After two weeks of the 2011 season, the 2-0 Buffalo Bills have half of their win total from a year ago and are tied with the Jets and Patriots atop the AFC East.
The Bills haven’t beaten the Patriots since the season opener in 2003, a 31-0 drubbing highlighted by defensive tackle Sam Adams’s 37-yard interception return for a touchdown. Since that game, New England has outscored Buffalo 435-163 in 15 meetings, and the Bills have scored 20 points against the Patriots only twice. However, Buffalo usually plays the Patriots tough the first time the two teams meet in a season, with four of the last seven “first games” decided by one score or less. Sunday should be a tough road test for the Patriots against an improved divisional foe.
Here are three areas to watch for from the Bills:
* Through two games, the Bills look like a balanced offense. Running back Fred Jackson is the NFL’s leading rusher with 229 yards, averaging 6.5 yards per rush. He leads the league with four 20-plus yard rushes, but isn’t just a big play threat. Jackson can get hard yards (sixth in the NFL with 89 yards after contact) and protects the football well (hasn’t lost a fumble since Week 10 of last season). Jackson’s style is complemented well by speedster C.J. Spiller, who has averaged 8.8 yards per rush on nine carries (highest of any back with at least nine rushes). As a team, Buffalo’s 6.1 yards per rush is tops in the league, and an improvement over their 4.3 average last season. Even though their rushing game was mediocre last season (18th in rush yards), Buffalo did post 5.9 yards per attempt in two matchups against the Patriots last year. That was the highest average of any team against the Patriots defense in 2010. New England will have to be better at defending the run, particularly on first down (allowing 5.3 yards per rush on first down, 29th in NFL).
* ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating measures all plays made by a quarterback (passes, rushes, sacks, fumbles, etc.) and accounts for when those plays are made in a game. Through 2 weeks, Tom Brady (89.7) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (84.8) rank first and second among NFL quarterbacks. Brady’s presence is no surprise at the top of the leaderboard, but Fitzpatrick is another story. His emergence this season highlights the need for the Patriots’ defense to limit Buffalo’s gains on first down, as Fitzpatrick and Brady have had comparable production on throws traveling 10 yards or fewer. Fitzpatrick’s average throw only travels four yards in the air, but his short-range passing attack has yielded five touchdowns and zero interceptions to Brady’s four touchdowns and one interception. Fitzpatrick has been able to extend drives, too, with a 40.4 first-down percentage on throws 10 yards or fewer. That’s almost identical to Brady’s 40.7. Fitzpatrick is not as effective on deep throws (47.4 completion percentage on throws 11+ yards, 20th in NFL), so keeping the Bills out of second- or third-and-short situations will take on added importance.
* A year ago, the Buffalo defense was the only unit in the NFL to have over 100 snaps in both the 3-4 and 4-3 base defense. That statistic highlights the identity crisis that plagued the Bills defense, and it was a major reason why Buffalo allowed an NFL-worst 4.8 yards per rush last season. This season, the Bills are sticking with a 3-4 (they locked up nose tackle Kyle Williams to a long-term contract extension in August). Only two members of Buffalo’s starting front seven last Sunday against Oakland were on the team the last time the Patriots played Buffalo. Marcell Dareus and Nick Barnett joined in the offseason, but has the revamped Bills defense necessarily been an improvement? The ranking might be better (32nd to 28th in NFL in yards/rush allowed), but this season Buffalo has allowed more yards per rush (4.98) and a higher first down percentage (27.1 in 2011 to 24.2 in 2010). The Patriots gained at least 200 rushing yards in both of their meetings last season. While they gained more yards in a Week 16 blowout, their ability to run on the Bills was more important in Week 3 while protecting a one-point lead at halftime. In the second half, the Patriots gained 116 rushing yards and had a 44-17 advantage in plays from scrimmage to finish a 38-30 win. New England’s ability to run on the Bills will keep the Patriots defense, and the improved Bills offense, on the sidelines.