Buffalo Is Their First AFC East Challenger

The New England Patriots play host to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night in Foxborough. After a much-needed week off, New England looks to rebound from their loss at Denver in a game that saw Tom Brady lead the Patriots on a furious comeback only to fall short on a few last minute miscues. New England looks to rebound from their up-again, down-again performance in Denver in week 8, their first division game. Buffalo is also looking to get back on track in the battle for the AFC East.

Buffalo Is First AFC East Challenger
By Dave Fletcher

The Patriots entered their bye week a depleted, defeated and downtrodden club. Thanks to the expected return of middle linebacker Tedy Bruschi only eight months after he suffered a stroke, New England comes out of the bye with some renewed energy, swagger and identity.

Sunday night’s matchup with the Buffalo Bills (3-4) should rank right at the top of the list of most emotional games in New England Patriots history.

It is difficult to imagine that the emotion of Bruschi’s comeback won’t rub off on some level onto his defensive teammates, who have collectively been criticized for their erratic play in the season’s first six games. Truth be told, his physical presence on the field will likely be secondary to the symbolic lift his suiting up in pads and a jersey will provide..

“Jumping into a season six, seven weeks in, that’s really new to me,” Bruschi said on Wednesday. “I’m really trying not to put expectations on myself, or (worry about) what I’m going to do during the game.”

With Richard Seymour also a strong candidate to return to the defensive line this week, Bruschi’s return holds even more emphasis. This Patriots defense, once a reeling bunch in search of a leader, is going to get stronger as the weather gets colder.

Even if Bruschi or Seymour were not to play in Sunday night’s game, Buffalo’s offense appears to be just what the doctor ordered for the Pats defense. After surrendering big play after big play against the Broncos two weeks ago, the Patriots face a Bills offense that has been anything but explosive.

Against a below average Oakland secondary last week, quarterback Kelly Holcomb managed just 159 passing yards. After a game-opening drive which resulted in seven first downs and a touchdown pass to Lee Evans, the Bills had only eight first downs the rest of the game in the 38-17 defeat. Their 113 passing yards per game ranks them second to last in the NFL.

All this comes as very good news to a beleaguered Patriots secondary which hasn’t shown any ability to cover downfield. The hobbled Duane Starks has been making plays 50 yards too late in the form of touchdown-saving tackles. Meanwhile, New England safeties Eugene Wilson and James Sanders are showing their inexperience, too often not in position to provide help on deep passes between the hash marks.

The struggles, however, do not fall squarely on the shoulders of the secondary. The defensive line needs to do a better job of collapsing the pocket and sacking the quarterback. Jarvis Green and Vince Wilfork have been neutralized without Seymour, but if the All-Pro lineman returns this week, it could prove treacherous for the immobile Holcomb.

The Bills offensive line has already yielded 18 sacks this season. New England will need to add to that total to keep Holcomb from getting comfortable enough to connect with Evans and Eric Moulds downfield. While neither Moulds nor Evans have very gaudy statistics this season, the combination of poor pressure and bad coverage can help make average receivers look good. The Patriots have managed to pressure opposing quarterbacks the most out of a 4-3 set, however, with four defensive linemen on the injury report, New England might be forced into using 3-4 sets yet again. Green (shoulder), Marquise Hill (ankle), Seymour (knee) and Ty Warren (hip) are all listed as questionable.

The Bills could add to the Pats’ personnel problems by employing a hurry-up offense in three and four-wide receiver sets, which will force extra defensive backs to remain on the field.

“They kind of force you to play your sub groups or your nickel groups,” said Bill Belichick. “But they make you deal with it on a down after down basis, not just third down. That’s been part of the offense. I’d say the last few weeks -- since (Holcomb took over the starting job) -- they’ve sprinkled that in and it’s just one more thing that you have to defend.”

If the Bills are successful in spreading the Pats defense out, Willis McGahee may end up running all over New England. The Bills average 124 yards per game on the ground while the Patriots have allowed just about that same total (125 yards) per game. McGahee averages 4.2 yards per rush and has been Buffalo’s workhorse, routinely getting about 25 carries a game.

Meanwhile, McGahee’s counterpart on New England, Corey Dillon, could be back in the lineup this week after resting an ailing ankle against Denver. Dillon’s return would come at a good time for the Patriots considering Buffalo’s run defense is ranked 31st in the league (159 yards per game). If healthy, Dillon should find plenty of openings along a defensive front that has suffered several injuries. However, if Patrick Pass ends up starting again, look for Tom Brady to continue his season-long aerial show.

Brady is already on pace for over 600 pass attempts and 4,800 yards. While airing out the ball so frequently is exciting, it isn’t the winning formula the Patriots are looking for down the stretch.

“You need a balanced offense, especially (when the weather is) windy, rainy, cold and breezy,” said Brady. “We're going to need to establish more of a ground game, there's no doubt about that. We're working hard to do that. I think ultimately - when you talk about 400 yards of offense - you'd like somewhere between 200-250 yards throwing and the rest of it made up of rushing.”

Through six games, New England has averaged 299 yards passing a game. But too many of those yards have come as a result of falling behind and having an ineffective running attack. Against the Bills, the Pats face the choice of either establishing a running game or facing trying to pass on a secondary that has picked off nine passes and is third in the NFL in yards allowed (153 per game).

Sunday night marks the beginning of the most crucial part of New England’s schedule. The Bills will be 3-0 in the AFC East if they defeat the Patriots, giving them an inside track on the division title. New England’s inconsistent start has rendered its divisional games as even more crucial than in the past.

“(Division games) really count for double,” said Brady. “It’s like a rivalry game. We're not really where we want to be and they're not where they want to be. It's all going to come to a head Sunday night."

What to look for: How do the Patriots use Bruschi? The Patriots will be careful in easing their middle linebacker back into action after his long layoff. Midseason practices can’t duplicate the types of hits that can be expected in an actual game. It is likely that Bruschi will only see limited action in his first game back, possibly 15 or 20 plays. When asked how rusty Bruschi might be, Belichick said, “He’s an experienced player, so it’s not like we’re starting from scratch. He has a pretty good background and is a good fundamental player, so he has a lot of things that he can fall back on, to build off a base.”

Notes: The Bills are 0-3 on the road so far this season … Buffalo leads the league in drives over 10 plays … New England is 15-6 against the Bills in their last 21 meetings … The Bills are second in the NFL with a +8 turnover differential … Since 1993, the two teams have played five overtime games totaling 51:49 of extra time … The Patriots are on pace to break the franchise record for average offensive yards per game. So far this season, they have 377.8 yards per game, which would eclipse the 1978 team’s mark of 372.8 … Brady is on pace for 4,856 passing yards this season, which would be the second highest total in NFL history behind Dan Marino, who passed for 5,084 yards in 1984.

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