What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
In NFL parlance, what doesn't cause you to lose should theoretically result in the same thing.
So as the Patriots (9-0) deal with a slew of injuries that are cutting into the team's star power and depth, Bill Belichick's squad faces the challenge of continuing to plow through the schedule with the ultimate goal in mind.
The next test that the banged-up boys of Foxborough will face is a visit from Rex Ryan's blustery Bills (5-4) this Monday night at Gillette Stadium. Buffalo has won its last two and is looking for its first three-game winning streak since 2011.
New England is looking to extend its unbeaten streak to open the season with seemingly its margin for error having been cut down due to health issues in recent weeks.
Back in Week 2 the Patriots took care of business with a 40-32 win in Buffalo that actually shouldn't have been that close. New England led 37-13 to open the third quarter but allowed Ryan's team to make things a bit more interesting down the stretch.
There is no doubt the Patriots are dealing with some key injuries to the likes of Julian Edelman (broken foot, reportedly out at least 6-8 weeks) and Dion Lewis (ACL, IR) that will test the team's mettle.
"It's definitely a lot of obstacles to overcome, and it's not easy to do," Rob Gronkowski assessed honestly this week. "It's not like you just turn a switch on and someone replaces them just like that. Those guys are great players and they're going to be truly missed, but it takes time. Everyone has to come together, go out to practice, feel the chemistry out with each other and make sure everyone is paying attention, they know what they're doing going out to practice, making sure you're blocking the right guy, getting the right guy and working hard together so when Sunday comes, everyone is on the same page, we're executing as an offense and we can keep on doing what we've been doing."
There is also no doubt that Ryan, who seems to always have the Patriots on his mind and brings them up in press conferences on a regular basis, is sick of hearing about his own record against New England that's seen the coach lose seven of the last eight meetings.
[wysifield-embeddedaudio|eid="385791"|type="embeddedaudio"|view_mode="full"]"You know what, the only reason I talk about them is that they're the No. 1 team in our division, that's where we want to be. I know you guys always say I'm obsessed with them and all that. You guys are obsessed with them, not me. I want to beat them but you're the ones that talk about them every single day," Ryan said, getting a little annoyed during a conference call this week with the New England media.
"I'll tell you this," an irritated Ryan continued, "we prepare for them the same way we prepare for every team that we face. But do we want to beat them? Absolutely. Do I want to beat them more than any team? Yeah, because they're the standard, they've won and they're the ones who win the division. To me, that's why do I obsess with them and all that? You guys write about I've lost seven of eight, so why are you even talking to me. I obviously have no clue on how to attack them or defend them. So, you guys should talk to somebody else who's got a better record than I do against them.
"I just think the way you guys spin everything, you put everything I say, you take whatever it is, you put it out there the way you want to," Ryan concluded. "I understand it. You guys have covered this matchup for years and years. We've got no business being on the same field. That's what you said. We've lost seven of eight, I've lost seven of eight against them. So, don't talk to me. I'm sitting back here and I'll answer the question, whatever. I don't know why you even bother."
Can the Patriots overcome the injuries against a Bills team feeling better about itself and its own health of late? Can Ryan and his upstart squad continue building positive momentum and pull off the road upset with all the football world a watching? Will Brady end a personal two-game Monday night losing streak?
Here are a few key aspects to keep an eye on heading into this key AFC East that includes plenty of fun storylines bubbling below the surface:
2 run or not 2 run - The first goal of the Bills offense is to run the ball. The first goal of the Patriots defense is to stop the run. So one of the two teams is going to fail to reach its initial goal in this battle between the NFL's No. 2 rushing attack and No. 2 rush defense. Buffalo has been rolling on the ground with LeSean McCoy healthy and settling into his role as the centerpiece of the attack. He's had two straight 100-yard games and is now averaging 4.7 yards a carry on his 528 yards. Rookie backup Karlos Williams is averaging 6.2 yards per carry thanks mostly to three big games, including a pair of 110-yard efforts. The Patriots run defense has a couple injuries with Jamie Collins still sidelined from practice and Alan Branch (elbow) popping up on the injury report this week. Still, this is a battle of statistical strength vs. strength. It's also one that could decide the game.
Turning over a recent trend - Taking care of the football has almost always been a positive factor for Belichick's Patriots. That was certainly the case early this season when the team had just three giveaways in the first seven games. But there has been an uptick in New England turning the ball over, or giving opponents chances for takeaways. Brady has thrown interceptions in consecutive weeks, with New England giving it away twice in each of the last two games. The offense's only other game with a pair of giveaways this year was in Week 2 against the Bills, when Brady dropped back to pass 61 times. Overall, both the Bills and Patriots are among the best in the league in turnover differential this season. New England is tied for fifth in the NFL at plus-6 for the year, just ahead of Buffalo at plus-5. But the Patriots have been a little looser with the football of late and if that trend continues on Monday night it could give the upstart visitors the extra boost they need to try to pull off the upset.
