New England Patriots: Buffalo Bills
Did the AFC East's best keep on getting better?
The perennial division champion New England Patriots signed elite cornerback Darrelle Revis, which could offset significant free-agency gains by the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.
The Buffalo Bills are in good position to improve through this week's NFL draft. EJ Manuel, the Bills' top pick last season, returns as the starting quarterback and is one of three second-year players facing intense scrutiny in 2014.
Who finishes atop the AFC East in 2014 could depend largely on which team best handles the stretch run, as December features five inter-division matchups -- including three in a row for the Patriots to end the season.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East offseason and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East team has had the best offseason to date?
Rich Cimini: I'm all about the stars, which is why I'm picking the Patriots, who landed the best free agent of them all: Darrelle Revis. He's one of the top two cornerbacks in the league, a legitimate game-changer. His presence will allow Bill Belichick to play more press-man coverage, which will help their pass rush and create headaches for opponents. Once Brandon Browner serves his suspension, they'll have two physical corners. The Jets and Dolphins helped themselves in free agency, addressing need areas, but neither team acquired a player as good as Revis. The Patriots lost a terrific corner in Aqib Talib and actually upgraded. How often does that happen in free agency?
Mike Rodak: Comparing gains and losses in free agency, the Patriots have fared the best. The season is never won in March, but the Patriots were able to upgrade even after losing cornerback Aqib Talib. Signing Darrelle Revis was the most significant free-agent move in the division, while Brandon Browner adds another quality player to the secondary. The Jets aren't too far behind. Eric Decker and Chris Johnson add firepower where the Jets have struggled in recent years -- at their skill positions. Neither player, though, is on the same level as Revis, which is why I give the Patriots the edge. Honorable mentions go to the Dolphins for signing Branden Albert and the Bills for signing Brandon Spikes.
James Walker: I like what the Jets have done this offseason. It has been offense, offense and more offense in free agency for New York. The Jets went out and signed wide receiver Eric Decker, former Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson and veteran quarterback Michael Vick. All three have a chance to make an impact on New York's weakest side of the football. Jets head coach Rex Ryan is a great defensive mind and has that side taken care of. It's just a matter of New York scoring more points this year. If the Jets can add a receiving threat such as Marqise Lee or Brandin Cooks in the first round Thursday, look out for "Gang Green."
Will an AFC East team select a quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft?
Cimini: No one will pick a quarterback in the first two days of the draft. The most likely candidate is the Dolphins, who have a new offensive coordinator and might be looking to acquire some Ryan Tannehill insurance after two so-so seasons -- but it won't happen before the fourth round, not this year. Neither Geno Smith nor EJ Manuel is entrenched with the Jets and Bills, respectively, but their teams have too many other needs to start doubling down on quarterbacks. The Patriots made headlines by hosting Johnny Manziel on a pre-draft visit, but I'm not buying it. It's still too early to start looking for an heir to the Tom Brady throne.
Rodak: The Patriots are the most likely to select a quarterback in the first three rounds. Their backup since 2011, Ryan Mallett, enters the final season of his rookie contract and hasn't proved in limited playing time that he's capable of being a starter. Mallett was a third-round selection and that could be the sweet spot for the Patriots again, although I wouldn't put it past them to take a quarterback in the second round if one of the top signal-callers falls. The Bills might also pluck a quarterback off the board by Friday night. EJ Manuel, a first-round pick last year, is their starter but they could use an upgrade over Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel as their backup. If the right quarterback falls, Buffalo might pounce.
Walker: The third round seems like the best possibility; it's the safest round of the three for avoiding a quarterback controversy. The Bills would have the best case for drafting a quarterback fairly early. The team has said several times that it's behind 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, but I don't see any reason for the Bills to avoid adding depth at the position behind Manuel in the middle of the draft. Backup quarterbacks Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel are not the answers. Manuel had injury issues last year, as well. It makes sense for the Bills to consider a capable backup.
@RichCimini Pats and Mettenberger is a match made in heaven. Strong arm? Statue in pocket? Tall? Character/Injury concern? All check marks.- Bob (@Bobister) May 6, 2014
What stands out about the NFL schedule for each AFC East team?
Cimini: Prepare for the missiles of October. The Jets face Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in a 12-day span, Weeks 5 to 7. Before that, they meet up with a few other top quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. The Jets' suspect pass defense, which allowed nearly 4,000 yards last season, will be seriously tested. This is the main reason they need to prioritize cornerback in the draft.
Rodak: I've harped on this point before, but the Bills might have the NFL's toughest December schedule. Who knows where they'll be by Thanksgiving -- they could be in the playoff hunt or fading -- but their final month is brutal. The Bills must travel to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos, return home to host Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, make a cross-country trip to face the Raiders and then head back East to finish their regular season on the road against Brady and the Patriots. Ouch. Perhaps it's better that this four-game stretch comes at the end of the season rather than the beginning -- the Bills could be staring down an 0-4 start if it did -- but if they have any hope at the playoffs, they're going to need to win a couple of those games.
