the AFC East: Week 8 Weekend
By NFL Scout Staff
"This is the beginning of hell as far as our schedule is concerned," Milloy said.
Despite their two-game win streak being snapped with a miserable 38-17 loss at Oakland last week, the Bills (3-4) still find themselves in position to take over first place in the AFC East Division at their bye week if they can upset the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (3-3) on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
Buffalo is 2-0 in the division.
But if taking over first place will be a challenge, so will hanging onto it.
After the Patriots, Buffalo meets Kansas City (4-2), San Diego (3-4), Carolina (4-2), New England again, Denver (5-2) and Cincinnati (5-2), along with two other division games at Miami and the New York Jets.
"I don't know who made our schedule, but it's definitely a challenging one," Milloy said. "But in the end, if we come out on top, I don't think anybody can doubt us."
Indeed, the Bills are taking a glass-is-half-full approach to this critical juncture of the season.
"That's the thing," quarterback Kelly Holcomb said. "Everybody is like it's doom and gloom, but we're still in the hunt. We've got a big game coming up versus the world champions. Everybody is looking forward to this. It's a tough challenge, they have a heck of a home record. Nobody feels we can beat them except the guys in that locker room. If we take that focus with us, I think we'll be OK."
The Bills have a lot of obstacles facing them in Foxboro, where the Patriots have won 21 of their past 22 games at Gillette Stadium.
New England is .500 but and reeling from injuries, but it also has faced a much tougher schedule than Buffalo and could have the added emotional edge of welcoming linebacker Tedy Bruschi back into the lineup after he suffered a mild stroke last winter.
Buffalo is 0-4 in New England since Tom Brady took over at quarterback in 2001. In those games, the Bills have been outrushed by more than 70 yards per game, allowed 14 sacks, committed 16 turnovers, and been out-scored 108-34.
Brady, 7-1 all-time against the Bills, has hit 61 percent of his passes and thrown for nine TDs and just two interceptions in those home victories.
In last season's 29-6 win, led by running back Corey Dillon, New England ran 45 times for 208 yards.
Despite his club's dominance in the series, Patriots coach Bill Belichick made Buffalo sound like the defending Super Bowl champs in a conference call with reporters, and not the other way around.
"They present a lot of problems, pretty much everything," said Belichick, whose team is 20-6 against the division since 2001.
"This is our first division game. Right now, we're just looking at Buffalo and they look pretty good to me. They're 2-0 in the division. So until somebody beats them, I guess they're the team to beat."
New England, which lost at Denver 28-20 on Oct. 16, is coming off its bye and will have had two weeks to prepare for Holcomb and Buffalo's sputtering 30th-ranked offense. The Patriots haven't lost consecutive games in more than two years.
Milloy, a four-time Pro Bowler who was cut by New England just days before the 2003 season opener and signed by Buffalo, is 1-3 against his old team.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't (get pumped) for this," he said. "It's an opportunity to play against the world champs. You have an opportunity to win this game and be on top of our division. That's our No. 1 goal. It's a place where we haven't been successful for a couple of years, and I think we have to get through the mystique of the whole situation, the atmosphere, the banners, the fact that they're the world champions. We have to have our blinders on and just focus on our team and I think we'll be OK."
SERIES HISTORY: 90th meeting. Patriots lead the series 49-40-1. New England had won five consecutive games until Buffalo's shocking 31-0 victory in the 2003 regular-season opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Ex-Patriots Drew Bledsoe and Lawyer Milloy led the way. Bill Belichick and Co. had the last laugh, though, paying back the Bills by the identical score in the season-finale in Foxboro. That game capped a 6-10 year for Buffalo and was the last coached by Gregg Williams.
--The Bills have lost their last four Sunday night prime time games, including last season's tilt in New England, 29-6. They are 5-8 on the road on Sunday nights. To prepare for the late start, coach Mike Mularkey will have his team practice Friday night to get their body clocks adjusted. "It puts you closer to the game instead of working a Friday morning, which you normally do, and then you have a whole Friday, a whole Saturday, a whole Sunday. The time between the practice and the game gets long. You want to keep it as close as you can."