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 11 game against the Buffalo Bills.
Taylor made victory - The Bills desire to run the ball and run defense clearly plays to team strengths as well as Ryan's overall coaching philosophy. What it's led to is a very much statistically impressive season for first-year starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He's not been asked to throw the ball as often as many passers, ranking 31st in the NFL in attempts, completions and yards, although he did miss two games to injury. Taylor is leading the NFL with a 70.5 completion percentage and is third in the league with a 106.2 passer rating. Three of his four interceptions and eight of his 21 sacks on the season came in Week 2 against the Patriots, when he also threw three touchdowns. While he completed 76.7 percent of his passes in that game, highest allowed by the Patriots this season, he badly missed throws that could have changed the game and led to turnovers. Is Taylor more ready now to make those key plays at key times with more experience to call upon? If the Patriots continue to play solid run defense and keep his backs corralled, is he ready to shoulder more of the offensive load on the road in a Monday night battle with Brady? We might just find out against a Patriots pass defense that, other than Malcolm Butler, is coming of one of its worst performances of the season.
Line it up- New England saw Sebastian Vollmer (concussion), Marcus Cannon (toe) and Tre' Jackson (knee) return to the practice field on a limited basis this week. That's a good sign, even though it's no assurance any of the three - especially the important veteran tackles - will be ready to go on Sunday night. Vollmer would seem to be the most likely to return, as his return to practice means he's been cleared for such under concussion protocols. Getting him back, likely to left tackle, would be a nice addition to a line that's been gutting it out for the last two weeks. That would probably push Camron Fleming to right tackle and Bryan Stork back inside to either center or guard. That's a much better lineup against the Bills impressive defensive front, even though that group may be without its own key cog in Kyle Williams. The Giants weren't supposed to have any chance to get after Brady last week but they did. The Bills are better up front, even if they only have 14 sacks. Vollmer could be a key returnee to give Brady the time he needs to work and to improve the overall options the offense has in its game plan. The line has been a great story through all the injuries and movement this fall. That needs to continue.
High score wins - Points/runs/goals win in sports. The more you have, the better your chance to win. New England opened the season with 30-plus points in six of its first seven games, including 91 points in a two-week span against Buffalo and Jacksonville. But the last two weeks New England has hit just 27 points, and struggled to even get to that number in New York. The Patriots still lead the NFL with 33.7 points per game, but Buffalo is a very respectable No. 6 in scoring with 25.7 points per game. Buffalo has scored 30-plus four times, including two of the last three weeks. The Patriots injuries to key offensive playmakers have cut into the team's scoring in recent weeks and into the overall margin for error. On paper, Buffalo is a team that could score enough points to try and take advantage of what's become a shrinking weekly point differential for New England of late.
Cover two - Back in the day in New York the impressive performances that Ryan got from Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie at cornerback were the foundation of the Jets defensive game plans, aggressive play and success. Midway through his first season in Buffalo, the coach is getting impressive play from that position once again thanks to veteran Stephon Gilmore and surging rookie Ronald Darby. Darby, in particular, has been on the rise since Brady picked on him a bit in Week 2 and helps balance out the back end to allow Ryan to try to do more with his big-money front. Tight coverage from Gilmore and Darby combined with Brady trying to work more consistently with complementary weapons in new roles bring a degree of uncertainty to the Patriots passing attack in this battle that's less than common. While Buffalo still would seem to be lacking for an answer to tight end Rob Gronkowski in the middle of the field, the team's corners could be up to the task, at least at times, of taking care of Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell and the more unknown trio of Aaron Dobson, Keshawn Martin (hamstring) and recently promoted Chris Harper.
Prediction - Belichick loves to simplify games into a handful of important keys. So we'll do the same here, boiling this one down to one major factor. If the Patriots can stop the Bills rushing attack and force Taylor to try to win the game with his arm then New England should be able to control the contest. It may not be easy. Brady has a lot to deal with on his line and in the changes to his weapons. He'll make plays to Gronkowski, who almost always has a big day against the Bills, but the rest may not be quite as consistent as it normally expected of the Patriots passing attack. Josh McDaniels may have to balance out the attack once again to keep the defense honest, even if it cuts into the potential for higher point totals. If the New England front seven slow McCoy and Co., the Butler-led back end should be just good enough to ensure Taylor doesn't march up and down the field throwing to Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and the rest. In the end this game will be a more formidable challenge than it would be if the Patriots were a tad more healthy. But until proven otherwise it seems safe to go with Belichick, Brady and Gronk at home as opposed to Ryan, Taylor and McCoy on the road. So what will play out is a 30-20 Patriots win to maintain domination in the East and a perfect record on the season. Tackling is the key. It's that simple.
What other things will you be watching for in this Monday night as the world's eyes are on New England for some prime time action? Let us know with a comment below!