Buffalo Bills (3-5) at New England Patriots (7-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 ET
TV: ESPN, Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, Suzy Kolber
SERIES: 90th meeting. Patriots lead series 48-40-1. The Patriots have won six of the last seven meetings dating back to 2000 and went through a five-game span from 1999-2001 when four of the games were decided in overtime. New England is 14-6 in the last 20 meetings and 7-2 since Belichick took over. The Patriots have won the last three in Foxborough by an average of 17 points per game.
2004 RANKINGS: Bills: offense 26th (19th rush, 27th pass); defense 3rd (4th rush, 3rd pass). Patriots: offense 14th (17th rush, 14th pass); defense 19th (21st rush, 19th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bills' recent formula should help them stay close to the end as long as they can follow it. QB Drew Bledsoe is moving the pocket more and hasn't been sacked in consecutive games for just the second time in his career. And with RB Willis McGahee averaging 33 carries the past two games, the Bills have controlled the clock and been more productive in the red zone. The Patriots' biggest concern is a beat-up secondary that will again be without CB Ty Law, although New England held a much better St. Louis passing game in check last Sunday. The Bills defense hasn't allowed 300 yards of total offense in four consecutive games, but New England's balanced attack with a healthier Corey Dillon presents a strong challenge.
Bills: The last four quarterbacks the defense has faced have a combined 67.7 passer rating. ... McGahee has a run of at least 15 yards in five consecutive games.
Patriots: QB Tom Brady has completed 59.8 percent of his passes, which would be a career worst, but he is on past for career highs in yards (3,788), yards per attempt (7.7) and touchdown passes (30). ... Of WR David Givens' 37 receptions, 36 have resulted in first downs.
- CB Troy Vincent, who has missed five games after knee surgery early last
month, was scheduled to test himself a little bit harder on Thursday on the
grass practice field at Ralph Wilson Stadium. His status is day to day for
Sunday's game at New England. If he is cleared to play, he'll likely see time
at free safety in place of Izell Reese. The Bills want more production out
of the free safety spot (Reese has one interception) and Vincent has 42 career
picks and is versatile enough to make the position switch.
- RT Mike Williams is still very sore and stiff from the shot to the head
he took last week against the New York Jets. The club said he suffered a neck
injury but has not given specifics only to say precautionary tests all came
back negative. Williams was taken from the field by ambulance but was walking
and wearing a neck brace after the game. Marcus Price is likely to start in
his place Sunday in New England.
- WR Eric Moulds will look to exploit a banged-up New England secondary on
Sunday night. The Patriots are without starting CBs Ty Law and Tyrone Poole.
Moulds has waged some fierce battles with Law over the years. He now will
go against Asante Samuel. Moulds had 10 catches for 126 yards and a 41-yard
TD in Buffalo's loss to New England on Oct. 3.
- WR Josh Reed, still recovering from a bruised and hyper-extended left knee,
is likely to miss his second game Sunday night in New England. Reed took a
helmet to the knee while returning a short punt against Arizona. He said the
injury would've been a lot worse had his foot not released from the synthetic
turf at Ralph Wilson Stadium. "I'm feeling better," he said. "I've
got most of the range of motion back, I just need to keep working on that."
- KR Terrence McGee leads the AFC in kickoff-return average at 27.3 yards
and is trying to become the first Bill to lead the conference in that category
since Mike Mosley (27.1) in 1982.
- LB Angelo Crowell leads the Bills in special teams tackles with 17.
- WR Drew Haddad, cut late last week, was re-signed after clearing waivers.
- QB Tom Brady is quite aware that former teammate Lawyer Milloy is back in
Buffalo's lineup. Milloy, who had his first interception since 2001 last week,
missed the first meeting while recovering from a broken arm suffered during
the preseason. "You definitely have to be aware of him," Brady said.
"He knows our personnel and he knows our play calling better than just
about anybody. He is going to have his input in what they are going to try
to do. He had a great game against us last year when we played them there.
