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Saturday, December 25, 2010
Two ways Bills can hang with Patriots

By Katie Sharp and Ryan Cleary

The matchup of the 12-2 New England Patriots and 4-10 Buffalo Bills may not be as lopsided as it seems.

The Patriots do have a weakness or two, at least statistically. Here are two that the Bills might have an opportunity to exploit on Sunday afternoon.

The play-action pass can be useful
The Patriots young defense has struggled to defend the play-action pass this season. Our video review shows that opponents have successfully completed 77 percent of their passes when going to play-action, the highest completion rate in the league, and far above the league average of 63 percent.

Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has not used the play-action pass with great regularity this season, but he has been reasonably effective in those situations, completing 62 percent of his throws. He's averaged almost 10-yards-per-pass without throwing an interception in his 37 attempts.

Any third down is makeable
The Patriots have struggled all season in stopping opponents on third down. Teams are converting 49.2 percent of third-down opportunities against the Patriots, easily the worst rate in the league.

It's also the worst third down percentage by any team since the 1995 Cleveland Browns allowed teams to convert 49.6 percent of third down chances. That Cleveland team, coincidently enough, was coached by current Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and went 5-11.

Green Bay converted 11 of 19 third downs on Monday in keeping that game close, despite being without starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Fitzpatrick will hope for the same success.

New England’s defense has been exposed on third-and-long situations (7+ yards to go), despite its efforts to protect against the pass.

The Patriots have brought four or fewer pass rushers in third-and-long situations 72.7 percent of the time, the third-highest percentage in the NFL. But they have still yielded 10 passing first downs, tied for third-most in the league.

The Bills are primed to exploit this. Ryan Fitzpatrick ranks among the best when facing third-and-long, when four-or-fewer pass rushers are coming at him. His 18 passing first downs are tied for fourth-most and his 103.1 passer rating is sixth-best among quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts in those situations.