The New England Patriots have control of their playoff destiny Sunday when they face division rival Buffalo in Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Patriots must win out the rest of the season to be guaranteed a spot in the postseason, and that starts with Buffalo. If the Dolphins and Jets win out, the Pats MUST win out as well so that they win their division. That would give the Pats an 11-5 overall record, while the Jets and the Dolphins would be tied at 10-6. If the Pats lose once and the Dolphins win out, the Fins will win the division based on the Fins having a better conference record. The Fins would also have a better division record if the Pats lose to the Bills on Sunday. The rest of the Patriots’ games are in the AFC, so winning is essential. They cannot rely on Miami losing one of their final three games (at Tennessee, and then home against Houston and Pittsburgh), also all AFC games. The Pats have a little rougher go for the rest of the season, with 2 out of the final 3 being on the road, and we all know about their road struggles (1-5 on the road). If they can win in Buffalo, they won’t have the “win-less on the road” moniker (London game excluded) hanging over their heads going into Houston the final week of the season.
It won’t be easy. Buffalo nearly won when they played in Gillette Stadium Week One, and only a Tom Brady-led comeback drive at the end won the game for the Pats (boy those have been rare this season, huh?). They also have a strong pass defense and lead the league in INTs. Where New England has the advantage is with their surging running game. Buffalo is ranked dead-last against the run, and getting an effective running game going will slow down the pass rush. If the Pats get the running game going, look for the big plays to come off of play-action.
Defensively, they may be without Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, so stuffing Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch will be all the more difficult. Jackson has been pretty successful against the Pats. In Week One, he ran for 57 yards on 15 carries against the Pats, including catching 5 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. Last season in the Buffalo “wind game,” he ran for 136 yards on 27 carries. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Buffalo take more shots down-field this time with Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB and Terrell Owens undergoing a small resurgence. The book on the Patriots now is the push the ball down the field against the weak secondary, and who better to do that than a big-play receiver like T.O.? Couple that with the possibility of Wilfork being out, the Pats’ best run-stopper, the Patriot defense could have their hands full. It will be essential for Brady and the offense to control the pace of the game and keep their defense off the field as much as possible.
Despite upcoming Jacksonville having a better record, this game worries me much more, partly due to the familiarity between the two teams and Buffalo’s ability to pressure the QB with four down linemen. Tom Brady and the veterans that are left must provide leadership to keep the team focused and stress the importance of this game. If the Pats lose, their destiny transfers to Miami’s hands, a division rival, something no team with playoff aspirations wants to happen.
Prediction: Pats 24, Bills 17