It would be hard deny I’m a little worried about this game in Buffalo. Yes, the stats look nice for the Pats vs. the Bills over the past decade, Tom Brady has only ever lost twice to them. But those who have watched the games know how close most of those have been, and it’s a pretty sure bet we’re in for another close one this weekend.
Now the Pats come into Buffalo at 1-2, with the closest thing resembling an early season “must win” in the last decade. And make no mistake the Bills are a team that have been constructed in recent years with taking down the Patriots in mind, and they’ve done it in a way that a Patriots uber blogger like myself can appreciate. If I was building a team to take down my beloved team, I’d do it the way the Bills are, though I’d surely still wish I had a couple more weapons on offense and maybe a slightly more consistent quarterback.
They can rush the passer with four, are not afraid to play press man coverage and they have a quick passing game that can eat the soft zone “bend don’t break” defense up. All of these things have given the Patriots fits over recent years.
So this should be an excellent game, and one that requires the Patriots turn in their most complete team effort of the 2012 season. Here are my weekly five keys as to what they’ll need to do to pull out the win and get back to .500.
1. Defensive Disguise: The thing that stands out most with Ryan Fitzpatrick is just how quickly he gets the ball out. He rarely holds it longer than 3 seconds and as a result he is barely ever sacked. He can however be fooled into making some bad throws, especially with such an accelerated decision process, so the Patriots must try to force those throws to the wrong places by disguising what they’re doing. From a personnel standpoint the Patriots have been fairly straightforward on defense, but this week we could finally see some switches, or at the very least, some guys in spots we haven’t seen before, especially from the usual edge rushers. Don’t be surprised to see Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich standing up and walking around. We saw the premiere of the “five and dime” defense against Buffalo a few years back and could see something similar this time around.
2. Interior Chaos: Another way to force Fitzpatrick into his interception-throwing ways is make sure his sight lines are not clear. This is done with an interior rush that can push the pocket and run stunts to keep the throwing lanes murky at best. It’s not something the Patriots have excelled at since losing Mike Wright and Myron Pryor, and they might be hard-pressed to find the personnel to pull it off this week but they’ll have to try something. Part of me wonders if newly-signed Terrell McClain was brought in just for this purpose. Even so expect to see a good dose Jermaine Cunningham and perhaps Brandon Deaderick to try and cause some disruption inside. And if Vince Wilfork could turn in a game like he did in last year’s AFC Championship that would be extremely helpful.
3. Believe it or not, a lot of Ridley: The Bills will run nickel personnel on defense as their base and that will tempt the Patriots to run on them, as it should. The Bills were built to combat Tom Brady’s aerial assault but can the Pats finally break through with their power running game and have that lead the way like the passing game usually does? It would improve their chances in Buffalo by not playing into the strength of their defense. The problem is that the Pats have lacked a significant push from their offensive line in the running game, and Dareus, Williams, and Williams are no pushovers. Still, if the Bills think they have the answer to Tom Brady it might be time to change the question. Ridley has an explosive playmaking ability that the Pats have lacked on the ground in recent years. If he can get going it will take the Bills out of their comfort zone and the Pats could roll.
4. Neutralize Kyle Williams: Anyone who reads this blog knows how much I covet an interior rusher and Kyle Williams is arguably the best penetrator in the NFL. I believe Solder and Vollmer will be able to hold down the edges from the pass rushers but it’s the inside guys of Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, and (hopefully) Logan Mankins (who didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday) that concern me. The problem with an interior guy like Williams is he takes away Brady’s ability to step up, and we’ve seen numerous times when he can’t step up he’s not nearly as effective. If Mankins can’t go this becomes even dicier. Connolly has struggled, Wendell has been inconsistent, and Mankins is still getting back into form before sustaining a hip injury that has limited him. The success of the Patriots offense might very well rest in the hands of how well they deal with Kyle Williams, and to a slightly lesser extent Marcel Dareus.
5. Win: As always it’s the only thing that matters. This is arguably the toughest division game the Patriots will have this season (depending on where the Jets are at come Thanksgiving) and it comes at a critical time for the Patriots. The Bills know the Pats are on the early season ropes, and there’s no question what dropping New England to 1-3 could do for their confidence. The Patriots need to find their identity still on offense, defense and special teams. They’ve had their moments in all three phases but there is still an element of unknown across all of them. 1-3 is not an inescapable hole but things will certainly not get easier with Peyton Manning coming to town next weekend. The Patriots need to send a message to the AFC East and the rest of the NFL that they’re still a team that can win the close ones, especially against a tough divisional opponent on the road. This could really be the game that puts the 2012 Pats on the right track.