Patriots at Bills
Today, 1 p.m., Channel 4 (line: Patriots by 7)
When the Patriots runBruising BenJarvus Green-Ellis and pinballing Danny Woodhead give the Patriots an effective two-headed monster at tailback. They have very little in common except uncommon field sense and vision. Green-Ellis finds a crease, plants his foot, and goes. He runs with good pad level, will absorb and deflect hits, and finishes his runs with a purpose. Woodhead is hard to locate, explodes through the tiniest cracks, changes direction without losing speed, and always falls forward. Neither is a great blocker, but not for lack of effort. Dan Connolly didn’t look out of place at center last week. He faces a big challenge today as he swaps paint with nose tackle Kyle Williams. A 6-foot-1-inch, 301-pound fire-breathing dragon, Williams plays hard on every snap. Connolly has excellent inside running mates in guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Both are old-fashioned maulers who can shed their initial blocks quickly and efficiently before hunting the linebackers. They play until they hear a whistle (and sometimes a second or two beyond). Chris Kelsay is the best of a veteran Buffalo linebacking crew. He is exceptionally versatile and locates the ball quickly. Shawne Merriman (an injury waiting to happen) can bring the wood.
When the Patriots passHow happy is Tom Brady that his annual visit to Western New York is in September and not December? With no snow in the forecast, this could be another 400-yard game for the MVP. The Bills are equal parts 3-4 and 4-3 (it depends where Chris Kelsay lines up), but in either set they will have trouble pressuring the pocket without blitzing. When they do bring extra people, Brady will make them pay by finding the favorable matchup and exploiting single coverage. Brady has a terrific 1-2 receiving punch in Wes Welker and Deion Branch. Brady loves them both because they run precise routes and get open quickly. When Chad Ochocinco gets in-syncho (he’ll get there), this offense will go from scary to devastating. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is a nightmare matchup. The 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pounder is easy to find, has soft hands, and is an absolute beast in the red zone. He’ll be targeted with Aaron Hernandez out. Buffalo has an above-average secondary led by solid safeties Jarius Byrd (he has good range and ballhawking skills) and George Wilson (a reliable tackler who struggles in coverage).
When the Bills runFred Jackson continues to be among the most underrated and underappreciated tailbacks in the league (that tends to happen when you play in Orchard Park, N.Y.). Jackson (6 feet 1 inch, 215 pounds) is big and muscular. He is not a burner but has decent speed, excellent vision, and is sneaky-quick to the hole. He doesn’t have a bevy of moves but will power through defenders and will finish his runs by delivering a blow. C.J. Spiller is more of a home run hitter. The 5-11, 197-pounder has exceptional speed and quickness. If he gets to the second level, look out, because he won’t be caught from behind. He is ineffective between the tackles because he lacks bulk and power. Aggressive center Eric Wood (6-4, 311) sets the tone for the offensive line. A surprisingly athletic player, Wood has quick feet and strong hands. He’s an overachiever but asking him to battle Vince Wilfork all day might be a stretch. Left guard Andy Levitre excels at pulling off the line and hitting moving targets but he lacks strength. Right guard Chad Rinehart (6-5, 323) is big and powerful but lacks athleticism and quickness. If Wilfork & Co. can occupy the interior, it will allow instinctive and powerful linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes room to attack ball carriers.
When the Bills passMuch has been made about quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s intelligence but it would be a mistake to think this 6-2, 225-pounder lacks athleticism. Fitzpatrick has great field presence and awareness. He has taken his share of hits - he’s tough - but seems unshaken by pressure. He works best out of the shotgun, reads defenses quickly, and has a strong arm. Fitzpatrick has quick feet, allowing him to buy extra pocket time, and decent speed, allowing him to make plays with his legs. Like Philip Rivers, Fitzpatrick has an ugly throwing motion but he almost always manages to get the ball where it needs to go. David Nelson is Buffalo’s most consistent receiver. Nelson (6-5, 215) is tall and has strong hands but his lack of explosiveness renders him useless as a deep threat. Stevie Johnson is an excellent receiver but struggles with consistency and health. He is constantly banged up and is currently dealing with a balky groin. Tight ends Scott Chandler (at 6-7 he is hard to miss) and David Martin are solid. Tackles Demetrius Bell and Erik Pears can get overwhelmed by speed rushers. Patriots ends Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis will test the tackles.
Bills' key playerBrad Smith
An outstanding all-around player, the 6-foot-2-inch, 212-pound Smith can line up as a Wildcat quarterback, tailback, or wide receiver. The more touches he gets, the better off the Bills are. Oh, and he’s an absolute demon on special teams.
How he beats you: With great versatility. Smith is strong, smart, and speedy. He sees the whole field and shows incredible burst when he finds a seam. He has a good arm and reliable hands.
How to shut him down: By locating him. He’s going to get the ball on third down, so find him, shadow him, and punish him. If you ignore him, he will make you pay.
Bills' keys to victory1. Ground ball: Buffalo has two quality backs in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Let them carry the load against a New England defense that has been less than stout vs. the run.
2. Jam session: The corners have to get rough at the line with New England’s receivers. Letting Wes Welker or Deion Branch get a clean break is a recipe for disaster.
3. Patience pays off: Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to continue to play with the poise and consistency he has shown the last two weeks. The Bills feed off his coolness.
Patriots' keys to victory1. Grinding halt: New England must stop Buffalo’s potent ground game. Force Ryan Fitzpatrick to beat you with a receiving corps that is raw and hobbling.
2. Surprise strategy: The Bills have been game-planning for Tom Brady all week (makes sense, huh?). Establish a running game early and keep them guessing.
3. Slot machines: Wes Welker’s value is a given. Time to get Welker clone Julian Edelman some touches with Aaron Hernandez on the shelf.