FOXBOROUGH - Sam Aiken owns a perspective unique in the Patriots' locker room on what their special teams will face tomorrow against the Bills. Aiken spent five seasons in Buffalo, establishing himself as one of the NFL's marquee special teams gunners while growing to understand the emphasis the Bills place on the kicking game compared with other teams.
"It's more. A lot more," Aiken said. "They've got guys that are not very good at offense or defense. But their specific job is special teams. They pay more attention to special teams than anybody else."
That focus has helped the Bills burnish a reputation as one of the NFL's best special teams units, a notion the Patriots, equipped with their own renowned special teams, will challenge tomorrow. The result will determine which team holds the edge in the AFC East, and it may be determined by which team boasts the league's premier special teams unit.
The Bills, under special teams coach Bobby April, have earned an annual spot as one of the best units in the league. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, unprompted, rapidly listed the reasons for Buffalo's special teams reputation yesterday. Kicker Rian Lindell and punter Brian Moorman were obvious, but Belichick also rattled off no-names like 6-foot-8-inch tackle and field goal-blocking specialist Langston Walker and kick-covering aces Jabari Greer, John Wendling, and Bryan Scott.
Belichick called return man Roscoe Parrish "as dangerous as anybody in the league." He called Buffalo's punt coverage "excellent." He called Moorman a "big-time guy that can change field position." He pointed to the Bills' penchant and boldness for fake kicks and punts.
"They really have the ability to win games and control games on special teams," Belichick said. "It's an area of the game that we say is important every week, and it's a third of the game. But with Buffalo, they're very, very explosive in that phase, and they make a lot of plays in all six phases" - kickoff, kickoff return, field goal, field goal block, punt, and punt return - "and don't give up very many. The more you watch them in the kicking game, the more appreciation I have for what they do on a week-in, week-out basis. It's something that doesn't get a lot of attention."
But the Patriots this season have developed their own special teams prowess. Both their kickoff and kick coverage teams are among the NFL's best. Their average field position after a kickoff is the 29.3-yard line, fourth best, and their opponents' average starting spot, the 23.1-yard line, ranks second.
Kick returner Ellis Hobbs ranks first in the NFL at 29.3 yards per return. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski leads the AFC with 72 points, and his 13 touchbacks are second behind the Denver Broncos' Matt Prater, who has the advantage of elevation.
The Patriots may be vulnerable both punting and returning punts. They rank 29th in the NFL in punt return average, while punter Chris Hanson is 27th in net average at 34.9 yards. And tomorrow he'll be punting to Parrish, who averages 13.2 yards per return, third in the league.
"It will definitely play a big factor, knowing that Buffalo has an excellent special teams corps," Aiken said. "But we do, too. It's going to be a big challenge for both of us. Whoever will win that battle will have the advantage in the outcome of the game. We've got to be more mentally focused this week than at any time.
"As a special teams corps, we're paying attention to more details this week, knowing what they're capable of doing. But you know, they don't know what we're capable of doing. It's going to be a nice shocker for them."
Aiken views April's unpredictability as one of his strengths. "You have to be ready for a fake at all times," Aiken said. The Bills scored a touchdown in their season opener against the Seahawks on a fake field goal, a pass from Moorman. Even when the Bills don't fake, Moorman can become problematic. Belichick recalled a play from a Patriots-Bills game in 2004 when Moorman mishandled a snap, was forced to run, and scampered for a 34-yard gain and a first down.
While aware of the threat the Bills present, the Patriots will maintain their approach. Gostkowski said he might focus on booting the ball higher to allow for better coverage, but "you don't do anything different. We're not going to let them make us do anything different. We're just going to match them."
"It's going to be a great battle," Hanson said. "It's going to be a fun game to watch as a fan on special teams."
Adam Kilgore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.