brady's Patriots. Decisive quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and current leading rusher Fred Jackson highlight the offensive explosion the Bills have had in the past two weeks.
The Patriots have won 15 straight games against the Bills. Can they make it 16? Here are three keys to the game.
1. Defensive Line Play
Both of these teams came into the season with many big changes to their defensive lines. The Bills used the third overall pick on Marcell Dareus, widely believed to be the safest player in the draft. Pairing him up with Kyle Williams had the potential to make the defensive line lethal.
The Patriots schemed to take Williams out of the game last year, but now Dareus is in the picture as well. And considering that the Patriots will be missing two starting offensive linemen (Dan Koppen, Sebastian Vollmer), the Bills have a real chance to make an impact up front.
Good defensive line play, especially a good pass rush, is the best way to stop Tom Brady. The Bills can't miss this opportunity.
For the Patriots, Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth and Mark Anderson have been new additions to the defensive line. While the group has embraced the new aggressive 4-3 defense this year, their play still leaves a lot to be desired.
The defensive line is partly responsible for the inadequate defensive play of the Patriots so far this year. Whether they can improve or not will have a major impact on this game.
2. Tight Ends
The Patriots are renowned for their tight end usage. After trading Randy Moss last year, the Patriots morphed into a two tight end offense featuring then-rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The 2011 Patriots offense has in the last two games used two tight end sets more than ever before. And there's good reason for it: Gronkowski and Hernandez have been virtually unstoppable thus far.
Hernandez won't be playing against Buffalo this time, but Gronkowski alone could have a huge game. Last year in Week 16 at Buffalo, Gronkowski scored two touchdowns and nearly grabbed a third in front of his hometown crowd. Buffalo is Gronkowski's home away from home and the Bills need to make it a priority to keep Gronkowski contained, especially in the red zone.
The Bills, meanwhile, seemed to have found a pretty good tight end themselves.
Scott Chandler has scored three touchdowns in two games thus far, and he could be the safety net Ryan Fitzpatrick needed last year when the Bills were drubbed 34-3 by the Patriots. Fitzpatrick was buffaloed (pun intended) all day, and the Bill's offense committed seven turnovers.
With Patriot's focus likely on Fred Jackson and Stevie Johnson, Scott Chandler could have another big game.
3. Establishing a Running Game
I think this is the most important aspect of the game for both teams.
The Patriots have not been able to establish a powerful running game thus far this year. That's something they need to do, as Brady is inevitably going to have a bad day someday.
That's not a diss at Brady, but those circumstances to occur. And the Patriots will need their running game to save them.
New England drafted Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen in this year's draft, and both came in with probably slightly inflated expectations due to the Patriots' ridiculously successful 2010 draft class. But both running backs, clearly more talented than former undrafted rookie free agents BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, have underwhelmed tremendously thus far.
Especially disappointing is second-round pick Shane Vereen, who has not been active yet this year despite being healthy. Vereen is an electric player, but he needs to find a way to get on the field, whether it be by improving his blocking or conquering the playbook.
The Patriots have found moderate success with undrafted running backs, but with talented high draft picks running behind New England's quality offensive line, the running game could actually become a force to be reckoned with.
As for the Bills, it's obvious as to why they need to establish a running game. Fred Jackson is leading the league in rushing so far, and there's no reason to reel him back.
It's pretty interesting how Buffalo running backs always seem to pose a problem for New England. Marshawn Lynch was seen by some former Patriots as the hardest player to bring down, as it always seemed like his legs never stopped churning. Jackson has always found major success against New England too. Even C.J. Spiller got involved last year in Week 3, scoring two touchdowns against the Patriots in a 38-30 loss.
Stopping Buffalo's running game has always been a difficult task for the Patriots and this year won't be any different: the Bills running game has been rolling on all cylinders this year.
The Bill's offensive coaches have finally let Jackson, an underdog and scrappy player who plays with great heart, take the reins. They were always reluctant to do so in the past, for reasons that baffle me.
Bill Belichick realizes this and he will make it a priority in the game plan to contain Jackson.
I really have to note that Jackson is one of the players Belichick would love to have on his team. He's the type of player Belichick might "overpay" for if he ever becomes available; think Belichick offering a whopping $4 million contract to Shaun Ellis, or Belichick giving up a second and a seventh round pick to pick up Wes Welker.
I have to note I'm a Patriots fan here, but I really respect what the Bills are doing. The Bills are taking together a bunch of scrappy, underdog players with big hearts and are using them to win football games.
They're the kind of football team that will play a full 60 minutes, no matter who the opponent is, and they are also a team mentally tough enough to survive adversity.
Ultimately, though, a few things sway the ball in the Patriots favor.
Next, the Patriot's one constant in their 15 straight victories and counting is Bill Belichick, one of the best coaches in the game.
And third, despite how well Fitzpatrick has been playing, Brady vs. Fitzpatrick is still, well, Brady vs. Fitzpatrick (Please understand that even though I did not list them as keys to the game, they are still obviously important to the outcome of the game).
Beating the Patriots is the one hump the Bills have to get over to be a contender. And make no mistake: they'll put up a fight this game, especially with the number of injuries the Patriots have suffered recently. But will it be enough?
Final Score Prediction: Patriots 38, Bills 28.
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