Special Teams: Stop the unstoppable force
"As usual, when you look at the Bills, I think it starts with how good they are on special teams," head coach Bill Belichicknoted at the top of his mid-week press conference, so that's where we'll start in this analysis.
In recent years, even when the team didn't fare so well in the standings, the Bills have consistently ranked at or near the top of most special teams categories.
"I think that continues to hold true," Belichick continued. "[They have] very explosive returners with [rookie Leodis] McKelvinand[Roscoe] Parrish, good kickers, good specialists [and] good coverage teams.
"They are very sound and also explosive. They ran a fake punt last week against the Jets, had a big day returning punts against Seattle and we've seen – whether it was [Terrence] McGee, McKelvin or whoever – had plenty of success returning kicks, too. So, that is a big point of emphasis for us this week, as it always is, but I think this is truly a team that can win a game on special teams and I don't know if we face that every week."
New England's kick coverage teams have done a decent job this year of pinning opponents back in their own territory, thanks in large part to the booming leg of Stephen Gostkowski. His ability to register touchbacks will be especially important this Sunday to prevent the Bills from having an opportunity to make a big play.
Offense: Exploit the match-ups
With sack machine and perennial Matt Lightnemesis Aaron Schobelout for this game, the Pats may have dodged a bullet. And what better time for the Patriots, coming off a no-sacks-allowed performance against Indy. When Matt Casselhas time to throw the ball, he's proven he can find the open man nearly as well as Tom Bradycould.
It will also benefit the Pats passing game that Bills safety Donte Whitnerhas been ruled out. He's missed practice with a shoulder injury this week. Look for New England to try more downfield throws to Randy Mossas a result.
Defense: Rattle Edwards' cage
Trent Edwards, Buffalo's second-year signal-caller, came storming out of the gates this season, but hasn't quite been the same since a concussion he suffered in the Bills' first loss of the season (at Arizona in Week 5).
Getting pressure on Edwards will be critical for the Patriots' front seven, but so will keeping an eye on his check-down receiver, running back Marshawn Lynch. With Bills number-two receiver Josh Reedalso out for this game, Lynch may find himself more of an option in the passing game.
Intangibles: Leading the East
As most fans know, winning the division guarantees a spot in the playoffs. And with both Buffalo and New England atop the AFC East right now, this game will play a role in who ultimately wins the division.
Coming off a loss to the Colts that could easily have gone the other way, the Patriots won't allow themselves to drop two games in a row, particularly to a Bills team that is starting to look vulnerable after an impressive start. New England has looked upbeat this week in the locker room and at practice. They're clearly not dwelling on what could have been in Indy.
That focus should help them to a win on Sunday.
Friday locker room/practice notebook
October's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month spoke briefly to reporters just prior to the start of practice.
"I feel more comfortable [in the Pats system] each and every day," said Jerod Mayo, who was quick to credit his coaches. "They're doing a great job of helping me."
Asked if he's adjusting to the lengthier schedule of the NFL, he responded, "I feel great."
Another reporter asked about the significance of New England's upcoming three-game stretch against AFC East opponents.
"We've been approaching every game as a must-have," Mayo replied. "This is no different."
The list of absent players at the start of practice was the same as it was yesterday, with one additional absentee, practice squad wide receiver Maurice Price. Running backs LaMont Jordanand Sammy Morrisand defensive backs Lewis Sandersand Terrence Wheatleywere the others.
The Pats practiced in shells (smaller, lighter shoulder pads) and helmets outside on a damp, drizzly afternoon here in Foxborough.