Published September 23, 2011
| Sports Network
Two of the NFL's remaining unbeaten teams and highest- scoring offenses will be on display Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. One isn't a surprise. The other more of a shock.
The Buffalo Bills, owners of seven consecutive losing seasons and zero playoff appearances since 1999, are presently tied with the mighty New England Patriots for first place in the AFC East heading into this Week 3 showdown between the divisional foes, and both teams have amassed their current 2-0 marks in somewhat similar fashion.
The Patriots have overpowered their early competition on the strength of a devastating offense that's racked up an astounding 1,126 total yards in impressive wins over Miami and San Diego, with nearly all of that damage coming from the golden right arm of quarterback Tom Brady. The 2010 NFL Most Valuable Player has been absolutely dynamite through the first two weeks, amassing a league-record 940 yards over those games while throwing for seven touchdowns and completing a sizzling 71.6 percent of his attempts.
Brady put up a career-high 517 yards along with four scores in the defending AFC East champions' 38-24 season-opening triumph at Miami on Sept. 12, then hit on a crisp 31-of-40 throws for 423 yards and three touchdowns to propel the Pats past visiting San Diego by a 35-21 count this past Sunday.
Buffalo has shown it can move the football with authority as well in already halving its entire four-win total from a year ago. The Bills have erupted for an NFL-best 79 points -- six more than New England -- while receiving some stellar play of their own under center from onetime journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The seventh-year pro and former castoff of the Rams and Bengals has matched Brady's league-leading seven-touchdown total thus far, while also displaying his more credentialed counterpart's ability to come through in the clutch. Fitzpatrick threw for three second-half scores in last Sunday's 38-35 thriller over Oakland, a game in which Buffalo rallied from a 21-3 deficit at intermission, with the final one coming to slot receiver David Nelson with just 14 seconds left to play.
Fitzpatrick has had some assistance in helping the Bills to only their second 2-0 start in the past eight seasons. Running back Fred Jackson tops the league with 229 rushing yards at the moment and churned out 117 with two touchdowns in last week's comeback.
Buffalo will now attempt to take the next step in its progression under second-year head coach Chan Gailey, and a rare recent ousting of the Patriots would certainly qualify as a landmark moment. New England has prevailed in 20 of the past 21 meetings between the clubs and carries a 15-game win streak over the Bills into Ralph Wilson Stadium, the longest active run of any series.
The Bills haven't bested the Patriots since a 31-0 home rout on Sept. 7, 2003, and Brady boasts a career 17-1 record as a starter against Buffalo.
The Patriots own a 60-40-1 advantage over the Bills in a series that dates back to 1960 and as previously stated, extended its lengthy winning streak over the Bills to 15 straight games with last December's 34-3 dismantling in Foxborough. New England has gone 10-1 at Ralph Wilson Stadium during that dominant stretch, and last year's 38-30 decision marked its seventh consecutive win as the visitor in this set.
These longtime AFC East rivals have faced one another just once in the postseason, a 26-8 Patriots' verdict on the road in a 1963 AFL Division Playoff.
New England head coach Bill Belichick sports a 20-3 career record against the Bills, including a stellar 20-2 mark during his 11-year tenure with the Pats. Gailey is 0-3 lifetime versus New England, with the first defeat a 13-6 setback while the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1999, and has lost both previous head-to-head bouts with Belichick.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England is tied with San Diego for the most pass attempts (88) in the league over the first two weeks and has averaged an unheard-of 463 yards per game via the air during that span, with the incomparable Brady (940 passing yards, 7 TD, 1 INT) putting on a clinic in both wins. The two-time league MVP won't have one of his preferred targets available on Sunday, with standout tight end Aaron Hernandez (14 receptions, 2 TD) presently sidelined with a sprained MCL suffered in last week's game, but plenty of other terrific options remain at Brady's disposal. Super slotman Wes Welker and wide receiver Deion Branch are tied for third in the NFL with 15 catches and rank third and sixth, respectively, in receiving yards, with Branch erupting for 122 yards on eight catches against the Chargers. Second-year tight end Rob Gronkowski (10 receptions, 172 yards) is quite a weapon as well, with the Buffalo-area native hauling in a team-best three touchdown catches, and the Pats also have a six- time Pro Bowler on the roster in veteran wideout Chad Ochocinco, though the colorful offseason pickup has managed just three grabs totaling 59 yards thus far while still getting acclimated to the offense. New England isn't entirely about the pass, however, as evidenced by the 200 and 217 rushing yards the Pats rolled up on the Bills in last year's two meetings. Leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis (104 rushing yards, 2 TD) had 104 yards on 19 carries in last December's win over Buffalo, with sparkplug Danny Woodhead (81 rushing yards, 3 receptions) adding 93 and a touchdown on 13 attempts in that game.
