Patriots, Brady are SURPRISE team

New England was expected to be among the AFC East bottom-dwellers, but surprising wins over Indianapolis (two amazingly easy wins) and a win over San Diego (which Buffalo failed to accomplish), and the Patriots were sitting in the middle of the AFC East race. The team still plays crafty defense under Bill Belichick, but it's the spectacular play of second-year quarterback Tom Brady that has received the most attention.


Patriots on offense

New England is primarily a one-back team that has been able to mix in some wily plays and take advantage of defenses that never would expect a Bill Belichick-led team to do that.

Against the Colts, wide receiver David Patten took a long lateral from quarterback Tom Brady and then threw to Troy Brown for a 60-yard scoring play. Patten also scored on a reverse from ex-Bills running back Antowain Smith. As for Brady, he was flying along through five games until he threw four interceptions in the fourth quarter of New England's 31-20 loss to Denver. He was 3-2 as a starter.

Brown and Patten have turned into a one-two punch. Patten is a speed-burner who had 26 catches and three touchdowns after seven games, including a 91-yard TD off a bomb. Former Bill Antowain Smith was the leading rusher with 105 carries for 357 yards. More important is that Smith had four touchdowns after seven games. He only had four TDs all of last year. Running back J.R. Redmond is the third-down back who can run and catch.

Belichick varies his personnel. He'll use two WRs, one RB and two TEs, one WR, two RBs and two TEs, and when Terry Glenn is healthy, he'll use a three-wide receiver formation. Glenn had a hamstring injury that hampered him after returning to the lineup vs. San Diego. He blamed the Patriots' hard practices for the injury.

Fullback Marc Edwards lines up as a wide receiver in a three-wide receiver set sometimes. Tight ends Jermaine Wiggins and Rod Rutledge are also used. Wiggins is the pass catcher, lining up as a wide receiver occasionally, while Rutledge is the blocker, staying in to pass protect. Wiggins must be watched at the goal line.

The line is not good, but not as weak as Buffalo's. It gave up 15 sacks, which is average. Center Damien Woody can neutralize the middle rush. Rookie left tackle Matt Light, who's played well, recently suffered a shoulder injury, but vows not to miss time. Grant Williams would sub in and is not as good.

Key matchup: Bills LBs vs. RB Antowain Smith. The Bills haven't been able to stop runners. In fact, they allowed a 4.9-yard average – 30th in the league. The Patriots aren't that good of a rushing team, however, this might be Smith's chance to prove to Buffalo that he's actually good.

The way to win: Stop them on third downs. New England had a 40 percent success rate on third downs, which is in the top-third. The Bills showed they could be tough on third downs against Jacksonville and San Diego. Therefore, that's Buffalo's only hope, especially since it's not very good in takeaways (league-low of five).


Offensive player to watch

WR 80 Troy Brown

Ht.: 5'10" Wt.: 193

Troy Brown was leading the Patriots with 48 receptions for 579 yards and three touchdowns after seven games He is putting together the best season of his nine-year career. And among NFL wide receivers, he was second in receptions and fifth in yardage. Brown has speed to run up routes down the field, getting separation from cornerbacks, but he can also run the short and intermediate routes and he had the hands to be an excellent target. He can be a possession receiver, but he also has the quickness to go deep. The Bills must be conscious of him on a hitch and go.


Patriots on defense

If San Diego is Buffalo Bills West, then New England must be Jets Northeast. The Patriots started five former Jets players from the Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick days in New York: end Bobby Hamilton, tackle Anthony Pleasant, linebacker/end Roman Phifer, aging cornerback/safety Otis Smith and linebacker Bryan Cox. Cox broke his leg against Denver, however, and was likely lost for the season. Certainly, Bills fans won't feel too sorry for Cox.

When Willie McGinest plays at left end, Pleasant moves to left tackle, next to right tackle Brandon Mitchell, an end filling in for rookie first-round nose tackle Richard Seymour, who has hamstring problems. Bobby Hamilton is the right end. This is not a dominant defensive line, though Hamilton had recorded four sacks and Pleasant two.

In Belichick defenses, strong linebacker play is a must. Cox was one tackle shy of being the team leader in tackles with 44. Behind him, Phifer had 38 tackles. Strong safety Lawyer Milloy led the team with 45.

The Patriots use the 3-4 and 4-3 defense interchangeably. They will usually have five players up on the line of scrimmage, as the Bills usually did under Ted Cottrell, with two linebackers behind them – in all, there are almost always seven players in the box. Sometimes strong safety Lawyer Milloy also plays close to the line as well.

Without Cox, the Patriots will rotate Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson and Larry Izzo. Johnson and Bruschi have taken turns starting at weakside inside linebacker this season, with Johnson playing there most recently. Cox was the strongside inside linebacker.

The Patriots defense will allow teams to get yardage. It was 28th in first downs allowed. It relies on trying to stiffen in the red zone. The secondary, featuring left corner Ty Law and strong safety Lawyer Milloy used to scare teams several years ago, but not too much anymore – partly due to a weak pass rush. New England starts ex-Bill Matt Stevens at free safety, and he had one interception.

Key matchup: Bills tackles vs. Patriots ends. There have been several times when Rob Johnson received the ball and pressure would come from his edges instantaneously. John Fina and Jon Carman can make the most average ends look extraordinary. The challenge here is not to.

The way to win: Attack the secondary. New England's DBs were torched in recent weeks by Rod Smith and Marvin Harrison. The Patriots don't get a phenomenal rush on quarterbacks, only netting 13 sacks, which was a little below average, so Rob Johnson should have time.


Defensive player to watch

LE 55 Willie McGinest

Ht.: 6'5" Wt.: 270

McGinest has had back problems and has been in and out of five of the Patriots' first seven games, but in his first start against Denver on Oct. 28, he came up with two sacks. McGinest was playing left end, taking over for Sam linebacker Mike Vrable. It appears the Patriots will be platooning the duo.  In the past, the Patriots have moved McGinest all over, sometimes as a stand-up linebacker, sometimes as an end in the three-point stance. If McGinest goes against right tackle Jon Carman and right guard Corey Hulsey, he could have a very good day. Perhaps Jerry Ostroski will be back to help out.


Special teams

After seven games, Adam Vinatieri was tied as the NFL's fourth-best field goal kicker, making 12 of 13 attempts with a long of 48 yards. He still has a great leg, though he has been shaky in games against Buffalo. He consistently kicks off into the end zone. Troy Brown was the NFL's ninth-ranked punt returner with an 11.1-yard average, among players who had more than nine returns. Kevin Faul

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