ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – A full day before kickoff, we already knew that six Patriots wouldn't suit up against the Bills. Three of them were ruled out on Saturday, and three others were downgraded from questionable once the team arrived here in Western New York Sunday evening.
That left just one more player to be listed on the inactive sheet, and in an unforeseen development, the name added to the list is linebacker Dont'a Hightower. While he had been listed as a limited practice participant with a knee injury and questionable to play tonight, it's not uncommon for Hightower to play through such injuries.
Perhaps, against the NFL's lowest-ranked offense, the Patriots feel they can gamble by resting one of their most important defensive players.
Hightower's deactivation means that tight end Rob Gronkowski will be back in action. Having sat out last week's contest at Chicago with a back issue, Gronkowski returned to practice on a limited basis last week and will be in uniform tonight in Orchard Park. Obviously, that's great news for an Patriots offense that, even without him, is capable of piling up points.
Gronkowski, a native of this area, normally puts up big numbers against Buffalo, so, his inclusion in tonight's lineup should be a boon for New England.
However, the Patriots will be without rookie running back Sony Michel (knee), who missed three days of practice last week, but managed to take part on a limited basis last Saturday, less than a week after being injured against the Bears. On a night when winds are a potential factor in the passing game, it would have been nice to have Michel's productivity on the ground. New England must find a way to move the ball without him in this contest.
Right tackle Marcus Cannon will also miss tonight's tilt, his second straight game as a spectator, due to a concussion. LaAdrian Waddle is expected to man Cannon's post yet again, as he did a week ago versus the Bears. Tight end Jacob Hollister's lingering hamstring problem will cause him to miss a second consecutive game as well. Cornerback Eric Rowe, who's been dealing with a groin injury much of this season, practiced on a limited basis last week after aggravating the injury at Chicago. He won't go tonight, either, which could give rookie J.C. Jackson more opportunities to contribute. He took on a surprisingly larger role at Chicago last week.
The final two inactive Patriots shouldn't have too much of an impact on the game plan, as they are frequently inactive this season. Defensive end/special teamer Geneo Grissom is dealing with an ankle injury, while offensive lineman Brian Schwenke injured a foot in practice last Wednesday and did not practice for the next three days.
With Buffalo's offense performing so ineffectively this season, it needs every weapon at its disposal tonight.
That makes the activation of running back LeSean McCoy so important to the Bills. Having cleared concussion protocol, McCoy is perhaps Buffalo's most potentially dangerous offensive player.