For the first time in more than nine years, the Patriots find themselves below .500. It’s unfamiliar territory for the franchise, which heads to Buffalo on Sunday to kick off divisional play against the Bills. That affords the Patriots an opportunity to play catch up to one of two teams they trail in the division, but it won’t come easy.
It was roughly a year ago that Buffalo caught fire in early in the 2011 season and spoiled the Patriots' trip to Western New York, winning 34-31.
Like the Patriots, the Bills have a new look on defense this season, catalyzed by the addition of prized free agent defensive end Mario Williams, a player many surmised the Bills brought in to disrupt Tom Brady and the New England offense.
Williams, along with former Patriots defensive end Mark Anderson, bookend a defensive line that projected to be among the best in football, and has its first chance to prove itself against the Patriots’ offensive line in Week 4.
As kickoff draws nearer, here are five things we’ll be watching for:
1. Protecting Brady. Of course, the primary area we’ll be keeping an eye on is the Patriots’ offensive line and its ability to deter not just Williams and Anderson, but defensive end Chris Kelsay and tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, each standout players in their own right. The Patriots’ offensive line has allowed seven sacks through three games, and has performed relatively well on the whole in protecting Brady. But work remains to be done, and star guard Logan Mankins is dealing with a hip ailment that kept him out of practice all week. SATURDAY NIGHT UPDATE:Mankins has been ruled out of the game, and the Patriots signed guard/center Matt Tennant. Can the balance of the Patriots' offensive line keep Buffalo’s vaunted front in check?
2. Who runs for Buffalo? Make no mistake about, Buffalo is no one trick pony from the backfield, as Bill Belichick made clear during his Wednesday afternoon press conference. That being said, top weapon C.J. Spiller, who has averaged a ridiculous 9.3 yards per carry thus far, remains uncertain to play after injuring his shoulder in Week 3. The player he often splits reps with, veteran Fred Jackson, looks more likely to suit up for the first time since suffering a knee injury in the season opener. In Buffalo’s Week 3 win over the Patriots last season, Jackson had 74 yards rushing, 87 yards receiving and a touchdown. No matter the back, the Patriots have to be ready to stop the Bills’ spread-it-out and create running lanes attack.
3. The secondary. Shades of 2011 were evident in the Patriots’ Week 3 defeat, as Joe Flacco put up 381 yards passing Sunday night. It wasn’t the Patriots’ best defensive performance to date, but, in the eyes of this scribe, not indicative of what the unit truly is. The secondary will certainly be closely monitored, but so too should be the Patriots’ front seven and pass rush. Flacco faced minimal pressure, freeing him up to scan his reads and move the ball down the field. If the Patriots can re-establish their rush, that should bolster the secondary. Doing so may not be so easy, as Buffalo operates on a quick-passing game and has allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL thus far (just one so far).
4. The turnover battle. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is a player capable of putting up big passing numbers, but has struggled during his career with costly turnovers. In fact, Fitzpatrick threw three pivotal picks in the Bills’ season opener, in which they were easily handled by the Jets. In Buffalo’s two victories since, he’s combined for zero interceptions and five touchdowns. Finding ways to pressure, disrupt and interfere with Fitzpatrick’s timing is pivotal for the Patriots’ defense, which has registered two interceptions thus far in 2012. If the Patriots can continue to do a solid job of holding onto the football (they’ve turned the football over just once this season), and force Fitzpatrick into errors of his own, they’ll be in good shape.
5. Big plays in the kicking game. The regular season isn’t even a quarter over, but the Patriots have yet to chalk up what most would classify as a big play on special teams -- either a long return, blocked kick, or forced turnover. The Bills, like each of the Patriots’ previous three opponents, are strong on special teams. Special teams can turn the tide of a game, swing momentum, alter field position and provide extensive relief for both an offense and a defense. The Patriots have yet to receive that lift in the kicking game.