NFL Preview - New England (1-2) at Buffalo (2-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It has been over nine years since the New England Patriots last found themselves under the .500 mark, but that is exactly where the franchise stands heading into a big divisional matchup with the hosting Buffalo Bills this Sunday.
While it is only three points that stand between the Patriots and another two victories, the fact remains that the defending AFC champions are just 1-2 following a two-point loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 16 and a close 31-30 setback to the hosting Baltimore Ravens in Week 3.
In a rematch of last season's AFC title game won by the Patriots, New England took a nine-point edge on Stephen Gostkowski's 20-yard field goal 50 seconds into the fourth quarter, but Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco connected with wide receiver Torrey Smith for a five-yard score through the air with 4:01 remaining to pull the Ravens within two.
Following a 27-yard pass interference call on New England cornerback Devin McCourty and a kneel down to center the ball, Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker was true on a 27-yard field goal try as time expired, setting off Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
Tucker's kick went straight over the right upright and Belichick grabbed an official and argued adamantly for a review. He declined to talk about his contract with an official after the game, but did offer an explanation on Monday.
The coach told reporters that he was trying to get the official's attention to see if the play was under review, but was unsuccessful. He added that he never meant any disrespect or abuse toward the officials, but was simply looking for some communication.
"I'm trying to focus on coaching our football team and doing the best that I can with them," he said. "That's my job and that will continue to be my job. We can control what we can control and that's what we need to do."
The coach was fined $50,000 on Wednesday for the incident.
Belichick's club is now under the .500 mark for the first time since losing in Week 1 of the 2003 season to the Bills. New England, though, ripped off two straight wins and 16 in 17 games to close out that campaign with a Super Bowl win.
New England's NFL record run of 145 straight games at .500 or better is no more, and the franchise is now in danger of losing three in a row for the first time since a four-game slide from Sept. 29-Oct. 27, 2002.
The Bills would love to be the ones to hand the Patriots a third straight loss, but history is not on their side. After edging out a 34-31 win at home over New England on Sept. 25 of last season, snapping a 15-game losing streak in this series, Buffalo saw the Pats reel off 49 unanswered points to notch a 49-21 victory in the Week 17 rematch in Foxboro.
New England's 62 wins over Buffalo is the franchise's highest total against any opponent.
The Bills come in having won two straight despite losing their top two running backs to injury over the first three weeks.
After a 20-point loss to the New York Jets in Week 1 in which Fred Jackson suffered a knee injury, C.J. Spiller had to be carted off the field in Cleveland on Sunday because of a shoulder issue.
Much like Spiller stepped in for Jackson, Tashard Choice was effective off the bench and Buffalo snapped an eight-game road losing streak with a 24-14 win over the Cleveland Browns.
"We won on the road; we got that monkey off our back," said Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
More good news came during the week when it was learned that Spiller's injury isn't as serious as feared and that Jackson has a chance to return for this game.
Jackson said early in the week that there is a 70-to-75 percent chance he will play, shortening his expected absence by at least a week. The back was a limited participant in practice on Wednesday and said there is still stuff he has to work on, such as cutting and adjusting to contact.
Facing off against the Patriots and a chance to drop them to 1-3 should leave Jackson with a little extra motivation however.
"Yeah. Without a doubt. It is a big game for us, but at the same time I have to be smart. Make sure I am out there able to make plays for my team and I am not hindering them. We have guys who can step up like Tashard did last week. At the same time, it is the Patriots. We need all guys on deck to go out there and get a win for us," said Jackson, who will also have to adjust to playing with a brace on his knee.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Much was made about Wes Welker's supposed diminishing role in the Pats offense through the first two weeks, but with tight end Aaron Hernandez out with an ankle injury, quarterback Tom Brady made good use of his starting wideouts.
Welker and Brandon Lloyd were targeted 22 times, with Welker making eight catches for 142 yards. Dating back to his time with the Miami Dolphins, Welker has caught a pass in 97 straight regular-season games since last going without a reception on Dec. 24, 2005.
