New England's 2013 regular season will end just the way it opened – facing the Bills. Buffalo (6-9) gave the Patriots (11-4) a scare on opening day in Western New York and travels to Foxborough looking to put up a similar fight in the finale. Doug Marrone's team has won its last two games and would love to take a three-game winning streak into the offseason, a win that would also come thanks to an upset of its division rival. Bill Belichick's team is still playing for a first-round playoff bye, and would secure at least the No. 2 seed with one more victory. The Patriots are the clear favorite at home, but Buffalo has some of the characteristics necessary to pull off the upstart upset. As you enjoy a final NFL regular season weekend in which all but three games have playoff implications – and wait for the flex-scheduled 4:25 kickoff at Gillette Stadium – tear open this between-holidays, pre-playoffs, returns-with-receipt-only edition of the Bills at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
- You must protect this QB** – The Bills have an impressive pass rush. Buffalo leads the NFL with 56 sacks. They spread that pressure out across the front. Mario Williams leads the way on the edge with 13. Kyle Williams has 10.5 in the middle. Marcell Darius has 7.5 and Jerry Hughes has 10. It presents a spread-out challenge for a New England offensive line that may or may not see the return of Nate Solder, who's questionable with his concussion. Logan Mankins did a nice job last week at tackle, as did his fill-in at guard, Josh Kline. But ideally Dante Scarnecchia would get his regular starting lineup back on the field in a tough tune-up before the postseason. It is an especially interesting test for the interior guys as Buffalo makes some hay in the middle, which means Ryan Wendell will be very much in the spotlight throughout. Tom Brady was sacked three times by this front in the opener. Any team looking to make life tough on Brady or pull the upset on the Patriots usually takes the first step in that direction with the pass rush. New England needs to be ready for that challenge.
2. 'Tis the season to not give – The other thing the Bills do well on defense that can be a factor in a potential upset is pick off passes. Buffalo is second in the NFL with 22 interceptions on the year. That includes four different players with four picks. Rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso is one of those and he could be a major thorn in the side of the Patriots interior and underneath passing game. Jairus Byrd is a playmaking safety. Stephon Gilmore is a good corner. There is plenty to give Brady and his always-changing group of pass catchers problems. Brady has just 10 interceptions on the season. He's yet to throw more than a single pick in any one game. He's looking to record the first season in his career as a starter with zero multiple interception games, but he'll have to put up a good performance against one of the NFL's interception leaders on defense to get that done. And to ensure that the Bills can't pull off the momentum-killing upset.
- Testy run defense** – New England's run defense has been trending in the right direction in the last few weeks. A part of that is the ascension of former practice squad defensive tackle Sealver Siliga to the starting lineup. Another part of it has been the competition. Cleveland and the Ravens are two of the worst rushing teams in the NFL. So rush defense numbers against those teams can be taken with a grain of field turf black pellets. But the Bills are the No. 2 rushing attack in the NFL at this late point in the season. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are weapons that have each given the Patriots problems in the past. If New England can put together a solid effort against a Bills team that will clearly be looking to run the ball to help out quarterback Thad Lewis, it would be a nice boost of confidence up front heading into postseason action. The Buffalo attack is clearly limited through the air with Lewis at the helm and Stevie Johnson out of action. Jackson and Spiller are probably the team's two best offensive weapons. So New England will have to consider stopping the two-man rushing attack the top priority on defense. Given the numbers Buffalo has put up all year that will be easier said than done for the NFL's No. 29 run defense.
4. Run into January – It may be Week 17, but the Patriots offense remains a work in progress. That's certainly true of a passing game that continues to try to figure out its personnel and playmaking potential around the steady contributions of Julian Edelman. The running game is clearly a committee approach, but one that has been picking up steam in recent weeks. LeGarrette Blount is coming off his best game of the season. He found the end zone twice and was a key part of a four-minute drive late in the win in Baltimore. Stevan Ridley has also worked his way back into the mix after his fumbling issues and benching. It was a great sign in terms of the coaching staff's confidence in him to see Ridley a part of that four-minute drill last week as well. The Bills run defense is by far the weakest part of the unit, ranking 23rd in the league. Mankins was quite clear in the fact that he wants his team to be physical and be known as physical up front. That starts with running the football, especially against a team that can rush the passer and defend the pass like the Bills. The Patriots are coming off one of their best running performances of the season and it would be a positive to build on that heading into the postseason. Mankins, Blount and Ridley would all love to run early and often against Buffalo. It also happens to make a lot of sense to run early and often against Buffalo.
](/node/47091)5. Stay healthy** – Make no mistake, the Patriots want and need to win. So this isn't a preseason-type game or even the type of finale where health is more important than winning. But staying healthy is a primary concern in this contest. We all know the Patriots list of injuries this season is long and impressive. The guys that are on IR aren't walking through that door. But the number of guys who are banged up, battling things or getting hurt in recent weeks remains concerning. That list can't be added to against Buffalo. It may also be a consideration to give a guy like Shane Vereen time off to try to get his groin healthy for the postseason, rather than have such an injury linger and hamper a key playmaker in the playoffs. Winning may be the most important thing in the finale, but it's not the only thing. Staying healthy is also crucial for a banged up team in a year of banged up teams across the NFL.
6. Receiving attention – Edelman is indeed having a great season as the only consistent weapon in the New England passing game. Sure his per-catch-average is a little low. But he needs just four catches and 9 yards to pass 100 receptions and top the 1,000-yard plateau. He would join a select list of Patriots players in both categories. But figuring out the rest of the depth chart at receiver has been difficult. Danny Amendola has looked a little bit more perky in recent weeks as he continues to play through his season-long groin problem. The fact that Austin Collie was released could indicate that Kenbrell Thompkins is ready to return after missing three games. Aaron Dobson got back in action last week. At least one of those two rookies likely will need to be counted on to make plays in the postseason for Brady. This is the last chance to prepare for the increased speed and pressure that will come in the next phase of the year. Sure the running game is improving and can help come January, but the NFL is still a passing league and the Patriots need to continue to build the passing attack against a Bills pass defense that is poised to make that difficult.
This game matches a team that's still playing for a lot against a team that's playing for pride and momentum heading into yet another long offseason. Marrone may need to use some of his college motivational skills to get his players ready. If the Patriots can get out to an early lead, as was the case a week ago in Baltimore, it might take the fight out of the Bills. I think that could happen. I know that Lewis beat the Dolphins twice this season, but I just can't see him rolling into Foxborough and beating Brady and the Patriots. Brady has been taking care of the football all season and his protection has been OK of late. So the two biggest strengths for the Bills defense and concerns for an upset should be stagnated. Offensively I think the running game will find plenty of life against the Bills front and that should open things up in the play-action passing game. Look for Edelman to end the season on a high as he stamps his name next to Wes Welker and Troy Brown in the Patriots record books. In the end, I think this could be the second straight relatively easy win for New England. I'm going with a 28-10 victory for the home squad as it rolls into the second round of the playoffs with a bye week to get healthy and get ready.