Patriots Can Clinch Division In A Rush

Back when the Patriots were the most dominant team in the league, they were quite good at putting opponents away with that one last time-consuming fourth quarter drive that ended in a touchdown. Corey Dillon would carry the ball at least six or seven times and the Patriots would march down the field, eat up the clock and leave their opposition all but dead.

The Pats (7-5) head into the fourth quarter of the 2005 season with a similar opportunity to squash not only the Bills (4-8), but the entire AFC East. With a New England win in Buffalo and a Miami loss in San Diego, the Patriots can clinch their third straight division crown.

It took the Patriots three months, but last week’s 16-3 win against the Jets was a small step toward proving the defending champions have some hope for optimism come January. New England won last week the same way it won so many games over the past two title seasons. They ran for a season-high 146 yards and held the Jets to just 41 yards on the ground. Against the 31st-ranked Buffalo rush defense, the Patriots can earn a division-clinching win by continuing to hand the ball to Dillon.

After blowing a 21-point lead in a demoralizing loss in Miami last week, the Bills are a different team than they were in Week 8. Back then, they were still a threat of passing the Patriots in the standings.

“They came in here and pretty much controlled the game for 55 minutes in October,” said Bill Belichick.

Buffalo held the ball for 39:20 and held the Patriots offense in check until Dillon’s two fourth quarter touchdown runs gave them the lead. This time around, in what figures to be inclement weather, Dillon can make things a little easier for the Patriots against an imploding Bills team.

The Pats’ starting back looked fresher than he has all season against the Jets. Dillon overcame a tough start and ran for 65 yards on 16 carries, many of which came in the second half. Against Buffalo in Week 8, Dillon ran 18 times for 72 yards and two touchdowns. His last 20-carry week came October 9 in Atlanta, so Dillon should be fresh enough to handle the workload. The Bills have allowed six 100-yard rushers already this season.

Passing the ball could prove to be difficult if New England doesn’t establish any running attack early. Tom Brady was efficient the first time around against Buffalo, completing 14 of 21 throws for 199 yards and a touchdown. Seven of those passes were to David Givens, but the biggest throw was a 33-yard touchdown to Deion Branch in the third quarter. The Patriots didn’t score any points in the first half as they struggled to extend drives. New England was an inefficient 1-for-7 on third down.

The Bills sacked Brady three times, two of those coming from Aaron Schoebel, who leads the team with nine sacks. Buffalo is certainly capable of getting off the field on third down and long if the Patriots are forced into those situations. Even at home in Foxboro, the Patriots were unable to put together any long scoring drives. Their three touchdowns in the first game came on drives lasting 2:16, 2:51 and 36 seconds.

Sustaining drives will be that much more difficult on the road. The Bills have allowed an average of just 12 points per game at home this season. Crowd noise could play a factor in the passing game along the inexperienced offensive line for the Patriots.

The return of third down specialist Kevin Faulk will give the Patriots a threat out of the backfield that they did not have in the first game. Faulk made an instant impact on third downs last week for New England after missing the prior eight weeks with a broken foot.

“This isn't the first time that he's been out for a while and come back and been productive,” said Belichick of Faulk’s performance against the Jets. “He picks things up quickly and has a good sense and a good feel for what is going on and can adapt and adjust very quickly.”

New England’s defense likewise seems to have adapted to its new personnel over the past two weeks. After a promising effort in the red zone area against the Chiefs two weeks ago, the Patriots held the hapless Jets offense to three points last week. Michael Stone and cornerback-turned-safety Atrell Hawkins have provided some stability opposite Eugene Wilson at the weak safety position.

The better secondary play may be essential this week as Bills rookie quarterback J.P. Losman found some rhythm with Lee Evans in the first half of the Dolphins game. Evans caught three touchdown passes and looked more like the playmaker that he was at times last season as a rookie. The Bills did not have much of a deep passing game when Kelly Holcomb was at the helm. Of course, against New England, Holcomb managed 263 yards and a 55-yard touchdown ball to Eric Moulds, who finished the day with nine receptions and 125 yards.

The Patriots won’t have to worry about Moulds this Sunday. The veteran wideout was suspended for one game after bashing coach Mike Mularkey’s play calling in the second half of last week’s debacle.

Moulds took issue with a pass play that resulted in a game-shifting interception from Losman. While some of his receivers may lack complete confidence in the young quarterback, Belichick says Losman has vastly improved since being benched in September following a rocky start to the season.

“I think he has done a much better job in terms of protecting the ball and keeping it out of tight spots,” said Belichick. “But sometimes that has meant pulling the ball down and running it or getting it to the secondary and outlet receivers.”

With Moulds out, running back Willis McGahee should be busy again. In the first game, McGahee carried the ball 31 times for 136 yards. The second year back has slowed down over the past month, however, and is averaging 3.9 yards per attempt for the season after a fast start.

The defensive line has stepped up its play against the run since the return of Richard Seymour. Curtis Martin managed just 26 yards last week. The Patriots forced the game into Brooks Bollinger’s hands and can do the same thing this week with Losman if they can keep McGahee at bay.

Both teams figure to run the ball frequently and keep the game moving and the scoring low. It should be one of those ugly games that the Patriots grind out in the fourth quarter en route to a win. It won’t be pretty, but then again, nothing this team has done this season has been.

What to look for: How long is the Patriots defense on the field? In their last meeting, the Bills had drives of 14, 13, 11 and 11 plays. Their two longest drives lasted 6:59 and 8:48 as the Bills were 7-for-14 on third down. New England was lucky enough to steal a win at home despite being outplayed for three and a half quarters. Look for the Patriots to try to win the battle for time of possession by keeping the clock moving on offense and getting off the field on third down on defense. The Patriots can help themselves by keeping McGahee’s average attempt under four yards.

Notes: The Patriots are 16-6 against the Bills in their last 22 meetings. … Tom Brady is 18-0 when the game-time temperature is less than 40 degrees. … The Patriots have won 14 straight games where the temperature was 35 degrees or below at kickoff. … Hawkins (thigh, questionable) was added to the Patriots injury report this week. … The Bills have allowed 35 sacks in 12 games. … Losman’s passer rating is 70.1. … The Patriots are 31st in the league against the pass (255 yards per game). … Belichick is 9-3 against the Bills as a coach. … Buffalo’s +7 turnover differential is fifth best in the AFC.

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