All offseason the talk in Buffalo was about how the Bills weren't afraid of the Patriots and should be mentioned in the same sentence with the annual AFC East champions. When the teams met the first time this season, the Bills seemed poised to prove that point through a little more than a half of football. Then the bottom fell out as a 21-7 lead turned into a 52-28 blowout loss for the home team in Buffalo. Things haven't been too bright since for the Bills and the Patriots entered the bye with their most impressive win of the season. New England will look to kick off the second half of the schedule in impressive fashion against a team that Bill Belichick's squad has owned over the years. Buffalo isn't nearly the confident bunch at this point that it was this offseason and the Patriots appear poised to hit the ground running coming out of the bye. Kick back and prepare for this division battle by cracking open this Bills Edition Friday Six-Pack!
1. Corral CJ – Former first-round pick C.J. Spiller is now the playmaker that the Bills expected. Spiller is averaging a ridiculous 7.2 yards a carry, although he only has 78 carries through eight games. New England did a good job holding a banged-up Spiller the first time around, with the back gaining just 32 yards. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and the rest of the New England front have been getting the job done on the ground each and every week this season. If that continues against the Bills, it will take away a key playmaker and the potential balance of the Buffalo attack. Spiller isn't a workhorse who's going to get a lot of carries, but you have to keep him contained in his limited but dangerous chances each game. Fred Jackson isn't having a great year, but he's also obviously a consideration. Both guys have made plays against the Patriots in the past. Keeping that from happening again is a nice first step toward victory.
2. Run with Ridley – While Spiller has been breaking out as a big-play guy for the Bills, Stevan Ridley is having his own breakout season in New England. Ridley could be considered a Pro Bowl candidate at this point as the second-year back has brought balance to the Patriots offense. The Bills are allowing opponents to average 5.7 yards per carry this season with the 31st ranked run defense in terms of yards allowed. If that doesn't scream for a big day for Ridley, I don't know what does. Ridley hit the Bills for 106 yards on 22 carries in the first meeting, while Brandon Bolden had 137 yards on 16 carries as the Patriots churned out 247 yards on the ground. Bolden is still dealing with a knee injury and was just suspended by the league for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing drugs, so this time around it should be Ridley once again leading the running game and maybe getting an assist from either Shane Vereen or Danny Woodhead. Either way, the Patriots would be well served to get the ground game going early and often against Buffalo in a game that has the potential for New England to put together plenty of positive plays both on the ground and through the air.
3. Settle the secondary – Aqib Talib is still a week away from joining the Patriots, but the improving health of the team should bring benefits immediately to the back end of the defense. All signs point to Steve Gregory returning to action after missing the last four games with a hip injury. Patrick Chung may also be back from his shoulder issue. It will be interesting to see, a week before Talib arrives, if that pushes Devin McCourty back to his cornerback spot. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard continues to play well and be intriguing, so he could hold the other corner spot for the time being. Tavon Wilson may return to a sub role. Belichick expressed this week a desire to get some consistency in terms of the lineup in the secondary, something I've been calling for over the last month. That's been difficult given the injury situation, but coming out of the bye with improved health should allow the secondary to get its best players and preferred lineups on the field. Buffalo doesn't pose a huge test with the NFL's 27th ranked passing attack. But Stevie Johnson is clearly capable of making plays. The way New England has played at times this season, it can't take anyone lightly through the air. Bills GM Buddy Nix has been talking about the fact that quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't necessarily the guy in Buffalo, so it will be interesting to see how the former Harvard man performs. This could be a good game for the Patriots secondary to build some confidence to open the second half.
4. Pressure games – While we're talking about Fitzpatrick, I'd like to see the Patriots continue to work to get after the quarterback. Chandler Jones said he spent the bye week working on his pass rush. He'll match up with fellow rookie Cordy Glenn. Heading into the second half of the season, Jones will have to continue to lift his game to avoid a rookie wall. Rob Ninkovich was playing his best football leading into the bye, and the veteran expects to build on that over the second half of the season. I liked what I saw in terms of pass rush games and stunts up front against the Rams two weeks ago with Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower. I've said all along that I think when he's healthy that Hightower is a guy who could be a unique, impact weapon in pass defense. Buffalo has only allowed 11 sacks in eight games, so it's not like they've been terrible in that area. But a lot of the success against Sam Bradford and the Rams was more about pressure than actual sacks. The Patriots sack numbers have been OK the last couple years, but the action against St. Louis gives me hope that New England is showing some growth in terms of pressures. It would be nice to see that continue to build against Buffalo.
5. Energy – The vibe I got from the Patriots this week coming out of the bye is that the team is anxious to get back on the field and play some exciting football. The Bills are clearly a team that can get overwhelmed at times, as they did in the second half in the first meeting with New England. The Patriots scored a touchdown on their opening drive in just two of the first eight games this season. One of those was in Buffalo, the other was in the blowout of the Rams. Starting fast on both sides of the ball is always a goal, but that's even increased with the extra energy and excitement coming out of the bye in a home game. The Bills seem to be looking for reasons to give up and question themselves at this point in the season. There's more talking going on in Buffalo than playmaking. Early momentum for New England in front of the home crowd on what is supposed to be a pretty nice, mild day should spell a recipe for success this Sunday. Start fast and finish strong.
6. No big plays – Let's be honest, the big plays have been the Patriots kryptonite this season. Sure they've allowed too many yards in general through the air. But take away the 42 plays of 20 or more yards and things would look a lot better. Buffalo has six different receivers with a reception of 30 yards or longer this season, eight with a catch of 20 yards or longer. Buffalo hit New England for six plays of 20 yards or longer in the first meeting, including a Fitzpatrick 68-yard completion to Donald Jones that's New England's longest allowed this season. Getting Gregory and Chung back in the secondary should theoretically be a step toward better communication and recognition in the pass defense. Regardless of how it comes about, and after a week off spent self scouting, the hope is that the Patriots can get the big problem with big plays under wraps as we head into the second half of the season. Fitzpatrick doesn't have a big arm or a great receiving corps, and the Bills are more about shorter timing throws, so maybe this is a good week to take a positive step in the right direction in pass defense in general.
For a team that was very close to building a theoretically insurmountable lead against New England in the first meeting, I simply don't have a lot of respect for the Bills. Their talent, especially on defense, hasn't lived up to the hype. They've been questioning themselves within. They don't have an elite quarterback or even a young up-and-comer. I can't find myself pointing to anything, other than Spiller, that scares me for the Bills. And maybe it's just the closest game in my memory, but I feel pretty good about the Patriots at this point in terms of getting healthier and hitting full stride on both sides of the ball. Aaron Hernandez' return gets the passing game back to where it was supposed to be. Ridley should be able to run. Brady has gotten good protection from Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, although Mario Williams and Co. aren't exactly elite at this point. I expect the front seven to keep the Bills ground game in check and then make life on Fitzpatrick less than easy. More importantly I can see the Patriots offense scoring the first two times it touches the ball, building an early lead and suffocating the life right out of Chan Gailey's squad. Really I think this game could go almost the way the Rams game did. The score may not end that lopsided, and the big play allowed may not be on the first drive, but it should be a pretty easy win in the end. I see something like a 35-13 win for the Patriots, an impressive first effort coming out of the bye and heading toward the most important time of the year in the NFL. The domination over the Bills continues.