WHAT: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills, NFL Week Four
WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30
WHERE: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, N.Y.
SPREAD: Patriots -4
BILLS ON OFFENSE: The big question is who will be in the backfield come game time. Both Fred Jackson – who hurt his knee in Week One – and C.J. Spiller – who hurt his shoulder in Week Three – are questionable for this weekend. Both resumed practicing late this week.
"Jackson and Spiller are both questionable, 50-50, and I think they both have a legitimate chance," coach Chan Gailey said Friday. "Both were limited today."
Having one or both backs in the backfield would be a boon for the Bills. The Bills' running attack (178 yards per game, third in the NFL) is the team's strength – but it's also the strength of the Patriots' defense (81 yards per game against, seventh in the NFL). Even if neither back can suit up, Tashard Choice proved a capable fill-in, as he rushed for 91 yards last week against Cleveland.
The running back tandem might not matter much on the scoreboard, ultimately. Although the passing game generates just a hair more yardage (193 per game) than the rushing game, Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown for eight touchdowns, tied for the most in the NFL. and given the Patriots' relative lack of strength in pass defense – the Pats surrender 262 yards a game, good for 24th in the league), the passing game might be the way for Buffalo to go.
Fitzpatrick despite a new man defense that often keeps two safeties deep, the Patriots were susceptible to long balls in their losses to Baltimore and Arizona.
BILLS ON DEFENSE: The pats are mostly interchangeable parts on both sides of the ball, but with Tom Brady calling the shots, it doesn't much matter. Despite losing the game, Brady exceeded 300 yards against the Ravens. He hit eight different receivers – Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd each surpassed 100 yards – and was excellent at checking down.
One target he didn't check down to much was Rob Gronkowski, the tight end who had only two catches last week and has only 14 on the year. The Pats kept him on the line to help in pass protection against the Raven's fierce pass rush, which got to Brady twice.
That, it would seem, fits right into where the Bills want them. Buffalo's revamped defensive front has nine sacks so far this season and has shored up against the run. It would almost seem the Bills custom-made their defense to stop the Patriots – a claim Gailey didn't entirely dispute:
"If you want to win the division, it has been proven lately that you have to beat them. So yeah, everything you do is to win the division first and the way you do it is by beating them … if you can get some pressure on the passer in this ball game, you up your chances of slowing them down and getting the ball back."
On the ground, second-year back Stevan Ridley leads the way with 233 yards on 52 carries. Danny Woodhead (29 carries, 72 yards) provides a change of pace and plays most passing downs. While the Bills may not be able to duplicate last week's Herculean effort – star Browns back Trent Richardson had a paltry 27 yards on 12 carries – but Gailey is confident his team can continue to stuff runners:
"We have made dramatic improvements in our run defense. That is going to allow you, if you can play run defense and play third downs, you give yourself a great chance to be successful. I think we have improved in both areas quite a bit."
Gailey equally credited the switch to a 4-3 front for the improvements.
OUTLOOK: Bills fans are loving the fact that New England is coming into this game behind the Bills in the standings. The Pats enter this game 1-2 – the first time they've been below .500 since – and the Bills are tied atop the AFC East at 2-1.
The Bills would love nothing better than to put the Pats two games back in the standings with a win Sunday. And the home win last season proved it's possible.
"This being a division game, being a home game where we are going to have the crowd with us, we have to win these games in order to get back to the playoffs," Fitspatrick said. "In order to do all of that stuff, this is the kind of game we have to win. Like I said, I cannot stress enough that they are a great team and they are going to be a great opponent on Sunday. It is going to show us a lot about ourselves."
Division opponents, in general, are a tough task for the Bills. Buffalo has won only four of its last 25 divisional games, including Week One's loss to the Jets. So the Bills can prove they're to be taken seriously in 2012 with a win.
But, while the feeling is sort of different entering this game, it probably shouldn't be. Brady has only lost twice to the Bills in his career, and he's never out of a game – the two Pats losses have come down to a missed New England field goal and a made Baltimore field goal. And Bill Belichick could coach a Pop Warner team into contention, so you know he won't be short for ideas on how to trip the Bills up. There are too many options in the air game for the Bills to adequately cover – as the Jets first exposed three weeks ago.
The Patriots, sooner or later, have to fall. but the defending AFC champs won't this week.
PREDICTION: Patriots 31, Bills 21.
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