--The Bills would like to get RB Willis McGahee more involved in their passing attack. Last week at Oakland, he caught three passes for a season-high 36 yards, including a long gain of 17 yards. There are few, if any, linebackers in the NFL who can stay with McGahee, yet Buffalo doesn't throw him the ball much. It is, however, a simple way to get the ball into his hands if teams elect to fill the box with eight defenders. "It depends on their coverages," said coach Mike Mularkey when asked if he'd like to use McGahee more as a receiver. "If it's one-on-one (out of the backfield), he's a good route runner, he's got good hands and, obviously, he's good after the catch."
--WR Roscoe Parrish, who returned a punt 10 yards last Sunday in Oakland during his NFL debut, said being hit never felt so good. The team's top draft pick out of Miami missed more than two months recovering from a broken right wrist suffered in training camp. "Being that I've got one game out of the way, I feel good about going into this week knowing what to expect as far as the speed of the game," Parrish said. "I've just to stay in the game and get my plays down pat and go from there."
--PK Rian Lindell entered this season having converted just 4 of 12 field goals from 40 yards and beyond with the Bills. He was under intense scrutiny when the year began. So far, though, Lindell has quieted all of his critics, making 6 of 7 from 40 yards or longer and 14 of 15 overall. "No, not really, just to myself," Lindell said when asked if he feels like he has to justify himself to his critics. "I just try to get good hits. The best kicker on the planet misses more than one out of 10, so it's going to happen."
--Coach Mike Mularkey's decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the Oakland 1-yard line last Sunday was widely applauded as the right call to make on the road when a team is desperate to make a statement and quiet the home crowd. But his choice of ball carries was mighty peculiar. The Bills gave the ball to 262-ound FB Daimon Shelton on a misdirection call. He was met in the hole and stopped for no gain. "I thought with a man his size and the distance, we could get that yard," Mularkey said. "They made a nice play on it." It was Shelton's first carry in the NFL in five seasons.
BY THE NUMBERS: 16 - Turnovers the Bills have committed in their last four trips to New England, all losses.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I just think it might be more of a mind game now. We've got to get our confidence up against this team. It just seems this team frustrates us a bit. They're very well coached team and if you slip up just a bit, they expose you. We just have to go up there and play well and start getting our confidence back." - OG Chris Villarrial on playing in New England where the Bills are 0-4 since 2001 and out-scored 108-34.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
When it comes to finding ways to spark their 29th-ranked offense, the Bills are leaving no X or O unturned.
One idea being kicked around the offices in Orchard Park is using dynamic CB/KR Terrence McGee on offense as either a running back or wide receiver. In the past, coach Mike Mularkey has used defensive backs to run reverses. McGee, who leads the NFL in kick returns and has had numerous electrifying returns, would seem a natural for such a role.
McGee is all for it, of course.
"I love having the ball in my hands, I love anything having to do with me running the ball or catching the ball," he said. "If he (Mularkey) did that, I wouldn't turn it down."
Even if he never got the ball, McGee split wide or in the backfield would represent a weapon opponents would have to account for, and it may open things up more for the regular offensive personnel, which at the moment is frustrated.
If employed as a decoy, however, Buffalo's blocking would suffer. McGee might be able to catch and run but blocking isn't a skill he's done or practiced.
"Obviously he's comfortable as a returner and his natural position at corner (allows him to run) with interceptions. He's done it," Mularkey said. "But you can't expect just because he's done that to go over (to offense) ... and all of sudden he can start running routes and be as successful. (But) he does have special skills and we have talked about it."
--RB Willis McGahee was held 37 yards on 14 carries in last year's 29-6 loss at New England. He'll be looking to double that amount of carries for the Bills to have a shot at the upset.
--QB Kelly Holcomb has played at New England once in his nine-year career, coming off the bench in the second quarter for the Cleveland Browns during the 2003 season. He finished 15 of 25 for 115 yards, 0 TDs and one interception as the Browns lost 9-3.
--WR Eric Moulds had a team-high five catches in last season's 29-6 loss at New England, but for only 46 yards. Moulds is averaging just 8.4 yards per catch this season.
