What to look for in the Pats by Mike D.

Since the Bills last left the Patriots, Tom Brady was just another backup quarterback holding the position until the starter returned. On Nov. 20, his role became more permanent when coach Bill Belichick said Brady would be his starter for the rest of the season, though Drew Bledsoe was healthy. The Patriots were 5-3 under Brady and Belichick didn't want to mess with continuity.


In the next two games, Brady and the Patriots surprised the Saints, 34-17, at home and the Jets, 17-16, in East Rutherford, N.J. New England is now seriously challenging the Jets and Dolphins for the AFC East title. They trailed Miami by one-and-a-half games and the Jets by a half game. New England was 4-2 in the division (losses to Miami and the Jets). It cannot lose another divisional game, and it can least afford to lose to a struggling team such as Buffalo.


Patriots on offense

If there is one thing the Bills know about Tom Brady it is that he doesn't move around the pocket very well. Buffalo had seven sacks against the Patriots quarterback – six-and-a-half of which came from the Bills' defensive line thanks to double-sack efforts by rookie right end Aaron Schobel, tackle Tyrone Robertson and left end Kendrick Office.

When Brady does have time, he's got the physical assets to pinpoint passes for large gains. He's smart and doesn't throw many interceptions. He only had seven after 10 games as starter.

Brady's pass protection has not been good. He was sacked 29 times. In fact, the New England line had given up 34 sacks total this season. Part of the problem is Brady's and Drew Bledsoe's immobility, of course, but the other part has to do with a line that has two really inexperienced players on it: rookie left tackle Matt Light and second-year right tackle Greg Robinson-Randall. Light struggled in earlier games vs. Miami and San Diego. Of course, given the number of inexperienced players the Bills have played with along their offensive line, New England should consider itself lucky.

New England will shuffle between two-back and one-back formations with Antowain Smith mostly running behind fullback Marc Edwards.

Wide receivers David Patten and Troy Brown are capable of stretching a defense. Brown is also good in intermediate space. He had 78 catches for 944 yards and five touchdowns. Patten was second with 41 catches for 589 yards and four touchdowns. On third downs, the team turns to Kevin Faulk in the backfield because Faulk is a better receiver than Antowain Smith, though Smith did turn a swing pass into a 41-yard touchdown vs. the Saints Nov. 25, which was the longest reception and the first receiving touchdown of his career.

Key matchup: Middle of Bills' defense vs. Patriots running game. The Bills were pounded on by San Francisco – right up the middle. The Patriots will try to do the same. If Buffalo fails to control the penetration, it's not going to have much chance at beating New England.

The way to win: Strip the ball. Buffalo has not had much luck with takeaways, but luck changes at some point. How about vs. New England? New England was eighth worst with 23 fumbles and it was 10th worst in losing 11 of the fumbles. That's a penchant for fumbling and Buffalo should take advantage of it.


Offensive player to watch

RB 32 Antowain Smith

Ht.: 6'2" Wt.: 230

Smith has been reborn in New England, proving that he still had more work to do in his NFL career. After 12 games, Smith led the Patriots with 199 carries for 749 yards and a surprising eight touchdowns. He was the NFL's 12th-ranked running back in rushing yards. He also had 18 catches for 197 yards and a touchdown. The nine touchdowns (including two vs. Buffalo) tied him for seventh in total touchdowns this season. New England will need Smith to thrive on possibly a cold and blustery Orchard Park day. Smith has a great chance at succeeding because he's familiar with the surroundings and the Buffalo defense has not done well against the run.


Patriots on defense

Strong safety Lawyer Milloy and weak outside linebacker Roman Phifer are the players who make the New England defense churn. They're one and two in team tackles by a wide margin and they have brought consistency to what has been an uneven unit this season.

Milloy, who often plays like a linebacker near the line of scrimmage, and Phifer, who often plays inside the tackles, are versatile players whom Bill Belichick relies on to make his defensive schemes work. The duo basically splits the field down east-west, with Phifer manning the weak side and Milloy the strong side.

If New England got better play from its defensive line all season long, it would be a top-ten NFL unit right now. Rookie nose tackle Richard Seymour started out slowly, but has showed signs of improvement. In fact, the line has to be applauded for keeping St. Louis' Marshall Faulk, New Orleans' Ricky Williams and the Jets' Curtis Martin all under 100 yards in successive weeks from Nov. 18 to Dec. 2. That's quite a feat. In fact, the trio only managed two touchdowns total vs. New England. That's pretty good. And perhaps the most meaningful praise heaped upon New England's defense was from Rams coach Mike Martz who said that it was the best the Rams had faced all season.

The Patriots will bring a variety of different blitzes to put pressure on the quarterback. Bills fans will remember that nickel back Terrell Buckley rushed Johnson in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and broke his collarbone.

New England has been using more 4-3 defense lately. Strongside linebacker Willie McGinest was nursing a leg bruise he suffered Nov. 25. Reserve Mike Vrabel took his place and played well, nabbing a key interception vs. the Jets Dec. 2.

Key matchup: Bills running back Travis Henry vs. weakside linebacker Roman Phifer and strong safety Lawyer Milloy. Phifer and Milloy were quite active in stifling Henry in Game 1. Phifer has been particularly hot as of late, coming off a nine-tackle performance vs. the Jets Dec. 2. If Henry avoids Phifer and Milloy, he's having a good day.

The way to win: Get touchdowns in the red zone. The Patriots will allow teams to move the ball – offenses averaged 355 yards per game against them, which was eighth-worst in the league. When Buffalo is down there, it must make the most of its chances, otherwise it will lose.


Defensive player to watch

LE 91 Bobby Hamilton

Ht.: 6'5" Wt.: 280

After 12 games, Hamilton led the Patriots with a career-high five-and-a-half sacks. Hamilton has been playing the most consistent defense of any player on the Patriots' line. He had a half-sack vs. the Bills Nov. 11. What he does best, however, is stop the run. He has good quick hands, gets good leverage and has the athleticism to wiggle around a tackle's block to keep running backs from turning the corner. He's also physical and fearless enough to stop a running back coming through his gap. Hamilton oozes desire and that makes him one of Bill Belichick's favorite players.


Special teams

After 12 games, Adam Vinatieri was tied as the NFL's 16th-best field goal kicker, making 78.9 percent of his field goals on 15 of 19 attempts. For some reason, he is usually shaky against Buffalo. In the last four games against the Bills, Vinatieri was just five of 11, including two misses on Nov. 1

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