The 2012 season certainly has not gotten off to the start that the New England Patriots expected. After winning their opening contest handily against the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots were narrowly upset by the Arizona Cardinals before losing an equally narrow contest to the Baltimore Ravens. Patriots’ fans can yell all they want about the cruddy officiating in Baltimore (and it was cruddy), but the Patriots have lost two straight because they have failed to take advantage of opportunities and the defense has back-peddled from a strong performance in Week One. So it is that a 1-2 Patriots team finds its way into Buffalo seeking to avoid dropping a third straight game.
The Bills are a dangerous foe. Buffalo is 2-1 after being pounded on opening day by the Jets, but then rebounding to beat the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns. Granted, these are the teams that the Bills “should” beat, but there are no giveaways in the NFL, and the way to the playoffs is to beat the teams that you “should” beat. The Bills boast a dominant front four on defense, anchored by off-season free agent signing Mario Williams, as well as a prolific rushing attack. But both CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson are both hurt, and are game-time decisions.
Three keys for the Patriots:
1. Protect Tom Brady
I know, duh. The rap on Brady is that he gets shaken when he gets hit. Yep, him and 31 other starting NFL quarterbacks. Pass protection is always a key. In this game it is critical, as the Bills’ front four will test the Patriots make-shift offensive line early and often on Sunday. Kyle Williams already has 3 sacks this season, followed by Marcell Darius and Mario Williams with 1.5 each. The linebackers are capable of bringing pressure to bear as well, and the Patriots will need to be disciplined in their blocking assignments. If the Patriots can protect Brady however, the Bills have already shown that they are susceptible to being picked apart, having given up 48 points to the Jets. Look for play action passes and extra blockers to be utilized to take the heat off of Brady.
2. Make clean tackles
The Bills like to use a 1 WR, 2 TE, 2 RB grouping that spreads the field and takes advantage of misdirection. The Patriots will have many opportunities to make one on one tackles, and must do so. But in order to do so, Patriots defenders will need to stay in their assigned areas. Arm tackles will not be a way to get the shifty Bills’ running backs to the ground.
3. Pressure Ryan Fitzpatrick
The flip-side of #1 is getting to Ryan Fitzpatrick. He has been prone to getting rattled in the past and on the whole is known to be an inconsistent quarterback. The Patriots will need to cut down his ability to make good reads by applying consistent pressure. One key match-up will be between fellow rookies Chandler Jones and Cordy Glenn. Glenn has yet to give up a sack but might find Jones to be more of a handful than he has seen so far. Speaking of handfuls, look for the “real” NFL officials to be all over offensive holding this week.
Three keys for the Bills:
1. Pick on Devin McCourty
McCourty had a terrific rookie season before playing so poorly last season that he had to be moved to safety. Now back at corner, McCourty started off strong but had a miserable game last week, letting two interceptions go through his hands and being flagged for a blatant pass interference call that set up Baltimore for the game-winning field goal. McCourty seems to play better with people in front of him (at safety) and often finds himself playing catch-up with receivers; this is a technique problem that he has yet to correct. Look for Stevie Johnson to try to exploit this weakness all day.
2. Pound the ball
The Bills have an incredibly effective running attack, and their two primary backs have already rushed for a combined 439 yards in three weeks. Their two tight end sets provide plenty of blocking power, and will test the Patriots front seven. If the Patriots have to bring a safety up to assist in the run, look for Fitzpatrick to exploit that with passes to Johnson and Donald Jones.
3. Pressure Brady
Already discussed above, but the Bills’ defensive weakness is in their linebacker coverage and their defensive backs. Even without Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots have too many weapons for the Bills to cover them all. If Tom Brady is given time, he will spread the ball between Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski and Deion Branch, while changing it up with opportunistic runs for Stevan Ridley, who has proven a more than capable lead back.
Beyond these keys, Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to trust the game plan that he develops, and trust Tom Brady and the other players on offense to carry it out. In each of the past two weeks McDaniels got “cute” with play-calling and squandered offensive opportunities. Leave Danny Woodhead on the sideline this week and trust in Stevan Ridley to pound the ball where the situation calls for it.
PREDICTION: Earlier in the week I thought the Patriots’ anger and determination would be an epic force that would carry the day, but reason has since prevailed. Chan Gailey is a smart coach who is intentionally trying to design a team to beat the Patriots, and they have the parts to do it. During last season’s Patriots visit to Buffalo, the Patriots jumped to a quick 21-0 lead, but four Brady interceptions later the Patriots found themselves on the losing side of the score. The Patriots have to (and will) take this match-up seriously. The Bills are dangerous at home and I expect this to be a tough contest. The Patriots can ill afford to go 1-3 to start the season and I expect them to come out focused. But focus hasn’t been their problem. Instead, the Patriots have suffered from a lack of execution at key times when a play needed to be made. Still, I look for the Patriots to rebound this week and pull out a close contest. I expect the offensive line to limit the number of hits on Brady, and for Brady to put up enough points to carry the day. I also expect Vince Wilfork and the defense to atone for last week’s awful showing against the Ravens, and make key plays that will seal the Patriots’ win. PATRIOTS 28 Bills 24
Side Note: Still undecided about live blogging this week. No doubt I will have my iPad next to me during the game, but Sunday is my birthday and I rather suspect the house will be a little hectic that day with five kids running around. If I don’t live blog, I’ll have a game summary up sometime early that evening.
Side Note #2: Tedy Buschi is predicting the Pats will lose this weekend.