He's still wearing red, white, and blue on his uniform, but he'll be on the opposite sideline this Sunday. For the first time, Brandon Spikes' former Patriots teammates will face the linebacker in meaningful competition.
Spikes signed a free agent deal with Buffalo this offseason and immediately took to social media to declare that he was going to help deal his old team a pair of losses in 2014. The first opportunity comes at 1 p.m this Sunday, when the Patriots travel to Western New York for a yearly clash with the Bills in their home stadium.
Spikes, a Patriots draft choice in 2010, was a flamboyant personality, particularly online, and a notoriously aggressive player on the field. That made him popular with many of his teammates, including running back Stevan Ridley.
"Never heard of the guy. Really haven't," Ridley joked. "No, I kid you… I talked to him on the phone last week. He's going to be gassed, so, I'm excited. It's going to be a little bit different, talking a little bit of trash. I know he's going to be doing that.
"Hasn't started yet, but I know it'll be in full effect on Sunday. That wouldn't be Spikes if it wasn't. But we have to beat Buffalo, as a team, all 11 guys they have on the field. It's going to be a tough environment to play. They're tied in the division right now and they're playing some good football. That's always a tough place to win, so, we'll have to play our best ball… they're not going to hand us anything."
Buffalo has been an improved defense against the run so far in 2014, thanks in large part to the arrival of the hard-hitting Spikes.
"He's a good player. You've got to be aware of him," Gronkowski remarked. "He's a hitter. You've got to be prepared, mentally and physically ready."
For Gronk, who grew up in the Buffalo area, homecomings have historically been kind to him. He's had some of his highest statistical games against the Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y., site of Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"Yeah, definitely. Going back to your hometown, in front of friends and family. Definitely pumped up for the game this Sunday," he acknowledged. "I know a lot of people growing up there go to the games. I'm sure there'll be plenty of them there."
The one friend Ridley is most looking forward to seeing is Spikes, although their meetings on the field may not be so cordial between 1 and 4 p.m.
"I know how he plays and what he does, but that's not going to take anything away from him. He's still going to play good football," said Ridley. "It's going to be fun going against someone you know, that you've been with the past few years, and have a relationship with. It's actually kind of cool. We're going to see who's going to get the best of the other on Sunday."
Emotions will be high for Gronk and Ridley Sunday, though it will be a challenge to get as high as the Patriots were last Sunday night against Cincinnati. The Bills' home crowd could be a factor, just like the Gillette fans were for New England last weekend.
"Yeah, division games are huge," tight end Rob Gronkowski noted. "It's going be a great atmosphere going into Buffalo. We're both 3-2. It's going to be a really big game."
"This is football, this is what you play for: going on the road in the division," co-captain Vince Wilfork asserted. "It's going to be a tough game, but we've got to show we can win on the road and be a consistent football team."
Wilfork also offered praise for Buffalo's new starting quarterback, journeyman Kyle Orton, who led the Bills to a well-earned road victory over Detroit last week.
After taking over for youngster E.J. Manuel, how different does the Bills offense look?
"Al lot of things happen a lot quicker," Wilfork observed. "He's getting the ball out, making his reads before the snap. And [Bills players] talked about it, how he's been around so long, he can see the game differently. He's putting them in the right situations with the right checks, getting the ball out on time where he's not taking sacks or making bad decisions with the ball. We'll have to do a really good job with that guy, coming in and giving them a spark.
"Last week was a big win for them [against Detroit]. I'm pretty sure they're going to try to ride high on that and roll in, the first game with the new ownership. They have a lot of things working for them right now, and now we come into town. A lot of stuff up for grabs. We have to match their intensity. We have to bring our own energy."
The Patriots were back in full pads for Thursday's practice, after a Wednesday walkthrough. Four players were absent, however: most notably, cornerback Brandon Browner, who was activated on Monday after a one-week roster exemption, and rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley, who is dealing with knee and shoulder injuries. Safety Nate Ebner and rookie o-lineman Cameron Fleming have been missing in action since last week, both with finger injuries sustained at Kansas City.