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Bills Friday Six-Pack

Posted Dec 30, 2011

The Patriots host the Bills with a chance to clinch the No. 1 seed and home field throughout the AFC playoffs!

Unlike a year ago when New England headed into the season finale with what Bill Belichick admitted was nothing to play for, the Patriots host Buffalo this Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium with a chance to secure the No. 1 seed and home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Buffalo (6-9) comes to town a much different team than the one that upset the Patriots in Week 3. The Bills broke a seven-game losing streak last weekend when Tim Tebow gave them the game and with a gift wrapped four interceptions. It's doubtful that Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the rest of the Patriots will be in quite as giving a mood in this festive affair. So before you get going on another big holiday weekend, pop the cork on this New Year's driven Bills edition of the Friday Six-Pack!

1. Stay/get healthy - Clearly, with the No. 1 seed up for grabs, there is something to play for in this one. But it wouldn't seem that the top seed, or the home field advantage that comes with it, is nearly as important as hitting the playoffs as healthy as possible at as many positions as possible. That starts with Brady. Brady missed or was limited in practice all week with the left shoulder injury suffered in the Christmas Eve win over Miami. He was being very ginger with the shoulder in that postgame locker room and will seemingly have to deal with at least some pain in the area moving forward, even if the injury doesn't keep him from any snaps. It sounds, based on Belichick's Friday press conference, like Brady will play as he might normally in the finale. The problem is, not only is he banged up but so is his offensive line. Logan Mankins did not practice this week and will miss the game with a knee injury with an eye on returning on Divisional Weekend. Matt Light has been limited with the ankle injury that kept him out last week. So the left tackle will clearly not be at 100 percent. Is it worth playing him? If Brady is going to play, should Light have to play? If Light isn't playing, is that a reason to keep Brady out? The Patriots rank an impressive No. 3 overall at this point in the New York Life Protection Index, but that took a hit last week as the banged up Patriots saw Brady get hit a bit against Miami to rank 20th in the Index' weekly ranking. Don't want to see a repeat of that with Brady getting knocked around in this one. It would also be beneficial for the Patriots to get a couple key young players back on defense in the form of safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes. Each has missed the last seven games. Each practiced on a limited basis all week, as they have at times in recent weeks. It would seem that getting both players at least a few reps on defense would be a good idea before hoping to just throw them out there in a playoff game. That's especially true for Spikes, whose instinctive playing style seems to take a few game reps to get up to speed. So while the No. 1 seed may be a key goal on Sunday, it would seem more important to make decisions with players' health at the top of the priority list. That will benefit the team down the line as much as any home game would.

2. Stay/get healthy - So important this week that it gets two points in the Six-Pack. See above!

3. Ridley me this, Ridley me that, who is the Patriots featured back? -Stevan Ridley is coming off the first consecutive double-digit carry games of his rookie season. By all accounts, and by the numbers, he's running the ball well down the stretch. It would be nice to see that continue against a Bills defense that ranks 28th in the NFL against the run. Ridley has enjoyed the extra carries in recent weeks and is clearly hopeful that the coaches are gaining confidence in his abilities and ball security as the team approaches its most important games. This could be a good chance to keep the ground momentum going, building a bit of a complementary aspect to the offense late in the year. The Patriots have turned the ground game on in the past late in the schedule, maybe that's happening again this time around. Ridley has plenty to prove and seemingly plenty of talent to prove it. We've seen guys like Shonn Greene and James Starks have breakout seasons as surprise rushing contributors in recent postseasons. Maybe Ridley can add his name to that list.

4. Don't get caught up in a rush - While working to create some consistency running the ball on offense, the defense will be trying to get back to its stout ways of earlier in the year. Things have not been good for the run defense in recent weeks as the Redskins, Broncos and Dolphins have found way too much room to work on the ground. The Patriots have dropped to No. 17 in the league against the run. Though Fred Jackson is on IR, Buffalo still sports a dangerous runner in the body of former first-round pick C.J. Spiller. Spiller has enjoyed life as the team's lead back with an average of better than 5.9 a carry in three of the last four games. He went for his first 100-yard effort in beating the Broncos after notching 91 yards against Miami. He's had a run of 24 yards or longer in three of the last four games. He can take the ball to the house on any snap, thanks to elite speed, quickness and an elusive style. The Patriots struggled at times with a somewhat similar style with Reggie Bush last week. If Belichick can't count on his run defense heading into the postseason, then he has seemingly nothing to work with on that side of the ball. This is a good chance to shore up run fits up front with guys like Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo earning their large paychecks. Spiller is dangerous, but the Patriots can't let him hurt them. Tackling will be a key to that, against a good running back working behind an offensive line that's being held together with backups and duct tape.

5. For the record - Belichick often says that the Patriots aren't about individual accomplishments, numbers or records. That's fine, but it's still pretty cool when you have a chance to do something special. Brady has the chance, with 103 yards, to become just the third guy to pass for 5,000 yards. He also chases the moving target that is Drew Brees' passing yardage record. Rob Gronkowski needs just 72 yards to pass Kellen Winslow's record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end, a mark that's stood since 1980. The second-year star can also improve on his NFL record 15 touchdown receptions by a tight end. Wes Welker can improve on his franchise record for receiving yards and with eight catches will set a new personal/franchise best with 124 receptions. That would also be the second-most receptions all-time in the NFL, trailing only Marvin Harrison's 143. There are other records up for grabs, some not so good like the defensive yards allowed mark. So while the game has meaning in the standings and the playoff seedings, it also could leave a mark in the record books - both for the Patriots and the NFL as a whole.

6. Settle down in the back end - Ideally, Chung will return to bring some experienced stability to the back end of the defense. Regardless, it would be nice to get down to a regular rotation in the secondary and to have those players at least tighten up the coverage a bit. That will be challenged by Bills big-play receiver Stevie Johnson. Johnson hit the Patriots for 94 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting. He's on the verge of 1,000 yards. He's had a 50-yard catch in two of the last three games. And we know how much Devin McCourty and the rest of the Patriots DBs have struggled all season long. Not saying that they will suddenly blanket the opposition, but fewer yards and big plays through the air would create a much better feeling of confidence heading into the bye and the postseason.

Prediction:
There is little doubt that the Patriots are the better team in this matchup. That would be true even if both sides were at full talent, full health. But neither side is at this point. It does sound like Brady will be ready to go, at least in the early going of this one, and that we won't see as much Brian Hoyer as we did a year ago in the finale. That's not good news for the Bills but is for Patriots fans. It would be good for New England to come out of the gates, get a rare first-quarter touchdown on offense and then cruise to a momentum-building victory. The running game on both sides of the ball concerns me a little, but in the end Brady should find plenty of plays through the air. Rob Gronkowski loves playing against Buffalo. Wes Welker seems charged up to finish the season strong. The defense still has plenty to prove against a wounded Bills offense. Put it all together and I see a decisive victory for the home team. Put me down for the 31-13 Patriots victory. Some individual records will fall and the Patriots will finish the year at 13-3 with the No. 1 seed. All is well heading into the New Year, the new season that is the NFL playoffs!

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