NFL Preview - New England (8-5) at Buffalo (5-8)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Buffalo Bills probably don't want to hear too much about the New England Patriots' problems.
In fact, as the teams get set to meet at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Week 15, Buffalo would likely object to the notion that the Patriots have problems at all.
While the Patriots and their fans concern themselves with narrow leads in the AFC East and future Hall of Fame wide receivers displaying diva-like behavior, the 5-8 Bills are likely wondering how they'll get to the end of the 2009 season without taking on any more water.
The Bills have already lost an offensive coordinator (Turk Schonert) and head coach (Dick Jauron) to the firing line, have received mixed results from a pair of starting quarterbacks (Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick) and running backs (Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson), have seen no fewer than four starting offensive linemen (Brad Butler, Demetrius Bell, Eric Wood, Seth McKinney) and two tight ends (Derek Schouman, Derek Fine) go on season-ending injured reserve, and have chased that medicine with a lethal shot of four IR'd starting defenders (linebackers Kawika Mitchell, Keith Ellison, Marcus Buggs and cornerback Leodis McKelvin).
Oh, and as if you couldn't have guessed, the Bills are in last place, headed to a fifth consecutive losing season with their next loss, and a 10th straight postseason-less campaign already a virtual certainty.
Buffalo is actually due a tip of the hat for scratching and clawing its way to a 2-2 mark since interim head coach Perry Fewell took over the team, keeping a .500 season a possibility, albeit a remote one, with last week's 16-10 win at the Kansas City Chiefs.
Against that backdrop, things are positively rosy in Foxboro, MA.
Though the Patriots come off a 20-10 win over the Carolina Panthers, which snapped a two-game losing streak and kept New England in the AFC East driver's seat, that result has been overshadowed this week by debate regarding wide receiver Randy Moss' individual performance.
Moss, who had just one catch for 16 yards with a fumble against Carolina, was subsequently accused by Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble of taking plays off and not exhibiting 100 percent effort. Several NFL pundits have fanned the flames of the controversy by offering their take on the matter, and though Moss himself has not spoken publicly since the loss, head coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady both rose to Moss' defense earlier this week.
"I have a lot of respect for Randy," said Belichick at his Monday press conference. "I think he's one of our best players and I think if you watch other teams defend him and watch other teams play against him, they think the same way -- other than these two guys from Carolina after they lost another game. I guess they don't think that way. They haven't won a lot of games now."
Earlier in the day, Brady defended Moss as well, saying on WEEI Radio, "Randy is one of the best players in the history of the NFL. When it doesn't go perfect out there, everyone wants to jump on Randy."
"He is one of the favorite guys I've ever played with," the quarterback continued. "He's one of my good friends on the team."
The Patriots hold a 57-40-1 edge over the Bills in a series that dates back to 1960, and have claimed 17 of the last 18 overall, including 12 in a row since Buffalo's 31-0 home victory over New England to open the 2003 campaign. In Week 1, the Patriots rallied from a late deficit to edge the Bills, 25-24, at Gillette Stadium. Last year, New England took a 20-10 home win over the Bills in Week 10, and gutted out a 13-0 win in blustery weather conditions at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Week 17. New England is 5-0 in Buffalo since the 2003 loss.
The clubs have also met once in the postseason, a 26-8 New England road victory in a 1963 AFL Division Playoff.
Belichick holds a 17-3 record against the Bills in his career, including a 17-2 mark while with New England. Buffalo's Fewell will be meeting both Belichick and New England for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
It was 14 weeks ago when Brady (3830 passing yards, 23 TD, 11 INT) took the football for the first time in a meaningful game since his serious knee injury last September, and the three-time Super Bowl-winner's performance did not disappoint. While rallying the Pats from a double-digit deficit late, Brady completed 39-of-53 passes for 378 yards with two touchdowns (both in the final three minutes) and one interception. In addition to Moss (69 receptions, 9 TD), Welker (105 receptions, 4 TD) also had 12 receptions against the Bills, making those count for 93 yards, while tight end Benjamin Watson (25 receptions, 5 TD) had a big night with six catches for 77 yards and was the recipient of both Brady touchdown passes. Brady has six more 300-yard passing games since the Bills contest, though last week's 192-yard outing against the Panthers was his lowest of the year. That showing was due in large part to the strength of a New England running game that saw backs Laurence Maroney (654 rushing yards, 8 TD), Kevin Faulk (287 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 3 TD), and Sammy Morris (202 rushing yards, 1 TD, 14 receptions) combine for 187 yards on 38 total carries. Faulk added a TD in the victory. The Patriots offensive line has allowed just 16 sacks all year, and none last week, for a team that is second in NFL total offense (411.7 yards per game) behind only the Saints.
