Oct 12, 2014; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass under pressure by the Buffalo Bills defense during the 2nd half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Patriots beat the Bills 37-22. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots are 12-3 entering week 17 of the season and have already clinched a first-round bye with their 17-16 victory last Sunday afternoon over the New York Jets. On Monday night as Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos fell to the Cincinnati Bengals 37-28 it meant New England clinched the number one seed and gave them home field throughout the AFC playoffs.
December 21, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson (22) jumps over Oakland Raiders strong safety Brandian Ross (29) during the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Bills 26-24. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
With the Patriots already possessing the tiebreaker over Denver by having defeated them 43-21 in week nine, it has made this meeting with the 8-7 Buffalo Bills seemingly meaningless. For Buffalo, it is a must-win game for a franchise with a new ownership group which will have the current regime under the microscope. For general manager Doug Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone they need to win on Sunday and head into the offseason with the franchise’s first winning season since former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe led the Bills to nine wins in 2004.
The Patriots are looking to get their offense in gear against a premiere defense after four straight weeks of not reaching 400 yards in total offense. No doubt the players see the game as a postseason tune-up heading into their bye during Wild Card weekend. For the Bills, the game will be about trying to close out the year on a high note and getting the Gillette Stadium monkey off their backs having last won in New England in Foxboro Stadium during Bill Belichick’s inaugural season as head coach in 2000. To put it in perspective, Doug Flutie was quarterbacking the Bills and John Friesz was behind center for an injured Drew Bledsoe.
NEW ENGLAND OFFENSE VS BUFFALO DEFENSE:
Dec 14, 2014; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams (94) tries to block a pass by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) during the second half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Buffalo beat Green Bay 21-13. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
All eyes will be on the New England offensive line as they face yet another impressive AFC East defensive line. After getting tested by defensive tackles Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell, and Randy Starks versus Miami in week fifteen and Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison, and Muhammad Wilkerson against the Jets last week, there is no break for the offensive line. Buffalo’s front four of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Jerry Hughes/Manny Lawson is arguably the best defensive front in the NFL.
The Patriots have struggled up front since left guard Dan Connolly’s injuries caught up to him. Connolly injured his ankle against Detroit in week twelve and was clearly hampered that week and the next three games against Green Bay, San Diego, and Miami. Last week against the Jets he was inactive and the Patriots revolving door on the offensive line contributed to the lack of a running game and protection for quarterback Tom Brady.
New England catches a break with Dareus unlikely to play due to a knee injury and will likely face Corbin Bryant or or Jarius Wynn. Neither is close to Dareus as far as dominating in the running game and collapsing the pocket and getting to the quarterback. The Bills are solid at linebacker as well as Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham have been very effective filling gaps against the run and covering tight ends and running backs. Former Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes should be hyped to return to New England as well.
Oct 12, 2014; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) catches a pass as Buffalo Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin (21) defends during the 2nd half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Patriots beat the Bills 37-22. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots fed tight end Rob Gronkowski in week six against Buffalo seemingly whenever he drew safety Duke Williams in coverage. Buffalo mixed coverages but seemed unwilling to let their linebackers match-up with Gronkowski in coverage as they mixed safeties and cornerbacks on him. Whoever covered Gronkowski seemed unable to contain him as he finished with seven catches for 94 yards (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
Another key injury for the Bills is cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Already having lost fellow starting cornerback Leodis McKelvin to injury in week eleven against Miami, the loss of Gilmore would thrust former Ravens cornerback Corey Graham and untested Ron Brooks into key roles. Brooks has played less than 300 snaps in the past three seasons combined and has been on the field for only 80 snaps in 2014 with 21 of them coming last week in relief of Gilmore. Last week against Oakland the Bills Brooks and Graham on the field together in the fourth quarter as rookie quarterback Derek Carr went six of seven passing for 64 yards and a touchdown against the duo.
Depending on who plays for New England, the Patriots could spend much of the game testing the Bills secondary rather than trying to run against the strong Buffalo front seven. With Jonas Gray already out on Sunday and LeGarrette Blount questionable with a shoulder injury, the Patriots should test the Buffalo secondary. If Brandon LaFell (shoulder) and Julian Edelman (thigh/concussion) play, they could get some favorable match-ups.