A Buffalo defense that surrendered 323 passing yards and failed to come up with a sack of Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell in last week's wild win could be hard-pressed to slow down New England's aerial onslaught, especially with starting cornerback Terrence McGee out with a hamstring injury. The Bills do possess one quality cover man in corner Drayton Florence (6 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD), but inconsistent former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin (10 tackles) and rookie nickel back Aaron Williams (6 tackles) need to step up for the team to prevent Brady from delivering video-game numbers once again. It would also help if Buffalo could mount some threat of a pass rush, an ongoing trouble spot for the defense in recent years, from its outside linebacker combo of injury-prone Shawne Merriman (5 tackles) and veteran Chris Kelsay (4 tackles). The Bills were the worst team in the league at stopping the run a year ago and have shown only moderate improvement this season, having yielded an average of 5.0 yards per rush over the first two games.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Buffalo comes into Sunday's clash averaging a healthy 422.5 total yards per game (7th overall) and has displayed excellent offensive balance, with Jackson (229 rushing yards, 2 TD, 3 receptions) consistently grinding out positive results on the ground to complement the steady passing of Fitzpatrick (472 passing yards, 7 TD, 1 INT). The Bills have compiled a league-best 190 rushing yards per outing to date and have been lethal within the red zone as well, scoring touchdowns on 8-of-10 such possessions (tied 1st overall). Tight end Scott Chandler has been an early factor in that latter area, as three of his seven catches have gone for scores. Wide receiver Steve Johnson (12 receptions, 162 yards, 2 TD), who's playing through a nagging groin injury, and Nelson (14 receptions, 149 yards, 1 TD) serve as Fitzpatrick's primary targets and are both coming off big games, with Nelson recording a career-best 10 catches against Oakland and the feisty Johnson accumulating 96 yards and a touchdown on eight grabs. The Bills have also gotten surprisingly good work out of a no-name offensive line, as Fitzpatrick's only been sacked once over the first two weeks, though the group will be without right guard Kraig Urbik this week due to a sprained knee.
If the Patriots have an Achilles' heel, it's a secondary that's been torched for a combined 762 passing yards and four touchdowns in the team's two wins, with enemy quarterbacks completing over 66 percent of their throws. The defense was able to come up with two interceptions of San Diego's Philip Rivers last week, though one of those was by All-Pro nose tackle Vince Wilfork (3 tackles, 0.5 sacks), and cornerback Devin McCourty (13 tackles, 2 PD) did make the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year after snaring a team-best seven picks. The pass rush, headed up by situational end Mark Anderson (2 sacks) and versatile outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich (5 tackles, 1 sack), has generally been good, with New England having posted six sacks so far on the year, and expect the always-creative Belichick to devise multiple looks and packages intended to throw Fitzpatrick off guard. Teams haven't run a whole lot on the Pats, mostly because they've been playing from behind, but the unit fields one premier stopper in ultra-active linebacker Jerod Mayo (16 tackles), who's fresh off an 11-tackle performance against the Chargers in which he also forced a key fourth-quarter fumble.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Execute on offense. This won't be a problem for the Patriots, who have put up at least 31 points in every one of their 10 consecutive regular-season wins, and Buffalo's defense isn't stout enough to realistically hold Brady and his mates below that number this week. That means the Bills are going to have to match New England score for score in order to keep pace. Buffalo should be able to move the ball on the Pats, but maximum efficiency will be a must. Third downs need to be converted at a high rate, and field goals in the red zone aren't going to cut it in this game.
Get a stop. This one has the ingredients to be a potential shootout, and if the Bills can keep it close deep into the fourth quarter, it may just come down to whether either defense can come up with a game-changing moment. Though New England has revealed some deficiencies on that side of the ball, it was able to force a pair of San Diego fumbles in the final period that had a definite impact on the final outcome of last week's win.
Rushing the passer. Buffalo doesn't stand much of a chance if can't prevent Brady from standing comfortably in the pocket and picking apart its secondary with his wealth of choices at the skill positions. On the other side, Fitzpatrick's success has in part been a product of getting solid protection up front, so look for Belichick to use every available method to try to disrupt the timing of the underrated triggerman.
It's been more than eight years since the Bills pinned a loss on the Patriots, and this game may be the team's best opportunity to finally end its longstanding failures in this series. It's still probably a longshot, though, as New England is simply too strong offensively for Buffalo to keep under wraps, and trying to beat the powerful Pats in a track meet will be one tough task. The Bills look good enough to hang around and make New England sweat this one out, but the end result will likely be a familiar one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 35, Bills 27