Walker: The Dolphins must bring their A-game on the road because they do not have back-to-back home games until the final two weeks. The Dolphins were a respectable 4-4 on the road last season, but it will be challenging for them to put together any significant winning streaks away from Sun Life Stadium. Miami's regular-season opener at home against the Patriots also stands out. We will find out immediately whether the Dolphins are a legitimate threat to New England in the AFC East.
@JamesWalkerNFL the 4 game stretch playing the broncos jets ravens and pats. ultimately make or break us- Michael Broyles (@mikesdolphins) May 7, 2014
Which AFC East second-year player has the most to prove?
Cimini: My first inclination is to say Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who could lose his starting job to Michael Vick, but that's the Jets beat writer in me talking. The better answer is Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. Why him? Unlike Smith, Manuel was a first-round pick, which means greater expectations -- and those expectations were heightened when the Bills anointed him as The Guy. Smith has yet to receive that kind of endorsement from the Jets. The Bills have hitched their franchise to Manuel, who is coming off a mediocre-at-best rookie season in which he went 4-6 as the starter. He was hampered by injuries, but part of being a franchise quarterback is being on the field.
Rodak: It has to be EJ Manuel. Geno Smith is a close second, but the Jets have Michael Vick to lean on. The Bills decided not to add an experienced backup quarterback this offseason, clearing the way for Manuel to be their unquestioned starter. Manuel needs to be more consistent. He showed flashes last season but also had some downright horrid games, including a four-interception afternoon against the Buccaneers. Manuel must also stay healthy. His three knee injuries last season limited him to 10 games and set back his development. Another injury this season will cloud the picture and keep the Bills from knowing exactly what they have. That could give him more leeway if he isn't progressing as quickly as the team would like, but it could also cause the Bills to look elsewhere.
Walker: It's easy to point to the quarterback position and say New York's Geno Smith and Buffalo's EJ Manuel have the most to prove. But neither player was drafted higher in 2013 than Miami's Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick. The Dolphins traded up nine spots to get Jordan last year, only to use him as a backup defensive end and special-teamer. It was head-scratching to figure out why such a dynamic talent couldn't find his way onto the field. Jordan's usage actually was one point of contention between Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin and former general manager Jeff Ireland, who had a falling out last season. Was Jordan not ready for the NFL level? Was Miami's coaching staff holding him back? This is a big Year 2 to answer those questions.
@MikeReiss. Dion Jordan his lack of production as a #3 pick especially when Miami drafted him to put pressure on Brady...gives him the nod- paul (@kurtzfam4) May 6, 2014
He was hired by the Bills to serve as Doug Marrone's defensive line coach, a position he previously held for the Patriots.
On Thursday, Marrone dished on the decision to hire Johnson earlier this offseason.
"I always admired Pepper and again, when we used to play -- again it goes back to the same thing, the tape never lies," he said. "When we used to play New England and Pepper was the defensive line coach, I thought those guys did a great job up front."
One of the unique aspects to Johnson's coaching career has been his ability to draw on his playing experience, as he was a standout linebacker that often assumed a position of leadership with his team.
"Obviously we know a lot about him as a player," Marrone added. "I think he brings a lot to our organization, someone that's obviously been a part of five Super Bowls, has a great intensity about himself, was a great pro and I think he'll bring a lot to our football team not only in the classroom but some of the stuff on the field and off the field as this league continues to grow."
Here is what some Patriots coaches and players said earlier in the week on Manuel and the Bills' offense:
Linebacker Jerod Mayo. "Strong arm. He can also run the ball. They have a lot of different packages for him."
Coach Bill Belichick. "There isn't a ton of Buffalo film on [him]. We saw [him] play in college and scouted [him] coming out, but that doesn't mean as much as what [he does] in this offense and how [he does it]."
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich (on WEEI). "Having a little bit more of an athletic quarterback back there, the offensive mentality is going to be a little bit different for them. They're going to try some option stuff and try to get the quarterback moving around. As a defensive lineman, you're just trying to get to the quarterback, keep him in the pocket. Especially the guy being young, let him throw, let him stay back there and try to make those completions."
For the Bills, it was a mild surprise to see running back C.J. Spiller on the practice field. He was limited by a shoulder injury. Bills coach Chan Gailey said Sunday he didn't think Spiller would play against the Patriots on Sunday. That's one to monitor. Running back Fred Jackson (knee) was also limited for a second straight day. Here are the full reports:
In this week’s P.A.T. (video above), ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Reiss tackles the following Patriots topics:
1. Examining what winning the top seed in the AFC would mean for the Patriots. They can do it with a win in Buffalo on Sunday or a Jets loss (or tie) to the Bears.
2. Arguing Tom Brady vs. Michael Vick in the race for NFL MVP.
“Throw the statistics out. To me, what this is all about with Tom Brady is the Patriots have the youngest team that we can remember in the Bill Belichick era,” Reiss says. “And that has called for Tom Brady to become more of a leader. More of the guy that people look to in that locker room and say ‘We’re going to follow you.’ And Brady has been remarkable in that regard this season ... to me, he’s the NFL’s MVP.”