Whenever there is a good player on the other side of the ball, you always
have to account for him. He seems to always find his way into the mix."
- RT Brandon Gorin is going to have his feet in the fire this week trying
to handle the Bills blitzes. Buffalo blitzed on nearly every snap in the first
meeting and Brady burned them on several occasions. And while they might call
off the dogs somewhat, they won't change what they do, which is blitz often.
"They blitz every week," coach Bill Belichick confirmed. "The
percentages, that might vary from game to game and a little bit by situation.
Again, how they decide to play us, that is in their control. All we can do
is prepare for it and be ready for it. How many times they call it, how many
times they blitz, how many times we blitz, nobody is going to know that until
the game is played."
- WR Troy Brown is just 45 receiving yards shy of moving past former Patriots
tight end Ben Coates into third place on the Patriots' all-time receiving
yards list. Brown has 5,427 yards, which trails Coates (5,471), Irving Fryar
(5,726) and Stanley Morgan (10,352). He also needs just 24 receptions to pass
Coates for second on the all-time catch list. Brown has 467 receptions, trailing
only Coates (490) and Morgan (534). Brown looks forward to seeing Drew Bledsoe,
who threw him many of those passes, again this week. "I love the guy
to death and I'm sure he feels the same way," Brown said. Asked of he
looked forward to catching some of Bledsoe's passes this week in his new role
as a defensive back, Brown smirked at the questioner before laughing it off
with no response.
- NT Vince Wilfork may want to watch his back this week. The Bills complained
about what they termed "dirty play" by Wilfork in the first meeting
when they accused him of a blind side hit on Jonas Jennings and also of attempting
to injure another player. Wilfork, meanwhile, has started all but one game
for the Pats as a rookie and his play will be critical over the second half
of the season as his experience starts to show.
- TE Daniel Graham's pass catching opportunities have been limited recently
because of injuries to the offensive line that made Graham's blocking more
critical to the offense. "They've kept me in protection because they
needed me," Graham said. "Whatever it takes to get a win, that's
what I'm prepared to do. I try to do my job regardless of what I'm asked to
do, but I feel like I'm a good blocking tight end."
- The injury report remained unchanged Thursday with cornerbacks Ty Law and
Tyrone Poole listed as out; wide receiver Deion Branch and linebacker Matt Chatham questionable; and cornerback Asante Samuel, linebacker Larry Izzo
and quarterbacks Tom Brady and Jim Miller all probable. Branch and Chatham
missed some portion of practice.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Running back Willis McGahee isn't the only newcomer to the Bills lineup that's making an impact. Don't forget about rookie wide receiver Lee Evans.
Evans enjoyed a breakout game in last Sunday's win over the New York Jets with five catches for 64 yards and on the season has 16 catches for 321 yards for a team-best 20.1 average. It wasn't the number of catches Evans had against the Jets that opened eyes it was the type.
He made a diving, finger-tip grab in the corner of the end zone for a four-yard touchdown, then made a smart sight adjustment against press coverage on third-down-and-eight to haul in a 27-yard pass down the sideline with 2:37 to play. That allowed Buffalo to run out the clock.
"I'm just looking to always take the next step," said Evans, the team's first-round pick from Wisconsin. "Learning how to play the game, learning what it takes to be successful on this level. Right now, with me and Willis here, we're doing a lot of good things and we're contributing to the success of this team. Especially for me as a rookie, just to be a part of something where you develop that trust with your teammates, your coaches and the organization. It certainly feels good, but you still have to work, you can't be satisfied with where you're at now."
With Josh Reed still nursing a tender knee and not likely to play Sunday night in New England, Evans will continue to get a lot of attention when Buffalo takes to the air, particularly against a New England secondary missing injured starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole.