Brady, who has gone over 300 yards passing in the last two games, has plenty of weapons, though wide receiver Julian Edelman did suffer a hand injury versus the Ravens and is questionable. Still, the recently re-signed Deion Branch and tight end Rob Gronkowski are excellent options as well.
Getting pressure on Brady will be tough as New England's line, led by left guard Logan Mankins, is solid, but the Bills have capable disrupters in ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in addition to outside linebacker and leading tackler Nick Barnett, who has 23 stops on the year.
Williams, signed to a six-year, $100 million contract this offseason, logged 1 1/2 sacks against the Browns, his first QB takedowns of the season. Buffalo hopes that is the spark that the end needs.
"Yeah it was great. You know anytime you have got to make a play to get that sack, that first sack is definitely huge during the season. It feels great, but you know it also feels better whenever you can go out and perform and you can play off one another," Williams said.
Buffalo feasted on Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, sacking him four times and logging two picks, but safety Jairus Byrd and company will be tested by Brady.
The Bills have gotten to Brady before, picking him off four times in the victory last season. Two of those came in Buffalo territory and another was returned for a score.
The Bills still need to keep an eye on the Patriots backfield. Both Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden scored touchdowns on the ground last week and running back Steven Ridley is averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Buffalo has one of the top rushing attacks in the league and may have the luxury of easing Jackson back into action thanks to Choice's play in relief of Spiller, who hasn't been ruled out of this game but is unlikely to play.
Choice ran for 91 yards on 20 carries and Spiller caught one of Fitzpatrick's three touchdown passes before getting hurt on a separate 25-yard catch in the game.
While the play of Choice, who started just four games over his first four NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, may have surprised some, it did not take Bills head coach Chan Gailey off guard.
"I am not shocked, as I said (Sunday). Everybody else seems to be but I am not. I know what kind of player he is and what kind of competitor he is. He is great to have on our football team. I have a very high comfort level when he is in the ballgame," noted Gailey.
The Bills ground attack figures to face a stiff challenge as the Patriots have one of the better run defenses through the first three weeks thanks to 325- pound defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, rookie end Chandler Jones and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Mayo led the Pats with 11 tackles versus the Ravens, who did manage to get 101 yards rushing from playmaking back Ray Rice.
Fitzpatrick has been pretty consistent for the Bills early on, logging 581 yards and eight touchdown passes through the three games to three interceptions. He can join Joe Ferguson and Jim Kelly as the only quarterbacks in Bills history to throw multiple touchdown passes in each of the first four games of the season.
Fitzpatrick, who has been sacked just one time, has hooked up with wide receiver Steve Johnson on three touchdowns and that should have the Pats' secondary on notice. New England will need to bounce back after Flacco torched the unit for 382 yards and three touchdowns.
Like Belichick, McCourty isn't using the officiating as an excuse, even after the Pats were flagged 10 times for 83 yards on Sunday night versus the Ravens, who were hit with 14 penalties for 135 yards.
"It's a football game and we can't control that," said the cornerback. "If a flag is thrown, that's something that we can't worry about. It's a big game and we wanted to get this win. It's simple, you have to go, and execute, and practice and get better."
Safety Steve Gregory, added as a free agent this offseason, snatched his first interception of the season, returning the pick 36 yards to help set up Bolden's two-yard TD run.
The Bills made a bit of a surprising move on Tuesday, releasing two-time Pro Bowl punter Brian Moorman, who was the longest-tenured player on the roster. Rookie Shawn Powell was re-signed to take over the punting duties.
Buffalo has been a pleasant surprise at the early going, using a high-powered offense to overcome some of its shortcoming so far on defense. This upcoming three-game stretch against New England, the San Francisco 49ers and also- surprising Arizona Cardinals should serve as a solid measuring stick.
The Bills, though, draw the unfortunate task of facing a motivated Patriots club that is staring at a 1-3 hole. Belichick and Brady should be extra focused this weekend and that could spell doom for Buffalo's inconsistent defense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 34, Bills 24
09/27 14:27:32 ET