The Patriots Are Doing It With Mirrors

<p>Preview and notes on the upcoming game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills. Just how ARE the Patriots winning games? What is up with the resurgent Bills? Is Bledsoe getting back on track? Are the Pats for real?</p> <p>John MacKenna answers a few of these questions and more in this weeks preview.</p>

PHOTO: New England Patriots' Tedy Bruschi (54) celebrates as teammate Richard Seymour scores a touchdown after picking up a fumble by Buffalo Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the fourth quarter in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004. The Patriots won, 31-17. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

The Patriots Are Doing It With Mirrors
By John MacKenna,
Patriots Insider

It would appear that the Buffalo Bills have an excellent opportunity to upset the New England Patriots on Sunday night.

Buffalo is coming off a 22-17 win over the 6-1 New York Jets. They've won three of their last four games. They have one of the NFL's stingiest defenses.

Meanwhile, New England is missing both its starting cornerbacks, the tight ends are MIA from the passing game, and their No. 2 receiver is averaging only 35 yards in the last three games.

So why does everyone pick New England to win? Sure, the Patriots scored an inspiring win last Sunday in St. Louis, but they are very vulnerable on defense at the moment, and their offense ranks only 19th in the NFL in total yardage.

New England shouldn't score more than 17 points against Buffalo's punishing defense. If the Bills can't manage 20 or more against a defensive secondary featuring an undrafted rookie, a practice squad player and a wide receiver, well, it's time to get a new quarterback.

Should the Bills fulfill expectations and lose, Quarterback Drew Bledsoe will likely absorb plenty of blame. He's used to it and, frankly, he deserves it. He's a tough hombre, and he throws a great ball, but he lacks the game management skills and pocket presence of, say, Tom Brady.

Given the strength of their defense, the Bills should win this game, because the Patriots' defensive backfield is in shambles. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell and Defensive Backs Coach Eric Mangini compensate with schemes, but it shouldn't be enough. No matter how well they're coached or how determined they are, Earthwind Moreland is still a marginal NFL talent, Randall Gay is still a very green rookie, and Troy Brown is still a wide receiver.

For the Bills to win, Bledsoe need only play as well as Marc Bulger did last week for the Rams. Bulger completed 23 of 33 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns.

But the Bills are the wrong team at the wrong time. Just when the Patriots are most susceptible to a strong passing attack, the Bills arrive with a new-found commitment to their run game. The Bills ran the ball 46 times against the Jets and have won three of their last four games by handing the ball early and often to second-year RB Willis McGahee.

They'd probably be better off passing, but that would mean straying from a successful game plan and giving more responsibility to Bledsoe, who is 1-4 against New England.

In WRs Eric Moulds and Lee Evans, the Bills have some weapons. Moulds, at 6'2", 210, is a mismatch for every current Patriots DB. He's enjoying a solid season with 47 catches for 616 yards. He had his best game of the season against New England in Week 3 with 10 catches for 126 yards, and that was when Ty Law was around to keep him in check. Moulds had seven catches for 85 yards last week against the Jets.

Evans, the 13th pick out of Wisconsin in the 2004 draft, had five catches for 64 yards against the Jets, including a critical 27-yarder on 3rd and 8 with 2:37 remaining to keep a Bills' drive alive. "Lee made some spectacular catches for us today in pivotal situations," said Bledsoe after the game. "That's great to see, you want a young guy that can come in and make plays at pivotal times in games."

Buffalo's receiving corps will probably be missing a key player, however, as WR Josh Reed is doubtful for the game with a knee injury. Sam Aiken, with four catches on the year, is the third receiver.

During Buffalo's recent resurgence, though, it is McGahee who has been leading the way on offense. He carried the ball 37 times for 132 yards against the Jets, including five runs of 12 yards or more.

Buffalo might have some success running, but they shouldn't be able to pound the Patriots the way the Steelers did two weeks ago. Buffalo's offensive line can't push like the Steelers' crew can, and the Patriots' front seven is healthy and strong. If Buffalo Head Coach Mike Mularkey commits to the run as he did against the Jets, he'll probably commit his team to its sixth loss of the season.

On defense, Buffalo is a menace. "They rush the passer well, " said Patriots QB Brady. "Last time they blitzed us a bunch, so we have to prepare for that. They are very good. They don't give up many yards or points. It is tough to score on them. They have a very good defense."

The Bills have limited opponent to an average of 95.9 yards rushing (4th best in the NFL) and 172.3 yards passing (3rd best). Against the Jets, they held RB Curtis Martin to 67 yards on 19 carries and allowed only two of 10 third-down conversions. Aside from one 51-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss, the Jets gained 16 yards in the second half.

The Bills contain the running game with mountainous DTs Sam Adams and Pat Williams and swift linebackers London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes. This time, they will be supported by former Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy, who missed the first Patriots game with a broken arm.

The Bills might expose weaknesses on the right side of the Patriots' offensive line, where guard Stephen Neal has been inconsistent and the tackle spot is manned by Brandon Gorin, who got his first start last week replacing the injured Tom Ashworth.

Should Gorin or left tackle Matt Light get hurt, the Patriots' offense would likely grind to a halt because there is no experienced tackle in reserve. (Could we see DT Richard Seymour at offensive tackle? Only in New England.)

Buffalo shut down Patriots RB Corey Dillon pretty well in the Oct. 3 game (79 yards on 19 carries), and they should be able to keep him in check again. If Dillon is contained, the burden will fall on Brady. After an off-month in October in which he threw four interceptions and averaged only 7.32 yards per attempt, Brady played well last week in St. Louis, with two TD passes and no interceptions.

Brady could find holes in the Bills' defense, provided he had receivers to fill them. Lately, WR David Givens has been his only reliable weapon, logging 18 catches for 308 yards in the last three games. WR David Patten has averaged only 3 catches and 35 yards over the same stretch, and TE Daniel Graham has gone two games without a catch. TE Christian Fauria has only three receptions on the season, after catching 55 passes in his first two seasons as a Patriot. Brown has eight catches over the last two weeks, but how much production can a team expect from a receiver who plays nickel back while his offensive cohorts rest on the bench?

Look for the Patriots to play a lot of two tight-end sets Sunday night and slip Graham and Fauria loose for a few catches.

Bills CB Troy Vincent is questionable for the game with a knee injury he suffered in the first Patriots game. Should he return, Brady's job will be harder still. The Patriots would get a more favorable matchup with his replacement Terrence McGee, who got burned last week on Moss's touchdown and several other plays.

McGee is more dangerous to New England in his role as kick returner. He has two returns for touchdowns, including one in the first Patriots game. The Patriots are 30th in the NFL in kick coverage, allowing an average of 24.2 yards. Meanwhile, Buffalo leads the NFL in kick coverage, holding opposing return men to an average of 17.8 yards.

NOTES: After being sacked 18 times in the first four games, Bledsoe has been sacked only five times in the last four games. … Bledsoe has not thrown an interception in the last two games after throwing four picks against Baltimore on Oct. 24. (It should be noted that even with those interceptions, the Ravens scored only 20 points.) … Bledsoe is 22nd among NFL quarterbacks with 1,475 passing yards. … Givens is seventh in the NFL with 80.5 average receiving yards per game. His per-catch average of 17.4 yards is eight best in the league. … Dillon's average of 107 yards per game is fourth best in the NFL. … The Bills are 2-13 in their last 15 road games. … Buffalo has thrived lately in nasty weather. Sunday's forecast calls for near-freezing temperatures, wind, and a mix of rain and snow.

John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"

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