Bucs Provide Pats With Last True Test

There is little doubt that the Patriots have performed like a playoff team so far this month. They just haven't actually beaten a playoff team yet. The Patriots dominated AFC East also-rans the past two weeks, routing the Bills and Jets by a combined score of 51-10. But the NFC South-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-4) will provide New England (8-5) with a more appropriate measuring stick for how far the team has come.

The Bucs are coming off an impressive 20-10 win against their divisional rival Carolina Panthers, who outplayed the Patriots in Week 2. With the Jets and Dolphins (9-17 combined record) left on the schedule after Saturday's game against Tampa, New England faces its last chance to beat a true contender before January's playoffs.

"Im excited about what this game means for us," said Tom Brady, who is listed as questionable on the injury report after hurting his shin last week scrambling for a touchdown.

The Buccaneers are one of the most balanced teams in the league on defense. They rank fifth against the rush (92.8 yards per game) and fourth against the pass (178). It is a fair bet that the Patriots won't approach the franchise record 32 first downs they had against the Bills last week. Tampa Bay has given up the fewest first downs in the NFL (15 per game) and allows just a 34.5 percent conversion rate on third down.

As good as Brady has been this season, the Patriots wont be able to beat the Bucs based solely on a good day from the quarterback -- especially if Brady's injury is more serious than he is letting on. Just about every offensive player will need to perform at the top of his game if New England is going to score enough points to win.

Offensive success will again begin with getting Corey Dillon plenty of touches early in the game. Last week, Dillon ran for 102 yards on 22 carries and helped the Patriots establish some much needed balance on offense. One of the main reasons New England converted all those third downs and held the ball for nearly 42 minutes was Dillon's ability to find positive yardage.

"It wasn't like we were averaging seven yards per carry or anything," said Belichick. "(But) we were able to keep running it and just keep punching it in there and gain enough yards to keep our third down conversions manageable."

Many of the Patriots successful rushing plays were to the outside against Buffalo. Those wont come as easily this week with speedy linebackers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles guarding the edge of Tampa's 4-3 defensive front. New England's offensive line will need to be stout in blocking nose tackle Chris Hovan and linemen Simeon Rice and Greg Spires to open holes for Dillon between the hash marks.

The relative inexperience up front could haunt the Pats this week if they cant set the tone early with good run blocking. If the Buccaneers do force the game into Brady's hands, it wont be the first time this season the offense has had to rely heavily on the pass.

Throwing the football -- especially on third down -- has become much less daunting with Kevin Faulk in the backfield the past two weeks. Faulk caught six passes for 72 yards in Buffalo. The third-down specialist has kept defenses thinking enough about draws and short passes out of the backfield to open up more of the field. It is no accident that Troy Brown has become more of a factor in the slot since Faulk made his return.

The Patriots may use Rice's up field speed against him with screen passes to Faulk, Dillon and perhaps even to wide receivers Deion Branch and David Givens. Rookies Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur don't figure to be able to keep Rice (nine sacks) out of the backfield for very long, though as a whole New England is seventh in the league with just 23 sacks allowed.

Tampa Bay's infamous Cover-2 zone can be exploited by Branch and Givens, but only if they have enough time to find the soft spots in the coverage. Cornerbacks Ronde Barber (five interceptions) and Brian Kelly (four) are one of the top duos in the league, helping the Bucs hold opposing passers to a 67.2 rating (third in the NFL).

Defensively, the Patriots face a quarterback with less than 10 career starts for the third consecutive week. In his third year in the league, Chris Simms is finally getting his shot to run the Buccaneers offense. Since taking over the starting duties in Week 6, he has a 80.9 passer rating, with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Simms has thrown for less than 150 yards in three of his last four games, but against the 31st ranked Patriots pass defense, he should top that benchmark thanks to his receiving weapons.

Joey Galloway poses the most serious threat to a Patriots' secondary that has been burned for big plays all year. Galloway averages 16.6 yards per reception and has caught eight touchdowns. His 1,114 receiving yards are fifth best in the NFL. On the other side, Michael Clayton has been disappointing so far this season, notching just 29 receptions after a stellar rookie season last year.

The Patriots will undoubtedly have plenty of safety help on Galloway, who will likely be covered by cornerback Ellis Hobbs. Hobbs has a pick in each of the last two games and has begun to find his groove since stepping into the starting role last month. The rookie has been praised for his play, but Galloway is the type of receiver who could provide him with a reality check.

"He's great after the catch. He's a hard guy to press because of his vertical speed and he's a hard guy to back off because of his quickness. He's as good as any receiver we've played against," said Belichick.

With Galloway likely to draw extra attention from the safeties, running back Carnell Williams should see plenty of action. The rookie has a 4.1-yard average and five touchdowns. But New England has turned around their rushing defense. After ranking 27th against the rush after the first nine weeks of the season, the Patriots have since improved to 11th in the league (104.8 yards per game). Richard Seymour's return to the defensive line seems to have reinvigorated Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork's play. Buffalo managed just 14 yards rushing, the second fewest allowed in Patriots history.

How Eric Mangini's defense goes about stopping Jon Gruden's multiple formation, West Coast style offense should be an interesting subplot to the game. Belichick holds the Bucs head coach's offensive approach in high regard, comparing him to Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan.

"They run probably every formation that you could run," said Bill Belichick. "I think Jon must -- when he comes in at 3 in the morning -- look at all the formations that he's run in the last four or five weeks and start the list of ones he hasn't, and then put those in the next game-plan."

What to watch for: Is Brady able to play at full throttle? Anytime Belichick has an excuse to list a player on the injury report, he more than likely will. Brady has been listed as probable for two years with a shoulder ailment. But Brady's shin/lower leg was clearly bothering him after his touchdown scramble last week. The quarterback has been told by the coach to keep quiet about the severity of his injury, but Brady said he doesn't think it is anything too major. Nevertheless, his downgrading from the usual probable to questionable provides some pause.

Notes: The Patriots have allowed just 10 points in the last two games, the teams best two-game total since 1986. ... Tampa Bay has scored an average of 18.9 points per game and allowed 16.1. ... Bucs running back Mike Alstott has just 31 carries this season, but six of them have been touchdowns. ... New England's 494 net yards in Buffalo was the second highest total on the road in franchise history. ... Brady needs just 134 passing yards to match his career best of 3,764 yards set in 2002. ... The Buccaneers are the only team in the NFL Brady has yet to play against. He is 24-6 when starting against a team for the first time. ... Tampa Bay's turnover differential is +7. ... The Bucs offense has a 38.8 percent conversion rate on third down (16th in the NFL). ... The Patriots officially clinch the AFC East with a win or a Miami loss.

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