--TE Tim Euhus, who missed the season's first five games with a shoulder injury, dressed as the No. 2 tight end last week in Oakland. The Bills need more production from the tight end position and Euhus, who caught two TD passes as a rookie a year ago, could emerge.
--WR Roscoe Parrish, the team's top draft pick who broke his right wrist in training camp, made his NFL debut at Oakland, returning one punt for 10 yards and appearing in a few offensive plays.
GAME PLAN: For the Bills to have any chance of ending their four-game losing streak in Foxboro, they will have to address the issues that have doomed them in those games. Running the ball. Protecting the ball. Protecting the quarterback. In those four losses to the Patriots, the Bills were out-rushed 565-278 (61 fewer attempts), had 16 turnovers and only five takeaways, and watched their quarterbacks get sacked 14 times. Riding RB Willis McGahee on the road, in a hostile environment, would appear to be a no-brainer but last week in Oakland he received only 16 carries. In last season's 29-6 loss at New England, McGahee ran just 14 times for 37 yards. Defensively, the Bills have to find some way to stop the run or the Patriots coaching staff will gladly pound the football 40 to 50 times. Last year, the Patriots ran 45 times for 208 yards. New England, 7-9 coming off bye weeks, is rested and will have the emotional lift of LB Tedy Bruschi's return from a mild stroke. They play six of the final 10 games at Gillette Stadium and are looking at this game as the start of their push for a third consecutive Super Bowl ring. The Bills are walking into a snake pit and must match the Patriots' intensity in this nationally televised Sunday night game or they will be embarrassed.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Bills DE Aaron Schobel, team's co-sack leader with 3.0, vs. Patriots LT Nick Kaczur, a rookie third-round pick. Patriots QB Tom Brady has been sacked just seven times and Bills have to put pressure on him to have any chance.
Bills DTs Sam Adams and Tim Anderson vs. Patriots RB Corey Dillon. Too many running backs have gotten into the second tier and on top of Buffalo's linebackers because the Bills have been dominated up front. Dillon, who has had two weeks to heal a sore ankle, had 151 yards in last meeting against Bills.
Bills offensive tackles Mike Gandy and Mike Williams vs. Patriots pass rushers Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour. McGinest is third on New England's all-time sack list with 74.5 and Gandy will have his hands full. Three-time Pro Bowler Seymour has had two weeks to rest a sore knee but Williams has a sore ankle.
Bills KR Terrence McGee, who leads the NFL in kick returns and is just 22 yards shy of breaking the club record for return yards, vs. Patriots kick coverage unit, which ranks 17th in the league.
INJURY IMPACT: Buffalo's OL was beaten up in the Raiders loss, with G Chris Villarrial suffering a concussion and tackles Mike Williams and Greg Jerman suffering ankle injuries. Villarrial and Williams are expected to be fine for the New England game, but Jerman has been ruled out of the game. To compensate, Jason Peters is taking practice reps at both left and right tackle this week in case he's needed to spot Williams.
With WR Roscoe Parrish healthy and ready to play, the Bills had six wide receivers active last Sunday in Oakland and went short at linebacker, dressing only two backups (Mario Haggan, Josh Stamer). Buffalo's wide receiving corps is loaded with special teams aces, and the club did not want to leave itself short in that department, so it dressed backups Sam Aiken and Jonathan Smith, along with Parrish.
Call it the Hurricane Bowl.
Fresh off being impacted by Hurricane Wilma, the Dolphins will travel to Baton Rouge for Sunday's game against New Orleans in the first game the Saints have played in Louisiana since being displaced by Hurricane Katrina in late August.
Dolphins headquarters was still running under emergency power Wednesday two days after Wilma left almost all of South Florida without electricity. While no players were injured, some houses were damaged and life is hardly normal as a line of traffic for gas stretched more than a quarter-mile in front of the headquarters on Wednesday morning.
Still, the Dolphins are well aware that the severity of this situation doesn't even come close to comparing what has happened to the Saints.
