FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After a week away, the Patriots are ready to resume their schedule with a pivotal division game against the Buffalo Bills. Because it’s a division game, the stakes are already raised.
But consider this: the Patriots, at 5-3, could effectively put themselves four games ahead of the 3-5 Bills (because of the head-to-head tiebreaker) with a win and just seven games remaining.
A loss to Buffalo would not only knot the season series at one, it would also allow Buffalo to creep back within one game of the division lead and re-assume a spot in the playoff mix.
So the stakes are unquestionably high, as is the anticipation after the Patriots’ most recent performance, a 45-7 rout over the Rams, and a weekend spent without playing a game.
In talking to players throughout the week, the bye provided as much of a mental reprieve as it did a physical break, allowing them to step away from the routine of learning and executing a weekly game plan.
But the show goes on this Sunday, and the Patriots begin a second half schedule that features four divisional contests and five games at home.
With kickoff against the Bills drawing near, here are the five things we’ll be watching for Sunday:
1. The rust factor. The Patriots listed 19 players on their injury report on both Wednesday and Thursday, so the bye was welcomed for a beat-up team. But the time off can also create rust for those teams that don’t ready themselves. The Patriots need to avoid coming out slow against the Bills, something they’ve struggled with in recent matchups. The team quickly found itself down 21-7 against Buffalo in Week 4, and must show that no rust accumulated during the time away. More attention will be paid to how the offense starts, as that is typically the side of the football that is more rhythm-based. After the offense put up 45 points and played a flawless first half against the Rams in Week 8, can it keep things rolling in Week 10?
2. Who’s healthy? So of those 19 players, which will sit? That much remains unclear, but certainly there are a handful of notable ailments that could affect the course of the game. The most prominent names on the Patriots’ injury report are tight end Aaron Hernandez and guard Logan Mankins, each of whom was absent in Week 8. Hernandez has now missed four games in his recovery from a right ankle issue and Adam Schefter reported Saturday he is not expected to play. Mankins, meanwhile, is bothered by calf and hip issues. The status of these two will be closely monitored leading up to kickoff, and the Patriots are going to have to deal with a banged up roster again on Sunday. Also of note: Will starting safeties Patrick Chung (shoulder) and Steve Gregory (hip) return? If so, it will be interesting to see how that affects the role of cornerback-turned-safety Devin McCourty.
3. Stopping Spiller and Jackson. Both Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork spoke glowingly of the Bills’ run game on Thursday, and each highlighted the dual-threat tandem of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Though the Bills were less effective on the ground in Week 4 than they’ve shown in other games this season, Spiller and Jackson are a terrific duo capable of both tough yards and big plays. Spiller leads all rushers with 7.2 yards per carry this season, a total that reflects his athleticism and ability to make tacklers miss. The Patriots allow the second-fewest yards per carry (3.5) so far in 2012, and must keep things tight in their run defense against Buffalo. Controlling the clock on offense is one the best defenses for the Bills.
4. Exposing a secondary. The Bills’ secondary wasn’t very good before the week began, but news that both cornerback Terrence McGee (placed on IR) and cornerback Aaron Williams will not play on Sunday has the group especially thin. Tom Brady was razor sharp in exposing the middle of the field against the Bills in Week 4, but might have an opportunity to spread it around to all zones this Sunday with the shuffled deck in the Bills’ secondary. Rookie Stephon Gilmore gives the Bills a capable cornerback to play on an island, but the depth that follows in behind him is severely limited. This could be a big day for an already potent passing attack.
5. Defending the pass. While the Bills’ secondary looks ripe for the picking, the Patriots secondary hasn’t been a blanket of coverage on its own throughout 2012. And while help is due to arrive on Monday when cornerback Aqib Talib can be activated to the roster, the Patriots must make more strides in Week 10 against a Buffalo passing attack that features a variety of weapons. The Patriots forced four interceptions of Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 4, but a long score from receiver Donald Jones aided by tackle whiffs from Gregory and Chung likely remains in the mind of the Patriots more than a month later. While the personnel involved for the Patriots may yet to be determined, the secondary will once again be under the microscope in Week 10.