Look for the Patriots to work on re-incorporating tight ends Tim Wright and Michael Hoomanawanui and wide receivers Danny Amendola and Brian Tyms on offense as Gronkowski, LaFell and Edelman will likely get a very reduced workload. Running back Brandon Bolden may get most of the rushing chances and a banged-up Shane Vereen (ankle) could be rested as well. Whether quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo plays much is less relevant than if the offensive line bounces back for the New England offense.
NEW ENGLAND DEFENSE VS BUFFALO OFFENSE:
Dec 21, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Kyle Orton (84) throws a pass against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Traditionally, the Buffalo Bills offense ran through the running game with feature backs like Travis Henry, Willis McGahee, Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, and C.J. Spiller. Unfortunately, the franchise was unable to win consistently with Kelly Holcomb, J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and E.J. Manuel at quarterback. This year, the team has had its most consistent quarterback play in a while as veteran Kyle Orton has stepped in for Manuel after a disappointing start to the season by the 2013 first-round draft pick.
The pickup of Orton has been a godsend to Buffalo as the running game has struggled with C.J. Spiller struggling and then injured in week seven against Minnesota and just returning to action. In addition, Fred Jackson has been dinged-up at times and has only two games with 20 or more rushing attempts and a season high of 71 yards rushing in week fifteen against Green Bay. In the off-season the Bills traded for Philadelphia running back Bryce Brown but he has failed to make any kind of impact as Anthony “Boobie” Dixon had supplanted him as the top backup running back. The Bills are 25th in the NFL in rushing yards with just 1,378 total yards, 26th in yards per attempt with just 3.7, and 27th in rushing touchdowns with just six.
The Bills offensive line has struggled as left tackle Cordy Glenn has been their most consistent lineman. Guards Kraig Urbik and Erik Pears have struggled, center Eric Wood has been average, and rookie right tackle
Sep 28, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) rushes against Buffalo Bills tackle Seantrel Henderson (66) during the game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
has been one of the worst blockers at his position this season. ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) rates Henderson as 80th out of 83 tackles playing at least 25% of the snaps this season. After showing signs of improvement down the stretch, Henderson–who allowed two sacks, a quarterback hit and two hurries against the Patriots in week six–had one of his worst games of the year last week allowing two sacks, two quarterback hits, and three hurries against Oakland.
The Bills offense leans on their young wide receivers Sammy Watkins–their first-round draft pick this season–and Robert Woods–a second-round draft pick last year. In week six the Patriots (with Brandon Browner still not active) gave Watkins the “Revis Island” treatment. The explosive rookie had just two receptions for 27 yards and Buffalo was forced to lean on Woods who had five of his seven catches against cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (who was recently placed on injured reserve). Browner is on the injury report as questionable with a groin injury heading into the match-up and how much he will play is unknown.
As usual, New England had no answer for tight end Scott Chandler who continued to abuse the New England safeties and linebackers in week six. He led the Bills offense with six catches for 105 yards. Slot receiver Chris Hogan had one of his most productive games with five catches for 72 yards and a touchdown in week six as well. Once again the key to the game may well be the New England defense leaning on Kyle Arrington –who is questionable with a hamstring injury–and Logan Ryan (and possibly rookie Malcolm Butler). The Patriots often brought in a third safety as well in week six letting Devin McCourty play more in coverage and having Duron Harmon as the deep safety.
Dec 14, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots fans cheer from the stands prior to the Patriots
No one expects the Patriots to blow out Buffalo as they have many key contributors expected to not play at all or be on very limited snaps. At some point the Patriots will rest Gronkowski and Brady and give the New England faithful a look at second-round draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and newly promoted from the practice squad wide receiver Josh Boyce. On defense, the Patriots will take a good long look at players like Butler, Harmon, Ryan, Tavon Wilson, Jonathan Casillas, Akeem Ayers and Sealver Siliga to see who can be a potential postseason contributor.
Despite that, the Patriots are still talented enough on both sides of the ball to win. The likely losses of Gilmore and Dareus on defense for Buffalo will be hard to overcome.