I don't think our circumstance or situation here is anything like what they have had to deal with," Dolphins coach Nick Saban said. "I haven't talked to anybody in that organization about it. They had to completely move, go to another city and can't play their games at home. We can at least functionally operate in our house.
"Organizationally and internally with our players, we are not displaced. We are not moving. At least when we are here, we can focus and do the work that we need to do and is not really interrupted."
Ironically, Saban and some of his players will be venturing to a place where they never could have dreamed of staging an NFL game. Saban is revered in Baton Rouge for having led Louisiana State University to a 48-16 record from 2000 to 2004 as well as a share of the 2003 national championship.
"I know everybody's probably going to be excited to be able to have the Saints back in Louisiana," said Dolphins cornerback Travis Daniels, who played at LSU for Saban the previous four seasons. "For some of the LSU fans that will be at the game that are also Saints fans, they'll be able to see coach Saban again.
"They love him out there. Everybody - from students to parents and grandmas. For a while, I thought after he finished coaching he was just going to be the mayor of Baton Rouge or be the president. That's how they talk around there."
While such praise is flattering, Saban said he has more pressing concerns than reminiscing. The Dolphins (2-4) have lost three consecutive games and are trying to win their first road contest of the season after losing at Tampa Bay (27-13), Buffalo (20-13) and the New York Jets (17-7).
"We need to do a better job helping the players so we don't make the mistakes that we have been making, but everybody has to be responsible to do what they need to do to handle and manage the frustration that goes along when not having success," Saban said. "The biggest thing about that is what is the standard? If you know you are doing your best to be the best that you can be, then you can manage your frustration a lot better.
"You don't need to get frustrated about getting behind in the game. You don't need to get frustrated about not winning. We need to get frustrated about how we are performing and what we need to do to manage the frustration so that we can improve and get better."
SERIES HISTORY: 9th meeting. The Dolphins hold a 5-3 all-time series lead, winning their last meeting in 1998. Tiger Stadium marks the fifth different facility in which these two teams have played, joining the Superdome, Dolphins Stadium, Tulane Stadium and the Orange Bowl.
--Hurricane Wilma forced a slew of changes to the Dolphins schedule. Besides having kickoff of a 30-20 loss to Kansas City changed to Friday, the Dolphins also had a practice Tuesday instead of their usual off day because the storm washed out Monday's session.
"The only other thing that has changed is you go home and don't have power," said Dolphins quarterback Gus Frerotte, who weathered the storm with his wife and three children. "You're trying to figure out what to do with you're family. There's not much to do.
"As far as being scared, none of us were scared. We had the shutters up. It was loud and crazy and something we've never been through, but other than that, it was fine. The kids were good. They would sit around and laugh. They didn't know what was going on. That was a good thing."
Saban was forced to use a handsaw to cut through a tree blocking the driveway to his Fort Lauderdale mansion to get to Dolphins headquarters on Monday. Asked what type of tree it was, Saban said, "A big one, that's all I can tell you."
--Hurricane Wilma caused the cancellation of a Dolphins Hall of Fame exhibit featuring the nine busts of the team's inductees on display at Dolphins Stadium. A halftime ceremony to honor Dan Marino was moved from the Chiefs game to a November 6 home contest against Atlanta.
BY THE NUMBERS: 2 - Coaches who have led a college team to a national championship, then left to the NFL and returned to play in their former college stadium. Former Southern California and Tampa Bay coach Rich McKay, who played against the Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum, will be joined in that standing by Saban.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't think I've ever had a bad relationship with a coach - except maybe with coach Haslett." - Dolphins running back Ricky Williams on his turbulent relationship with Saints coach Jim Haslett, who traded him to the Dolphins in the 2002 off-season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Dolphins have signed kicker Jeff Chandler to their practice squad in case Olindo Mare (knee) is unable to play against the Saints. Saban said Mare, who has made eight of nine field goals this season, was injured trying to make a tackle on a kickoff against the Chiefs.
Injuries are wracking Miami's already porous secondary, with strong safety Tebucky Jones (pectoral) out for the season and cornerback Sam Madison (hip) and free safety Lance Schulters (quadriceps) listed as questionable for the Saints game. Schulters practiced Wednesday, while Madison didn't and was replaced by the struggling Reggie Howard in the starting lineup.
