The Patriots travel to Buffalo this weekend to take on the 2-4 Bills, who are coming off a painful three-point loss to the previously winless Lions. They're looking to turn things around on Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Patriots have won 11 of the last 12 meetings with the Bills, dating back to the 2000 season. They've beaten the Bills in five of their last six games in Buffalo, and are on a two game winning streak in this season. Here are a few things they'll need to do to continue the domination.
1. Run the ball
With the passing game still a work-in-progress, the Patriots will again need to rely on quality performances from Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney. Maroney, a rookie out of Minnesota, leads the team in rushing with 78 carries for 332 yards. With the rookie's support, Dillon is having a good year too. He's averaging 56.2 yards per game so far this season and is on pace to cover about 900 yards this season. Last week, the Bills gave up 135 yards on the ground to a Lions team ranked dead last in the NFL at running the football. The Patriots had the league's fifth-highest rushing yards-per game average entering the bye week, which doesn't bode well for Bills. They had the worst run defense in the NFL last season, and despite the efforts of new Head Coach Dick Jauron, it hasn't seen much improvement. Linebackers Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher-Baker are solid players. They'll want to prove that they can stop the run, but Maroney averaged 5.1 yards-per carry against them in the season opener. If the Patriots have success running the football, they may not need a perfectly balanced offense to undo the Bills. They should be able to control the clock and maintain long drives against Buffalo as long as Dillon and Maroney can produce. The Pats running game hasn't been consistently dominant this season (see the Denver and Miami games) but they'll need to take advantage of the Bills weakness in order to control this game.
2. Give Tom Brady time to pass
Brady's going to be looking for his favorite receiver a lot in this game, and that's the guy who's open. He's great at reading the field and getting the football to whoever's open. All he needs is time. The offensive line has done a great job of keeping him from being sacked since the season opener. However, three of the five sacks recorded on Brady this season came in that Week 1 game against Buffalo. Spikes, Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay each recorded a sack on Brady, and these fast rushers will be looking to get to him again this week. Receiver Jabar Gaffney said he spent the bye week preparing for the Bills, but he hasn't played an NFL game all season. Chad Jackson is off the injury report and Doug Gabriel said this week that he'd like to see more deep passes. Brady's longest throw of the season was a 35-yarder to Ben Watson. Long passes are an area the Pats could definitely improve on over the coming weeks, but keeping Brady safe and giving him time in the pocket while receivers get down the field will be crucial to that improvement.
3. Shut down Willis McGahee
Willis McGahee has consistently been good for the Bills since recovering from a devastating knee injury in his final college game. Now in his fourth year, he's the NFL's fifth-leading rusher with 505 yards. In 32 starts, McGahee has rushed for over a hundred yards 12 times, with nine of those games being wins. The Patriots need to keep him bottled up, because there's a direct correlation between his production and the Bills winning. He ran for 70 yards on 20 carries in the season opener, and one more yard would have probably been enough for the Bills to win. LinebackerDon Davis stopped McGahee on a fourth-and-1 play dangerously close to the Patriots end zone. Shutting him down will force quarterbackJ.P. Losman to throw the football in long-yardage situations. Buffalo had the fourth-worst passing game in the NFL last season, and although it's improved with Lee Evans breaking out this season, it's not enough to support long drives without McGahee.
4. Be special on special teams
The Bills have one of the best special teams units in the NFL again this year. Brian Moorman is having another Pro Bowl-caliber season punting, while Rian Lindell has been close to automatic on his field goal attempts. Roscoe Parrish is an excellent punt returner and Terrence McGee is once again one of the top kickoff returners in the league. The Patriots have improved their performance in this area by acquiring gunner Chidi Iwuoma since the season opener. Josh Miller has been doing an excellent job providing the Pats with good field position to start defensive series' and Kevin Faulk leads the NFL in punt return average. Rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski hasn't been perfect this season, but he hit two field goals against Miami in the Pat's last game. The Patriots need to play well in this area, or the Bills special teams will become a big factor in the game.
5. Regain defensive momentum
The Patriots defense has been very strong this season, coming up with big stops when they were needed. They survived Chad Johnson, Carson Palmer and the Bengals offense without starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs, and their rush defense is one of the best in the NFL. Junior Seau has stepped in to become a starting linebacker again. Tedy Bruschi missed some time early in the season, but is back to his old self again.Ty Warren has finally gotten some recognition as an excellent defensive end. Plus, they've still got Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison, which is saying a lot. However, this defense still has an even zero for their turnover differential. They didn't get the ball from the Bills once in the season opener but they were really starting to click in the weeks leading up to the bye. They recovered two Carson Palmer fumbles at Cincy, then got another from Miami's Ronnie Brown before Asante Samuel grabbed two interceptions in the second and fourth quarters of the Dolphins game. Belichick often talks about fourth-down stops and turnovers as major momentum changers. The Patriots have given up 31 points off takeaways and only produced 17 when they've caused turnovers. If the Patriots want to shut the Bills down in this game and continue to dominate, they'll need to keep flying around and taking advantage of opportunities when they arise.
Troy addresses the media
The Patriot with the longest tenure on the team, Troy Brown, spoke to the media Friday. On Thursday, former Patriots wideout Stanley Morgan spoke about the likelihood that Brown will break his record as the Patriots all-time leading receiver. If Brown can catch a season-high six passes on Sunday, he'll pass Morgan's franchise record of 534 receptions.
"I can't say I don't think about it anymore, because that's all I hear about in the last four or five weeks," said Brown, who had been trying to demonstrate his focus by talking about the Bills. "I mean I try not to think about it, but everybody keeps reminding me. It is a record that's been here for a long time.
"I just think that Stanley [Morgan] was a great player when he played here. I think his record is phenomenal, and I don't think anybody will ever touch his yardage. It's amazing to see a guy catch 500-something balls and put up over 10,000 yards – I just think that's incredible, averaging almost 20 yards-per catch. I'm not a guy that's big on stats, but that's one where I wouldn't have minded lining up beside a guy like that."
Brown, who's in his 14th season with the Patriots, said he never really thought about closing in on the record until last year.
"I caught two balls my rookie year and none my second year and, I don't know, ten my third year or something like that. So no, but I just kept working at it and didn't quit, kept plugging away at it and got a chance to get in there and make some plays. I never really thought about closing in on the record until, basically, last year. If it happens, it happens," said Brown.
Brown said he's more concerned with beating Buffalo, and that his family isn't traveling to Buffalo for the game in case he breaks the record.
Catch Morgan's thoughts on Brown and the receiving record in "Troy Brown poised to make history," published Thursday on Patriots.com.
The Patriots practice was held indoors today at the Dana Farber Field House. Players wore shorts/sweats, shoulder pads and helmets. The only player not on the field wasRuss Hochstein, though two players were added to the injury report. Both listed as 'Questionable,' Don Davis missed a portion of practice with a lower leg injury and Kevin Faulk missed a portion of practice with an ankle problem. Five more Patriots were listed as 'Questionable,' and three others were listed as 'Probable.' … The players were laughing and joking around when the media entered the locker room today. Quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Cassel were chiding each other, with Cassel calling Brady, "Longshanks," and telling him to, "Lock it up." Apparently Cassel is fond of movie quotes. Longshanks is a character in Braveheart and the other phrase is from Wedding Crashers. Across the locker room, Vince Wilfork, Rosevelt Colvin and Corey Dillon were heavily engaged in a debate over who's the best player in the NBA: Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.