1. Fifty touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards went down the drain when Tom Brady injured his left knee in week one. Replacing arguably the greatest single-season achievement at possibly the most important position in all of sports isn't exactly a simple baton to pass. But here the Pats are – tied for first in the division, in the driver's seat for their eighth division title in nine years. How has New England's offense somehow recovered and thrived from not just this colossal blow, but a week-to-week act of musical chairs at tailback?
Jon Scott: Bill Belichick probably owes some technology firm royalty fees for using their "plug-and-play" model so effectively, but that's exactly what has gone on in New England for years under Belichick and personnel man Scott Pioli.
When Brady went down, it was assumed that the team would fold up shop. And they almost did. Then something happened, the defense stepped up to save a pair of games against lesser opponents and instead of being 3-5, which was a real possibility, they're at 5-3 and getting better every week. Credit goes to those guys willing to make the plays needed when it happened. The veteran defensive line, along with guys like Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk have all played key roles in helping the team win. It also helps for the first time in years, the Patriots are getting production from their rookie Draft class.
2. The one concern skeptics had coming into the season was whether New England's aging linebacker corps could hold up for another title run. But a potential weakness has morphed into a team strength thanks to 10th overall pick Jerod Mayo, who leads the 'D' in tackles. Explain his impact and how it has been so instant.
JS: The Patriots lacked serious speed at linebacker last year, which is why Junior Seau played more snaps than Tedy Bruschi and even Adalius Thomas at some points. The Patriots figured out that if a linebacker could be in the right position, then having one with speed would significantly improve the defense.
Mayo is the kind of player who has the intelligence to pickup the nuances of the defense, and to be in the right spot (or near the right spot) most of the time. His growth from minicamp through training camp made free agent pickup Victor Hobson expendable. It has also kept Bruschi on the bench for more plays than the rookie.
Don't forget, if the players up front in Belichick's system don't do their job, the Linebackers are scrambling to make plays, and will typically get blocked out. Mayo has made plenty of mistakes, but the improved play of Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green has really helped take pressure off the rookies in the middle.
Kevin Faulk has helped New England's rushing game stay sharp
3. This season seemed tailor-made for a Randy Moss blowup. His quarterback goes down. A couple blowout losses. Cue the ego. Instead, from afar it seems the eccentric receiver hasn't complained about the team's inconsistent quarterback play like Terrell Owens has in Dallas. Is this case? Has Moss assumed more of a leadership role on this year's team?
JS: A former Patriot beat writer moved from New England to cover the Cowboys last year, and now he's back. He spoke about the massive egos in Dallas colliding in Big D. Obviously knowing how the Patriots operate, seeing the exact opposite in Dallas provides plenty of material to showcase the differences.
One of the biggest things to note… Terrell Owens isn't prevented from sounding off about anything he wants to in Dallas. Players aren't afforded that type of freedom in New England. It's an oppressive, big brother type atmosphere. Players can't say certain things without facing the wrath of the head coach. Things are so loose in Dallas, everyone has their own radio show, they all talk about things that would be best left in the locker room, and when the media spin the words into a controversial perspective, the team is forced to react.
One of the benefits of the Patriots system of controlling what players can (or do) say to the media, is that there is less material for the press to put a spin on. Moss is one of those players who really benefit from that level of protection (some call it shielding). You don't see Moss throwing a TO fit because there's no room for it in New England. Too many players have sacrificed too much to experience success, and they've achieved it. Which is why it is much less likely you'll see Moss implode under a Belichick run team, because almost all facets of a players season are scripted, or controlled for them. The rules are very clear, and people don't break them, or if they do they end up moving on. That doesn't happen in Dallas where they actively recruit rule-breakers if they think they can help the team win.
4. Last season, New England burnt Buffalo with the long ball, as Brady racked up 684 yards and nine touchdowns. Obviously a lot has changed since then – i.e. Matt Cassel at quarterback and a retooled Bills defense – but do you think the Patriots will try to attack Buffalo's secondary again?