"We've got one, two guys down," Dolphins cornerback Travis Daniels said. "Now, everybody's going to have to come in and step up and make sure they communicate to everybody and make sure everybody's on the same page. It's just going to be important that everybody echoes the calls across the field."
--CB Sam Madison (hip) missed Wednesday's practice and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against New Orleans in Baton Rouge. Reggie Howard would start if Madison couldn't play.
--FS Lance Schulters (quadriceps) practiced Wednesday but is listed as questionable for the Saints game. Yeremiah Bell would start if Carter couldn't play.
--K Olindo Mare is listed as questionable for the Saints game because of a knee injury suffered trying to make a tackle on a kickoff against the Chiefs. Mare has converted on eight of nine field goals this season, with his lone miss coming against the Jets after a botched long snap.
--K Jeff Chandler was signed to Miami's developmental squad in case Olindo Mare (knee) can't play against the Saints. Chandler played in 13 games the past three seasons for San Francisco and Washington, which released him during the preseason,
--DB Deandre Eiland was waived to clear a roster spot on Miami's developmental squad for K Jeff Chandler.
GAME PLAN: With the way QB Gus Frerotte has played in his past three outings, don't be surprised if Dolphins offensive coordinator Scott Linehan tries taking the game out of his hand by giving the Saints a heavy dose of Williams and Brown. New Orleans has allowed 141 or more yards rushing in four of seven games this season.
Defensively, the Dolphins must shore a run defense that has allowed 365 rushing yards in losses to Tampa Bay and Kansas City. Fortunately for Miami, veteran tailbacks Aaron Stecker and Antowain Smith doesn't present the same type of staunch challenge as Deuce McAllister, who is on injured reserve with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. By making New Orleans one dimensional, the Dolphins can try to tee off on quarterback Aaron Brooks to help cover for a reeling secondary.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
QB Gus Frerotte vs. Saints safeties Dwight Smith and Josh Bullocks - Frerotte is trying to get back on track after two admittedly poor outings against Tampa Bay and Kansas City. The Saints cut Tebucky Jones in the off-season hoping Jay Bellamy could handle the strong safety spot. Instead, Jones, who subsequently signed with the Dolphins, and Bellamy are both on injured reserve. But Smith and Bullocks, a 2005 second-round draft choice, have helped New Orleans limit opponents to 189 passing yards or less in three of the past four games.
Dolphins SLB Junior Seau vs. Saints RBs Aaron Stecker and Antowain Smith - It's probably no coincidence that Miami's problems starting the run began with Seau on the sidelines the past two games with a strained calf. Seau was set to return against the Chiefs had the game been played on Sunday as originally scheduled. Seau missed practice Wednesday and will be replaced by Donnie Spragan again if he can't start. Stecker and Smith have done a solid job replacing the injured Deuce McAllister (knee), combining for 266 rushing yards in losses to Atlanta and St. Louis.
INJURY IMPACT: Tebucky Jones said he believes he tore his pectoral muscle after his hand got stuck inside another player's shoulder pads while making a tackle.
"I couldn't move it," said Jones, who will be replaced in the starting lineup by Travares Tillman. "I never had an injury like that, but I knew something was wrong because (the muscle) was jumping the whole time. In the game when I did it, I actually stayed in another play. But on the sideline, I was running with one arm dangling. It was like, 'Whoa.' I tore it in two places."
While players and coaches will be off this weekend for the bye, Jets coach Herman Edwards will be pouring over stats from the last seven games, desperate to figure out how to turn around a 2-5 season that's a loss or two away from ending early.
Three areas Edwards singled out as needed correcting were turnovers, the running game and being outscored early.
The Jets have fumbled 22 times this season, the most since Edwards has been coach and their 16 turnovers through seven games equal as many as they had all of last season.
After a season-high 148 yards rushing against Buffalo two games ago, Curtis Martin took a big step back with just 28 yards on 14 carries. A big part of that was because the Jets fell behind early but the lack of a ground attack has been a consistent theme all year.