Though Buffalo has had its problems defensively this season, particularly within a run-stop unit that ranks last in the NFL in rushing defense (170.5 yards per game) and yards allowed per carry (5.0), the Bills reinforced in last week's win over the Chiefs that they are a very good playmaking team on the back end. The Bills posted four interceptions of Kansas City's Matt Cassel in their road win, taking over the NFL lead in INTs (25) and moving to fourth in the league in takeaways (29). Rookie free safety Jairus Byrd (45 tackles), who is making a strong case for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, had the final pick of the game, his league-leading ninth of the year. Cornerback Terrence McGee (43 tackles, 1 INT) and safety George Wilson (87 tackles, 4 INT, 2 sacks), along with linebacker Paul Posluzsny (83 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack), also joined the pick parade and will need to be at their playmaking best against the Pats' corps of receivers this week. The Bills also had four sacks of Cassel, with ends Aaron Schobel (49 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) and Chris Kelsay (51 tackles, 5 sacks) among those getting in on the act. Meanwhile, Buffalo's run-stopping problems were underlined by the career-best 143-yard day they allowed to the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles. The Bills must get a stronger effort this week from tackles Kyle Williams (55 tackles, 3 sacks) and Marcus Stroud (50 tackles, 2 sacks) at the point of attack, and linebackers Posluzsny and Bryan Scott (76 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) behind them.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
As mentioned, injuries have made the Bills a much different team than they were when they visited New England in Week 1, as Buffalo now favors more of a run- based approach than they displayed when Trent Edwards was the starting QB in September. Running backs Fred Jackson (731 rushing yards, 38 receptions, 3 TD) and Marshawn Lynch (422 rushing yards, 2 TD, 26 receptions), who combined for 183 yards on 32 combined carries in last week's win over the Chiefs, should now be the focal point of an offense that has been shaky in protecting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (1089 passing yards, 5 TD, 9 INT, 134 rushing yards). Jackson had 20 total touches for 140 yards and a touchdown in New England during Week 1. Fitzpatrick, who has thrown for a total of 184 yards in the team's last two games, has not looked downfield to wideouts Terrell Owens (45 receptions, 5 TD) and Lee Evans (34 receptions, 5 TD) with great frequency of late, though Owens did continue a late-season renaissance with a touchdown catch in Kansas City. Tight end Shawn Nelson (13 receptions, 1 TD) is another middle-of-the-field receiving option for Fitzpatrick, though he'll also be asked to stay in and block for a team that has allowed a bloated 38 sacks on the year. The Bills are 29th in the league in total offense (273.8 yards per game) as Week 15 commences.
Belichick has tinkered greatly with a struggling defense in recent weeks, and his changes received generally positive reviews in last week's win over the Panthers. With cornerback Shawn Springs (31 tackles) and safety James Sanders (27 tackles) among those thrust into more prominent roles, the Pats allowed just 14 first-downs and 305 total yards to Carolina on the day. Sanders was credited with a team-high-tying seven tackles in the win. A New England pass rush that ranks near the bottom of the league with just 22 sacks had two sacks of Matt Moore in the win, with outside linebacker Derrick Burgess (20 tackles, 3 sacks) and end Jarvis Green (28 tackles, 1 sack) both breaking through in the game. The Pats are a middle-of-the-pack 16th against the run (109.3 yards per game), and will be in trouble this week if nose tackle Vince Wilfork (43 tackles) and end Ty Warren (46 tackles, 1 sack), who left last week's game with foot and ankle issues, respectively, are unable to suit up. Inside linebackers Jerod Mayo (71 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Gary Guyton (70 tackles) have been among the club's best tacklers this year, but haven't made a great number of big plays.
It's a riskier week than usual to start the principles of the New England passing game. With the weather in the 20's and possible precipitation, it will be tempting for the Patriots to use Maroney, Morris, and Faulk and establish the ground attack against the league's worst run defense. That said, there's also a very good chance the team will look to get Moss involved early to quell the recent controversy, and no one has really stopped Welker all year, so benching any of the above is a tough option to swallow. The New England defense is a good play here against a struggling Bills attack, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski should contribute as well.
On the Buffalo side, there isn't much to recommend, with the possible exception of Jackson, who always gets touches, and Owens, who still isn't putting up huge numbers but has touchdowns in four of his last six games.
There should be no question that the Bills will be motivated to beat the Patriots, given the team's losing streak against New England and the heartbreaking way Buffalo lost the Week 1 affair. And though the Bills will continue to play hard for Fewell, the talent discrepancy here will simply be too much for his team to bear. The Bills are playing way too many backups to be able to contend with a first-rate opponent like New England, and the Patriots - despite their recent problems - aren't going to let this one slip away when losing will likely mean surrendering sole possession of first-place.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Bills 13
12/17 16:21:40 ET