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Scouting report

Bills at Patriots

By Jim McBride
Globe Staff / January 1, 2012
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Today, 1 p.m., Channel 4 (Line: Patriots by 10 1/2)

When the Patriots pass

Tom Brady has taken his share of punishment the last few weeks, and there is reason to think he might take more abuse today. New England’s offensive line is in shambles, and Buffalo can pressure on the inside (hello, Marcell Dareus) and off the edge (hi there, Chris Kelsay). In addition, the Bills secondary features three decent corners in Drayton Florence, Aaron Williams, and Justin Rogers and two above-average safeties in George Wilson and Jairus Byrd. Brady, who may or may not be nursing a sore left shoulder, will follow standard operating procedure by getting rid of the ball quickly to slotman Wes Welker (he will torture Rogers if they put the rookie on him) and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (they will torture whoever draws them). Gronkowski is practically impossible to neutralize. Hernandez has the athleticism to catch passes without breaking stride and is a formidable tackle-breaker. Deion Branch is sometimes the forgotten man but he’s also the man who runs great routes and is always in sync with Brady. If you’re looking for Chad Ochocinco, he is wearing No. 85 and will be on the sideline.

EDGE: Patriots

When the Patriots run

Stevan Ridley’s fresh legs are just what the doctor ordered for a rushing attack that has struggled to establish consistency. The 5-foot-11-inch, 225-pound rookie runs with great energy and urgency. Though he wouldn’t be classified as a burner or a bruiser, he has a little of both in him. He has good vision, patience, and will break through arm tackles. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still running with a hard-charging style but hasn’t hit holes with the same authority as in seasons past. Green-Ellis runs with good pad level, but a lingering toe injury seems to have robbed him of his deceptive quickness. Danny Woodhead uses exceptional instincts, vision, and patience to move the ball. Lousaka Polite (6 feet, 245 pounds) is a powerful short-yardage runner who can stun defenders with his pop. He will lower his shoulder and deliver some devastating blocks. He can catch the ball, too. Buffalo rookie Marcell Dareus has settled in at nose tackle and has flashed superior strength and instincts. He is extraordinarily athletic and explodes into ball carriers. Inside linebacker Nick Barnett is a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine who never takes a snap off. Barnett’s rookie running mate, Kelvin Sheppard, is tough and competitive.

EDGE: Patriots

When the Bills pass

Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has struggled mightily over the last eight weeks. One of the NFL’s feel-good stories early on, the former Harvard star has been victimized by injuries all around him. Buffalo’s line, backfield, and receiving corps have taken hits, forcing Fitzpatrick to become less of a game manager (at which he really excels) and more of the focal point. Fitzpatrick reads defenses quickly and has the arm to make all the throws. He’s at his best in the pocket reading through his progressions, but he has deceptive speed and athleticism and will make plays on the run. Also, he has a beard that would make Paul Bunyan jealous. Stevie Johnson is Buffalo’s best receiver. The 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pounder has good size, strength, and speed. He has long arms and strong hands and gives max effort on every play. David Nelson uses size and strength to gain separation. C.J. Spiller is good on screens and quick hits because he has elite field vision and quickness. The Patriots secondary continues to give up chunks of real estate but makes enough plays to win. CBs Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty are inconsistent.

EDGE: Bills

When the Bills run

The Bills’ promising start was derailed by injuries - none bigger than the broken leg suffered by tailback Fred Jackson. Losing Jackson (who was a threat in the passing game as well) took away Buffalo’s balance, and the Bills have been dreadful for two months. C.J. Spiller has been asked to carry the load in Jackson’s absence and while the 5-foot-11-inch, 197-pounder has shown flashes (202 yards the last two weeks), he lacks the bulk and strength to be a workhorse. If he can slither to the second level (he won’t break many tackles), he will use his speed and dekes to beat linebackers and get into the secondary, where he is rarely caught from behind. Tashard Choice, who has been cut by the Cowboys and Redskins this season, is the primary backup. Choice is a tough, competitive runner who, when healthy, will break arm tackles and finish his runs by delivering a blow. There’s a lot mileage on his tires and he has lost a step, but he still must be respected. The Bills offensive line is in shambles because of injuries, and will struggle against New England’s beefy front. Widebodies Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, and Brandon Deaderick are lane cloggers. Linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dane Fletcher are always around the ball.

EDGE: Patriots

BILLS’ KEY PLAYER A dynamic playmaker with excellent vision and speed, C.J. Spiller is a threat to take it to the house on every touch. If he gets past the first wave of defenders, watch out, because he’s a demon in the open field.

How he beats you: With versatility. The Bills will line Spiller up everywhere - tailback, slot, outside receiver - and he excels in all those spots. He must be accounted for on every snap.

How to shut him down: By pounding him down. Spiller is not a fan of contact and lacks the bulk, power, and toughness to wear a defense down. If you hit him hard, he is unlikely to hit back.

BILLS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:

1. Wing men: Stevie Johnson and David Nelson have to use their size and strength to gain separation and give Ryan Fitzpatrick some viable options.

2. Locked on target: Nose tackle Marcell Dareus has to continue his fine inaugural season by creating pressure and getting hits on Tom Brady. Dan Connolly, you’ve been warned.

3. Return line: Justin Rogers (kickoffs) and Leodis McKelvin (punts) are solid special teamers. They need to make plays and keep the field short.

PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:

1. Quick strikes: Getting on the board early could demoralize a reeling Bills team that may pack it in if it falls behind. It allows you to rest the starters, too.

2. Lane closures: Stopping the run is a must. Buffalo will be perfectly content running the ball - and the clock - all day.

3. Protection plus: The patchwork offensive line must keep Tom Brady healthy. If it can’t, get Brady out of there so he can fight another day. Let Brian Hoyer take the snaps and the hits.

Prediction: Patriots 31, Bills 24

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