Mailbag: We’ve seen teams have success running at the Patriots with a big back and keeping the ball away from Brady. Which team is best equipped to do that to New England in the playoffs? Reiss says that team is the Baltimore Ravens, who have the toughness and weapons to give the Patriots problems.
- ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss: Patriots 24, Bills 14. Revived running game should help the Patriots power past the Bills for the 13th straight time.
- ESPNBoston.com's Chris Forsberg: Patriots 27, Bills 13. None of the Bills have to worry about their front yards being vandalized after the game, but the Patriots' ground game does run wild in Buffalo's own back yard.
- ESPN's experts: All nine pick the Patriots over the Bills.
- Sunday Countdown: Keyshawn Johnson, Cris Carter, Tom Jackson and Mike Ditka all pick the Patriots.
- Hank Goldberg: Hammerin’ Hank thinks the Bills will make it close, but New England will win it by a field goal.
- Madden simulation: Patriots 27, Bills 13.
- Make your picks for all of Sunday's games in this SportsNation feature or in our Pigskin Pick 'Em contest.
On the game
“You look at this matchup and see a quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick making his [21st] start in the NFL, a Buffalo team with a losing record and that New England has dominated historically, and you say, ‘This is pretty much a mail-it-in game.’ But factor in that the New England Patriots have been a little up and down; they’ve only won one game on the road; and the game is in Buffalo, a hard place to win with the wind and the cold, a game that looks like it might be a no-brainer could end up being anything but. The conditions could be less than favorable for throwing the football and New England is a passing team.”
On the Bills
“There are some teams in this league that just aren’t competitive. Maybe once or twice a year they can muster it up, but the Bills certainly don’t fall into that category. The Bills are 5-8, but the first time that these two teams played, opening weekend in New England, it was a 25-24 ballgame. This is a much better Buffalo team than some of the bottom dwellers. They only lost to Jacksonville, 18-15. They lost to the Jets, 19-13. This is not a bad football team. It’s a team with a losing record, but this team is far from being an embarrassment.”
On weather conditions being a factor
“It’s the middle of December in Buffalo. I don’t need to say much more than that. It could be wild. It’s going to be frosty. I think the temperature is going to be somewhere in the 20s. And as we know in Buffalo, the wind will probably be blowing. Who knows what might happen? The Bills are the worst run defending team in the NFL but it will be interesting to see if New England can take advantage of that because New England is not a strong running team. They are middle of the road. They’re just not a ‘pound it at you’-type football team. They are a pass-first offense. It will be interesting to see if New England is capable of taking advantage of that matchup that they have.”
Turns out the two go back even further than that.
Fewell reflected on the time that he was an assistant coach at Vanderbilt (1995-97) and Belichick came to campus on a scouting trip. Fewell said Belichick was scouting defensive back Corey Chavous and a few others.
"I had the pleasure of 'clinic-ing' and talking with him about defensive back play," Fewell relayed on a conference call. "I've always admired him, studied some of the things he's done throughout his career. We've never worked together or coached together, but in your coaching career you look at people and like some of the things they do and you try to emulate those things."
Fewell said some of what Belichick talked to him about on that scouting trip are things he still applies today. Fewell was not more specific.
This note caught the eye while reading through the Bills' media packet: Schobel has more sacks on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady than any player in the NFL.
Sacks vs. Brady
1. Schobel -- 12 (15 games)
2. Jason Taylor -- 9.5 (14 games)
3. Shaun Ellis -- 8 (15 games)
4. Joey Porter -- 6 (5 games)
5. John Abraham -- 5 (9 games)
1. They are 5-8, coming off a 16-10 win at Kansas City.
2. Perry Fewell is serving as interim head coach. He was the team’s defensive coordinator and took over when Dick Jauron was fired Nov. 17 with the team 3-6.
3. Run defense is an issue. They rank 32nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (170.5) and average yards per carry (5.0).
4. Rookie safety Jairus Byrd, a second-round draft choice out of Oregon (42nd overall), leads the NFL with nine interceptions. As a team, the Bills lead the league with 25 interceptions.
5. After Fewell was named interim coach, he named former Harvard quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick the starter over Trent Edwards. Fitzpatrick, who was 1-1 as a fill-in for Edwards earlier in the season, is 2-2 since getting the full-time nod.
6. The Bills are the NFL’s last-ranked red-zone offense, scoring just 10 touchdowns in 31 trips (32.3 percent).
7. Terrell Owens has a team-high 45 receptions for a team-high 705 yards. Running back Fred Jackson (38) and receiver Lee Evans (32) are next on the receptions list.
8. Jackson is their leading rusher (731 yards, 17th in NFL), followed by Marshawn Lynch (422).
9. Punter Brian Moorman is a perennial Pro Bowler who often shifts field position. His 47.2-yard average and 41.4 net rank fourth in the NFL.
10. The Bills have struggled in the second (98 points allowed) and fourth quarters (112), while proving to be tougher in the first (30) and third (31).