JS: The Patriots tried the long ball a few times to test defenses, which supposedly had porous secondaries. What they found out is that teams play Randy Moss much more effectively now because Matt Cassel isn't going to force a ball into a spot where Tom Brady might have. Brady and Moss had such an amazing connection; you could predict when they were going to go deep.
Cassel is his own man, unlike Brady in many ways, despite what some national media guys say. There are similarities, but I think Brady had a better sense of where to go with the ball (even before last year) than Cassel has so far.
The good part of the Patriots offense is that once Cassel gets the feel for where the holes in a defense might be, he tends to make better reads and better throws. His growth from the San Diego blowout to the Colts game was palpable. He's grown tremendously, and he's shown he has the tools to win. I think if he can get comfortable with the defensive scheme, then he will test the Bills secondary. New England is only averaging 191 yards per game through the air (23rd overall), mostly because Cassel is much more comfortable throwing short. When that changes, you might see the same explosive offense that the Patriots had with Brady. It just doesn't look like Cassel's progressed to that point yet.
5. Last week Jabar Gaffney's butterfingers on a deep ball cost a sure touchdown and a crucial road win against Indianapolis. Has New England mentally recovered? Could the Pats have the clichéd Sunday Night letdown?
JS: I will give Sports Illustrated's Peter King credit for picking up on the reality of the Colts loss. There were three very specific (uncharacteristic) things the Patriots did on Sunday, which caused them to lose the game. Change one or two of those, and the Colts would be in full-blown panic mode, while New England could rest assured their plan is working.
(1) Had Gaffney caught that pass, the Patriots would have the lead, and could probably have won the game. Randy Moss forgave Gaffney publicly immediately after the game, in a strong showing of solidarity, which is why Moss was elected one of the team's captains.
Randy Moss openly forgave Jabari Gaffney after Gaffney's gaffe at Indy
(2) Belichick's ill-fated challenge (loss of timeout) or the one he blew later which led the patriots to having no timeouts at the end really hurt. You almost never see Belichick make those kinds of mistakes.
(3) David Thomas' penalty on a late hit when he was falling down. Thomas' mistake was that he was already engaged with one player and reached out to hit another when the whistle sounded. You can bet it's a play that wouldn't have happened if Thomas wasn't already caught up in continuing action.
Take any of those three away and New England could very well have gone to overtime with the Colts, or won the game outright. New England knows it. Watching the tape tells them how close it really was, which is why it seems the team has really done well to put the loss behind them to focus on Buffalo.
6. Both New England and Buffalo put a concerned emphasis on special teams, as the Patriots rank first in return yards per kick (26.8 average) and the Bills sit second in punt return yardage (14.2). How much do you believe will special teams – namely Ellis Hobbs, Wes Welker, Roscoe Parrish, Leodis McKelvin – will decide the outcome of Sunday's game?
JS: Although special teams plays account for about a dozen or so plays out of the 100+ in a game, those dozen-plus plays are a much bigger part of the game than people realize. A good special teams play can change the tide of the game almost instantly. A long return sets up an offense to get at least three points. A blocked kick, or a poor punt gives away the same amount of real estate. When offenses (or defenses) struggle, yards might be hard to come by, or too easily given up. The more green between the offense and the end zone, the better.
Hobbs is hurt, so it's unclear how much we'll see of him returning kicks. The Patriots desperately need healthy bodies in their secondary, which is why they re-signed former Bill Jason Webster this week. Hobbs is the starting corner, so you're more likely to see another returner deep on kickoffs, possibly even Welker again.
Covering kickoffs has been a positive for the Patriots this season. WR Kelley Washington a former special teams ace from Cincinnati and former Buffalo special teams ace Sam Aiken have really done well for the Patriots. Buffalo has an awesome special teams return unit, so Washington and Aiken will have to bring even more to the table this week.
It is hard to imagine this game not having at least one big return or special teams play in it based upon the tremendous value both teams place on those units. Special teams could very well be the deciding factor on Sunday.