Quarterback Drew Bledsoe can't say enough good things about Evans, who has superb hands and the kind of speed that has forced defenses to give him a big cushion. By opening up things for veteran Eric Moulds (47 catches, 616 yards, 4 TDs), Evans has replaced many of the things in Buffalo's attack lost when Peerless Price was traded to Atlanta.
"Lee's his own guy. He's got a bag of tricks that's all his own," Bledsoe said when asked to compare Evans to Price. "He's got great speed, great explosiveness and he really forces defense to respect both sides of the field when he and Eric are out there. They can't roll their coverage one way, or one of them is going to beat them."
Offensive balance, not surprisingly, has been synonymous with success during the Bill Belichick era in New England. The Patriots passed 141 times more than they ran during Belichick's first season, a 5-11 campaign in 2000. In 2002 when New England missed the playoffs with a 7-9 mark, it threw 206 more times than it ran.
During the 2001 Super Bowl season when Antowain Smith had his best season in New England, the Patriots passed only 11 more times then they threw and during last year's championship season, the difference was only 64 in favor of the pass. Through a 7-1 start in 2004, the Pats have run 223 times while they have passed 247 times for a difference of 24.
It was no coincidence that the most balanced season under Belichick came during Smith's most productive year with the club and that Corey Dillon's presence this year has kept the numbers close. New England has actually run the ball more than it has passed in games in which Dillon has played, 217-204. The loss at Pittsburgh, in which Dillon didn't play, swayed the numbers back the other way by virtue of the 43 passes and six runs the Patriots had that day.
Belichick, for his part, doesn't care how the Patriots move the ball as long as they produce points. "What is important is the final score," Belichick said. "So if you go out there and throw the ball 40 times and you win, great. Run it 40 times and win? That is great. You do what you have to do to win. The final score is what is up on the board. There is no, 'We rushed 31 times, they rushed 27 times, we won.' That is not up there. You have to put the points on the board, however you do it. It is nice to be balanced. It is more important to win."
But the fact is that having balance increases productivity because defenses have to defend the whole field and the run and pass. With a top-notch quarterback and a solid, when healthy, receiving corps to go with Dillon, New England is as balanced an offense as there is in football. The unit's biggest shortcoming is a banged up offensive line that consists of a bunch of hard working anonymous type guys. But even they have fared well with Dillon running and Brady's ability to unload the ball quickly. It's made for a solid all-around unit led by the ground attack rather than Brady's sore right arm.
"I think the success that we have had in the running game is attributable to a lot of different factors," Belichick said. "Corey is certainly a big part of it. The offensive line is a big part of it. I think (offensive line coach) Dante (Scarnecchia) and (running backs coach) Ivan (Fears) and (offensive coordinator) Charlie (Weis) and (tight ends/assistant offensive line coach) Jeff (Davidson) and those guys have done a good job of setting up situations that we have a good competitive opportunity to run the ball. We are not running it in to overloaded looks.
"So I think it is a combination of things. Sometimes there are good holes to run through. Sometimes the backs make some yards on their own. Sometimes Tom has changed the play to a run that has put us in a better situation than if we had called another play. I think all those things are a part of it. I just know, from a coaching standpoint, that you can't keep calling running plays that don't gain yardage. You hand the ball off and you gain nothing. You hand the ball off and you gain one, and it is third-and-nine. The next time you get out there on first-and-10, you are just not sitting there saying, 'I can't wait to get that one called again and get second-and-nine.' You just can't keep doing it. You are in a ballet offense-one, two, three, punt every time. You just can't get into that."
And the Patriots haven't. Only four teams - Indianapolis, Kansas City, San Diego and Minnesota - have scored more points than the Patriots 208 through Week 9. And unlike last year when New England's defense scored regularly early in the season, it has only one defensive touchdown this season, that coming on Richard Seymour's 68-yard fumble return back in the first meeting with the Bills.
The balance is obviously paying off since New England is on pace to score 416 points, which would be the third most in franchise history behind the 1980 team (441) and the 1996 team (418).
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