After a couple weeks off to spend with the new member of our family (my son CJ), it's back to work here at Patriots Insider. This week the Patriots face AFC East rival Buffalo, a team on the rise with a coach who has given Tom Brady and the Patriots offense fits over the last five years. Let's take a look at the matchups and figure out who will come out on top Sunday afternoon.
When the Patriots Run:
The Bills are stout defensively, and it is going to be hard for New England to get the running game going. The Bills didn't change much personnel-wise this offseason on defense, and they shut down the Patriots running game last year. With Rex coming over, there is a change in the defensive philosophy, but when you look at how Patriots ran against the Jets in '14, it is pretty clear that Ryan can scheme to stop the run. Combine these two factors and don't be surprised if the Patriots run for about 60 yards. Dion Lewis will be featured again in the passing game and will get occasional draws.
When the Patriots Pass:
As much as the Patriots couldn't run on the Bills or Rex's former Jets defense, they certainly didn't face the same problems through the air. New England threw for over 300 yards per game against these two teams, so unless the Bills can get a solid pass rush, which is a real possibility, they will most likely struggle to stop Tom Brady and the Patriots aerial attack. Rob Gronkowski typically plays well in his hometown of Buffalo, and when he gets it going, the Patriots win.
When the Bills Run:
Buffalo traded linebacker Kiko Alonso for running back LeSean McCoy, the talented former Eagle, to be the lynchpin for their running orientated offense, an offense that is run by former 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. New England gave up 134 yards to DeAngelo Williams and the Pittsburgh Steelers last Thursday, but they were using a smaller front to get a pass rush and slow down Roethlisberger. Bill Belichick has always been able to make adjustments to stop the run, and I expect see that happen again. Geneo Grissom played a good amount of defensive tackle to spark the pass rush, but New England will use their heavier defensive tackle set to slow down the Buffalo rushing attack. LeSean McCoy was injured in practice Thursday, so that situation is one to watch. Buffalo will have some success in the run game, but not enough to decide the game.
When the Bills Pass:
The Patriots gave up 330 pass yards to Pittsburgh last week, but Tyrod Taylor is far from Ben Roethlisberger, so don't expect to see a repeat of last week. Buffalo does have weapons in the passing game with Watkins and Harvin, but it comes down to the quarterback, and Taylor has his hands full with this flexible Patriots defense. New England added Jabaal Sheard to beef up the pass rush, and he did just that against Pittsburgh. Rob Ninkovich needs to play much better against the Bills; he had maybe his worst game last week, giving up the edge regularly and being one of the main reasons DeAngelo Williams was able to get outside.
The Patriots don't mess around when it comes to special teams. Their coverage units, which features players like Matt Slater, Tavon Wilson, and Nate Ebner, are given as much attention as offense and defense. Some believe that the field position part of the game isn't as important due to the wide open passing in the NFL, but not every team looks to throw every play, especially any team coached by Rex Ryan. The Bills want to run and the Patriots want to pin them back, so this is definitely a week where field position will be key. Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen are also two of the best players at their respective positions, just another advantage for New England. The Bills also feature one of the better special teams units, finishing fourth in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. Punter Colton Schmidt, who had an excellent rookie season, should improve in his second year, another strength for their excellent special teams units. With both teams featuring top-end special teams units, expect to see no breakdowns in coverage and strong kicking games.
Bill Belichick is 9-4 against Rex Ryan in his career, but that doesn't mean he's a lock to have the upper hand in this matchup. Every game they play is close, and I expect the same thing to happen on Sunday. Rex Ryan has maybe the most talented defense in the NFL to work with and an offensive coordinator that wants to run a lot, exactly what Rex loves. Belichick will be able to look back to the 2013 matchup with the 49ers to gameplan, but of the run defense doesn't step up, it could be a long day for the Patriots. Belichick has the edge, but not by much.
Prediction: Patriots 23, Bills 21
The Bills will have success on the ground and move the ball from the 20 to the 20, but once they get in the red zone, New England's defense will tighten up and force the Bills to beat them with Tyrod Taylor's arm. Offensively, New England is going to spread it out and throw pretty much all day, and if they can block the excellent Buffalo front four, they'll move the ball with ease. I think New England will start slow, but second half adjustments will help the Patriots overcome the up-and-coming Bills.
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