New England's first divisional game of 2012 comes at an interesting and unfamiliar spot in the early season schedule. The Patriots (1-2) travel to Buffalo to take on a Bills (2-1) team that's seemingly spent the entire offseason circling this battle on the schedule. But make no mistake this is a huge Week 4 game for both squads. Buffalo thinks that beating the Patriots, even a stumbling Patriots team, is a huge advancement in the team's battle for respect and confidence. New England, on the other hand, is looking to avoid its first three-game losing streak since 2002, pull back to .500 and start the year off on the right foot in terms of division play. Both teams are dealing with critical injuries on the offensive side of the ball. Both teams have designs on winning the AFC East. Only one will accomplish that goal in the end, and the Bills are already 0-1 in the division thanks to a loss to the Jets. The AFC East fun for the Patriots begins this weekend, but more importantly the team is looking to bounce back from a tough two-game stretch. It all happens at 1 p.m. at Ralph Wilson Stadium. To keep yourself entertained leading up to kickoff, here's a Bills Edition Friday Six-Pack!
1. Line up! – It's cliché to say that games are won and lost in the trenches in the NFL, and in this pass-happy era it's probably even a bit misleading. But I think this one will very much be swung by how the Patriots offensive line deals with the Bills front. New England has been a work in progress on the line, and things are worse now as Logan Mankins missed the entire week of practice with a hip injury. He played last Sunday night in Baltimore and had his usual edgy style. But as he works back from ACL surgery another injury isn't good. The ACL clearly affected his play a year ago and the line can't be at its best with its best player ailing. If Mankins can't go, and Donald Thomas is forced into action, he'll have to hold up better than he did in Week 2 against the Cardinals. Like Arizona, the Bills bring a physical, athletic front to this battle. Kyle Williams is one of the more underrated tackles in the game. Marcell Dareus is an active former first-rounder. And on the edge Buffalo invested in its pass rush to the tune of around $128 million to acquire Mario Williams and former Patriot Mark Anderson. That's a formidable four-man test for New England's five-man front. Whether it's about Josh McDaniels wanting to get Stevan Ridley going on the ground or it's more about protecting Tom Brady, the guys up front will be the key to the Patriots taking advantage of opportunities against the Bills 17th-ranked defense.
- Spread or grind?** – Even if the line can get the job done up front, McDaniels has decision as to whether keep focusing on the run or spreading out the Bills and throwing to get ahead. Brady seemed to be very comfortable throwing the ball against the Ravens D, as he got back to his calm movements in the pocket and subtle actions before delivering the ball. After averaging 6.0 yards a carry in the opener, Ridley's production fell to 3.9 and 2.8 in the last two weeks. If the line is having any trouble with the Bills front, spreading things out and getting rid of the ball quickly through the air might be the more palatable approach against the Bills, who start rookie first-round pick Stephon Gilmore at right corner. Even with Aaron Hernandez still sidelined, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker have both been picking up the slack in production. And Rob Gronkowski has enjoyed playing games in his childhood backyard, with four touchdowns in two career trips to Western New York. Unfortunately Gronk also showed up on the injury report on Friday as being limited with a hip issue. As much as I've been behind the idea of establishing a running mentality early in the season, this might be a good game to return to the old spread 'em and shred 'em game plan.
3. Closing thoughts – Brady is the first one to point out that the Patriots have not closed out games very well in 2012. And he's not just talking about last-second field goals and the actual final plays. He's talking about holding onto leads, getting first downs when needed and executing when it matters most. Despite New England's dominance over the Bills in the Bill Belichick era, it hasn't always been easy, especially in the first meeting of the season in the series. Last year was a 34-31 loss in Buffalo. In 2010 it was a 38-30 home win for New England. The year before it was a 25-24 comeback. And we all remember the Bills 31-0 win in the road opener in 2003. Buffalo makes life hard on the Patriots and that puts a premium on plays in the second half and late in the game if it's a close dogfight. More often than not in the past, and in this series, Brady and Co. have made those key plays at key times to get the job done. Not so much in 2012. That needs to change this week if the Patriots are to avoid another disappointment on the road. Four of the last seven season series openers against the Bills have been decided by 5 points or less.