With just 74.3 yards per game on the ground, the Jets' rushing attack is ranked 29th in the NFL and Martin is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry.
Due to two of Testaverde's three fumbles Monday night, the Falcons took a 10-0 lead on the Jets in the first quarter. That has opponents outscoring the Jets 40-7 in the first quarter.
"Those are the things we have to look at over the bye weekend and figure out how to get it straight and how to function better as a football team," said a downtrodden Edwards. "Because when you turn the ball over and you're not playing the run very well, that hurts you."
In looking for explanations as to why their season has once again gotten off to a slow start, the Jets can look no further than the start of each game thus far, having been outscored 40-7 in the first quarter.
Those first-quarter struggles also directly effect how the Jets have played on the road this season and of late in general. Winless in four road contests this season, the Jets have lost their last six regular season road games and are 1-7 including two playoff games last year.
When Herman Edwards arrived as head coach in 2001, the Jets were an amazing 7-1 on the road. Since then, they've been 10-18 in hostile territory during the regular season.
"We haven't been very good on the road and I don't know what's contributing to that," Edwards said. "We just haven't done the things that you have to do on the road to win. One of them is you've got to get the crowd out of it. We've always been behind and that's a little bit of our problem, too. When you're behind, the crowd's involved."
Playing from behind has also sapped something defensively from the Jets and their own pass rush. The Jets have just nine sacks this season compared to 14 through the first six games of 2004. When teams play with a lead, they run the ball more, neutralizing what the jets' defensive line can do to stop quarterbacks. They've also given up 21 sacks this season compared to eight last year.
Falling behind early and a sputtering offense have placed the Jets into known downs and obvious passing situations. Opponents can see that too, going after the Jets quarterback as often as possible.
--C Pete Kendall beat himself up pretty bad over his performance Monday night against the Falcons, pointing the finger at himself for each of Vinny Testaverde's three fumbles in the first half that led to 17 points for Atlanta.
While still disappointed two days later, Kendall managed to keep his sense of humor.
"I still feel the same way. I'm not mad," Kendall said. "They didn't have to put me in a room without a balcony or anything. I have a little perspective."
--The Jets will bring in some players to work out over the bye week, including some linebackers. None of the players will get a chance to be anything more than an emergency backup. Yet the Jets are so short of practice players because of injuries, they're looking for warm bodies.
--The Jets weighed all their players before letting them loose until practice resumes Monday. Coach Herman Edwards promised fines for anyone who's even a pound over their Wednesday weight.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 - Players the Jets have on their 53-man roster that are out for the year with injuries, yet haven't been replaced because of the lack of salary cap room.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Let's say we had as much money as we need, hypothetically. Who's out there?" - Coach Herman Edwards on why his team hasn't been quick to make any personnel changes despite having so many injured players.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Coach Herman Edwards decided to avoid a quarterback controversy by naming Vinny Testaverde his starter against San Diego on Nov. 6 following the bye.
Edwards was hesitant about committing to Testaverde completely on Tuesday because the quarterback had yet to take an MRI on his strained lower right calf, close to the Achilles' tendon.
Not knowing the extent of the injury, Edwards wanted to hold off on the Testaverde or Brooks Bollinger question until hearing from the team doctors. But after Testaverde reported Wednesday that his calf was fine and would start running at the end of the week and be ready for practice next Monday, the choice was made.
--QB Vinny Testaverde's injured right calf felt better and the veteran expects to be ready when practice resumes Monday.
--C Kevin Mawae is likely to get surgery on his torn triceps muscle this week in Los Angeles after getting a second opinion. He's out for the season but hasn't been placed on injured reserve yet.
--LB Eric Barton will probably have his torn biceps repaired next week after getting a second opinion. Like Mawae, he's also out for the season but hasn't been placed on injured reserve.
--KR Justin Miller has been key for the Jets as both a return man and a cornerback in the Jets' nickel and dime defenses, especially with Ty Law batting injuries the last two games. The rookie has settled in quickly after a rough start and has been contributing more consistently.
--RB Curtis Martin needs one more touchdown for 100 in his career.
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