There is no question the Patriots are anxious to return to the field this Sunday in Buffalo, but the anticipation has less to do with the team's opponent or any potential record-setting winning streak than it does with the simple fact that almost a month into the NFL season the defending champs have played just two games. Thanks to a league-wide 2004 kickoff contest with the Colts on a Thursday night and a Week Three bye, New England has had extended layoffs after both its early season wins.
"It seems like it has been a long time since we have played," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said to open his Friday morning press conference. "I think everybody is anxious to get back out on the field and play again. We know how tough it is going to be in Buffalo, but in terms of playing a game, we have had a lot of preparation time, a lot of meeting time and [we have] run a lot of plays. Hopefully we are ready to go. I think everybody is feeling anxious about getting out there. We know we have a lot of regular weeks coming up, and we haven't had any yet. Hopefully, we are into a little bit of a routine here. I think the players are looking forward to it."
In returning to action Belichick's 2-0 team will face a well-known opponent in the 0-2 Bills. Struggling to score points under first-year head coach Mike Mularkey, Buffalo's defense has kept the team in both of a pair of 13-10 losses, including a season opener against Jacksonville and last week in Oakland. With that in mind Belichick knows that if the Bills offense starts hitting on a few more plays Buffalo could find its way onto the winning track rather quickly.
"What Buffalo likes to do is to run the Pittsburgh offense," Belichick said of the new Bills system Mularkey brought with him from the Steelers. "Now it is just running it in blue jerseys with red and white instead of the Pittsburgh colors. It is a lot of the same scheme. What they want to try to do is control the ball, mix in the play-action passing game, go to multiple three and four wide receivers on third down and spread you out and make you declare what you want to do and then go ahead and attack it.
"They are making a lot of plays on offense and are really close to making a lot more. Believe me, there are a lot teams that have more problems than they do."
With that in mind Belichick said his team has had more than a week of solid preparation for its first division game of the season, work that included plenty of intense, full-pad action.
"We have had quite a bit of contact," Belichick said. "I think we have been in pads everyday actually, last week and this week. I think the team has worked hard this week. We certainly know what we are up against. We have a lot of problems and a lot of things we have to deal with. I think they have tried to address them. There are still some things we have to fine tune and there are some mental things we need to touch on before the game. Overall, I think the players have gone about the extra week with a good attitude in terms of getting better and trying to prepare for a tough division game on the road Sunday."
Trade secretsWhile most fans are aware of the fact that former Patriots players Drew Bledsoe and Lawyer Milloy now reside in Buffalo, many may not know that there will be another more potentially destructive former New England employee on the Bills sideline this Sunday. New Bills defensive backs coach Steve Szabo spent 2003 as a volunteer coach with the Patriots and as a former Navy player who Belichick has know for most of his life, there is little question in the head coach's mind that the assistant will be able to relate much of what he saw last season to his new allies in preparation for Sunday's AFC East battle.
"It is definitely a concern," Belichick said Friday of Szabo's potential influence on the game. "Steve spent a lot of time here last year. Steve is a very smart guy. Does he know what we did last year? Absolutely. He is a smart guy. It didn't take him long to figure it out either. Does he know things about us that most other people don't know? Absolutely."
But it isn't like Belichick would expect anything less than Szabo giving every he has to his new organization. There is no etiquette in terms of keeping one team's secrets when moving on to another in the cutthroat world of the NFL.
"What etiquette? You try to win," Belichick said. "Either you win or they win, that is it. I think it would be wrong for somebody not to do that to a team that they were on, as a player or a coach. He has [the knowledge]. There is nothing we can do about that."
"I do have some inside on what Bill's thought process is," Szabo told the Buffalo News, "but no one can ever say exactly what they're going to do.
"I'd have to say this: Everybody thinks he plays a lot of defenses. It's not true. He's exactly the opposite. He doesn't like a lot of [different] things. He doesn't like a lot of what he calls 'moving parts' because you're apt to make a mistake. If the truth be known, his defensive game plans are very simple. What they rely on is letting the players play and their ability to play techniques perfectly."
Patriots offensive tackle Adrian Klemm was added to the team's injury report Friday afternoon with a foot injury. Klemm is questionable for Sunday's game after missing a portion of the team segment of practice on Friday.
Through two games Klemm has seen reserve action at both tackle spots on the New England offensive line, working in behind starters Matt Light and Tom Ashworth.
The rest of the injury report went unchanged with New England listing Deion Branch (knee) as doubtful, Kevin Faulk (knee) as questionable and Tom Brady (right shoulder) and Jim Miller (right shoulder) as probable. Buffalo lists J.P. Losman (lower leg), Lawyer Milloy (forearm) and Shaud Williams (knee) as out. Mike Pucillo (back) and Chris Villarrial (abdominal) are listed as questionable but returned to full practice action on Friday after missing time earlier in the week.
Much is being made in Buffalo, both in the media and inside team's locker room, about some of Belichick's negative comments about Bills players in the recently released book Patriots Reign. Mularkey has passed along some comments in the book, such as Belichick describing the Bills offensive line as "horse [expletive]" or referring to former Patriot Milloy as "selfish" and "a negative leader," to members of his team as motivation.
Mularkey reportedly also discussed the comments with Buffalo players before practice this past Monday and believes it is just another tool in the preparation process.
"I guess you can [use it as that] if that's what you need for incentive, absolutely," Mularkey told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "That's always there…book, hard copy, newspaper, whatever."
"You have to use [this] as motivation," Bills running back Travis Henry said. "I know that's what Drew's going to do. We give him time, he's going to pick them apart. It's real motivating."
But some players don't necessarily believe in or rely on such bulletin board motivation.
"If you need this [for motivation], you aren't much of a player," Takeo Spikes told the Democrat and Chronicle. "But everything extra is a bonus."
Notes and NumbersThe Patriots lead the series with Buffalo with a 47-40-1 mark dating back to 1960. … 45 games played in Buffalo have been split right down the middle with each team claiming 22 victories and one tie. … The Bills enter the game with the 4th ranked defense and the 29th ranked offense in the NFL, while New England brings the 4th ranked offense and 14th ranked defense. … Aside from last year's split of a pair of 31-0 affairs, the teams have played many tight games in recent years. In one stretch from 1999-2001 four out of five games were decided in overtime. … With 244 yards in two games Corey Dillon is on pace to rush for 1,952 yards in 2004, a number that would shatter Curtis Martin's single season franchise mark of 1,487 yards set in his rookie year of 1995.