4. Rush to cover – The Patriots pass defense is once again in the spotlight after giving up 382 yards to Joe Flacco and the Ravens. The band of brothers in the back end are again taking heat and being questioned. Atop that list is third-year corner and defensive captain Devin McCourty. It seemed that Flacco and Torrey Smith picked on McCourty. The corner made some plays, but also gave them up and got hit with key penalties (some more valid than others). The Bills are more of a timing passing attack than the downfield unit the Ravens have evolved into. But Stevie Johnson is a dangerous playmaker with the ability to break tackles. It's not just New England's coverage though, that needs to step up on pass defense. Chandler Jones admitted he needs to do a better job getting to the quarterback, and he's matched up against fellow rookie Cordy Glenn. The rest of the front also clearly needs to do more, including Rob Ninkovich. If he can't, it might be time for Jermaine Cunningham to see increased reps. Fitzpatrick has only been sacked once this year, but he's susceptible to be pressured into ugly throws. He gives a secondary chances to get its hands on the ball. The rush and coverage for the Patriots must take advantage of the chances they get, and create as many of those chances as possible.
5. Back to work – New England's run defense has been trending in the wrong direction. It dominated Chris Johnson (who doesn't?) in the season opener. But last week Ray Rice went over 100 yards and averaged 5.1 a carry. The Bills come in with the No. 3 rushing attack in the NFL through the first three weeks, even with injuries all over the backfield. Fred Jackson got hurt early on and C.J. Spiller stepped in to the tune of 308 yards and a 9.3-yard average with three touchdowns before he injured his shoulder last week against the Browns. Tashard Choice even has 131 yards (4.1 avg.). But it looks like Jackson will be back this week. He's a productive, dangerous guy who's given the Patriots problems at times in the past. They've held him in check other times. Vince Wilfork and the front catch a break in that Spiller will be limited at the very least. He's more of a dynamic playmaker. But the Bills will try to stay balanced to set things up for Ryan Fitzpatrick. If Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and the rest can get the job done it will make the former Harvard man's job much more difficult. It won't help that Kyle Love missed practice time this week with a knee injury. Bottom line is that given the Patriots problems against the pass, the run defense needs to be a counted on consistent force each and every week. That especially true this week.
6. Emotional release – It's pretty clear that Belichick was hard on his team after last week's loss. It's pretty clear that he emphasized that nothing outside of the Bills was to be talked about, or even considered, this week. This team, especially its veterans, isn't used to losing. Brady and Deion Branch are the only players who've ever lost three games in a row in a Patriots uniform. The other guys don't want that feeling now. To some degree the players may also feel that a game was stolen from them last week. Put it all together and there is a lot of emotion these days in Foxborough and an edge to the players. The plan is for the Bills to be on the receiving end of all that emotion come Sunday afternoon. Clearly the Patriots are looking to bounce back in a big way and beat up on the Bills. It will be interesting to see if the Buffalo players can match that expected energy and emotion out of the gates or if the Patriots can build an early lead off of it.
While I'm not quite as confident as my boss – PFW's own Fred Kirsch is predicting an absolute demolition of the Bills – I do think the Patriots are due for a big, play-filled win. I certainly don't expect a loss, unlike what Tedy Bruschi predicted on ESPNBoston.com. I think the Patriots come out with a lot of emotion on both sides of the ball and you see that translate into playmaking on both sides. That will include some big plays in the passing game on offense and a turnover or two on defense. That will combine to dig a hole that Fitzpatrick and the Bills aren't nearly good enough to climb out of. Then the Patriots will turn things over to the running game a bit and pretty much cruise to the 35-10 victory that will leave Buffalo a bit baffled.