Quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tom Brady share the NFL lead with seven touchdown passes each, so naturally the spotlight is on their individual duel.
But Sunday's showdown between AFC East Division
leaders Buffalo (2-0) and New England (2-0) will likely boil down to
the team that doesn't necessarily throw the ball better, but runs it
For its part, Buffalo wants to control the clock
and keep Brady off the field. And they have the personnel capable of
Running back Fred Jackson leads the NFL with 229
yards rushing and is the first Bills player since Thurman Thomas in
1991 to open the season with consecutive 100-yard games.
If Buffalo has any shot of ending its 15-game
losing streak to the Patriots, it will have to put the game on
Jackson's shoulders. Fitzpatrick threw five interceptions in two losses
to New England last year, so keeping the Patriots' defense on its heels
with a running game is crucial.
The Bills fell behind the Raiders last week 21-3
and while it was Fitzpatrick's three second-half touchdown passes that
proved the difference, it was Jackson's 43-yard touchdown run that
sparked the rally.
"We started slow and we hurt ourselves
tremendously in the first half of the game last Sunday," Jackson said.
"We can't do that. We need to play consistently up to what we feel like
we're capable of doing. To not score or be down 21-3 at halftime is not
going to favor us well if we continue to play like that."
Fitzpatrick said he could not have done what he
did through the air without Jackson's talents on the ground. Adding to
that was the play of second-year pro C.J. Spiller, who had four carries
for 63 yards against the Raiders, all in the second half.
"We need to get him more touches with what he did
in that game," Fitzpatrick said. "Fred got over the 100-yard mark with
15 carries. We ran the ball really effectively and that really helped
us. There comes a point in the game where you can't run as much when
you're down. (Spiller's) touches are going to come. It's good to see
the progress he's made. Everybody knows how explosive he is."
And they know how underrated Jackson is.
The former Division III free agent has moved into
seventh-place on the team's career rushing list. He's also a complete
back, catching and blocking equally well.
"He's running the ball extremely well," coach Chan
Gailey said. "He's hitting the holes like we all know he can and he's
such a valuable player for us. He can protect, he can run routes, he
can run the football inside and outside and the line's doing a job of
helping him find those creases, too. They're blocking people, too. I
mean you got to have that. It's not just a one-man show out there
running the football."
When it comes to its own running game, New England
had its way with the Bills last year, amassing 417 yards on 79 carries
in both division matchups. Buffalo's remodeled defense, led by rookie
Marcell Dareus, is stopping the run better. But Sunday's games pits the
Bills' front seven against a very good offensive line.
Of course, there is no denying the magnitude of
the game for Buffalo. Victories against a weak Kansas City team (0-2,
outscored 89-10) and an Oakland team (1-1) that played on Monday and
had to travel across the country haven't swayed critics or fans who
can't forget about the fact the Bills have missed the playoffs 11
"We're excited about the matchup but it is (still)
one game out of 16," Fitzpatrick said. "What we've talked about here,
in order to get to the playoffs, in order to do what we want to do you
got to win your division. We feel like we may have the toughest
division in all of football. It's going to be a tough test for us and
we're looking forward to the challenge."
Buffalo hasn't defeated New England since a 31-0
romp in the 2003 season opener, one of the few times it forced Brady
The Patriots are sounding more cautious than
normal in interviews leading up to a Bills game.
"It has no bearing," wide receiver Deion Branch
said of the team's 15-0 winning streak over the Bills. "It's a big
game. It's a divisional game. It's part of their growth. They're a
young team. They're playing good."
Said coach Bill Belichick, who makes every
opponent sound Super-Bowl worthy: "I know we have a lot of respect for
Buffalo and the way they play. It's always competitive against them,
and they've done nothing but get better since early in the season last
year. They have a good experienced quarterback, good running backs,
good receivers and tight ends, an offensive line that has really
improved. And they added Dareus to a strong defense ... We've got our
hands full this week."
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