Patriots will try to stay grounded
With a first-round bye at stake, look for New England to again turn to running game
Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break down the game. This week, it's the regular-season finale, at home against the Buffalo Bills:
Mike: Every regular-season finale takes on a little bit of a different feel. Sometimes we're asking the question, How long will the starters play? But this one seems pretty straightforward for the Patriots, and that's not part of the mindset. They want that first-round playoff bye, and that means they hold nothing back because they get it with a win. While they might take some extra caution with a few banged-up players, this is not the type of situation where you might see starters resting.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Gary WiepertDoug Marrone's Bills can actually finish with a better record than the Patriots within the division with a win Sunday.
Tedy: When you have the bye, it's one less chance to be eliminated. When I was playing, I always thought coach Bill Belichick handled the bye the right way, allowing us to get some rest but also sharpening the focus of players on the things they needed to work on to be ready. Not every staff handles it the same way, but I know from firsthand experience that this staff knows how to handle a bye. With some of the injuries the Patriots are managing, I think it would be extremely important for them.
Mike: So the 6-9 Bills stand in their way, and this is a team we first saw in the season opener on Sept. 8. The Patriots beat them 23-21, but it wasn't easy.
Tedy: You have to look at this from the Bills' perspective. Under first-year head coach Doug Marrone, they are trying to build something. The Patriots are the team they've been chasing in the AFC East for some time now, and they have a chance to end the season by pulling off an upset and possibly carrying that momentum into Year 2 of Marrone's tenure. I think that's the type of mindset they will come to Gillette Stadium with and it's something the Patriots should respect. The Bills have been playing hard, winning their last two games.
Mike: The Bills haven't qualified for the playoffs since 1999, which is the NFL's longest active streak. But I get the sense they are headed in the right direction under Marrone.
Tedy: I liked what he said early this week when asked what the Bills have at stake this weekend. He talked about how the Bills could be the only team in the AFC East to finish with a winning record within the division if they beat the Patriots (both teams are currently 3-2 against divisional foes). He talked about the Bills' struggles winning at Gillette Stadium over the years and how it's an opportunity to turn that around. He touched on the idea of ending the season with a three-game winning streak. When players know they'll be on the golf course somewhere next week, that's a good way to keep them focused.
Mike: One of the big questions coming into the game is who will be playing quarterback for the Bills. Rookie EJ Manuel is banged up (knee) and Thad Lewis started in his place in last Sunday's 19-0 win over the Dolphins. While the Bills have enjoyed stability at several spots, they haven't had it at the most important one -- quarterback.
Tedy: Whoever it is at quarterback, the Patriots should still expect to see a lot of their two running backs -- Fred Jackson (193 carries, 836 yards, 8 TDs) and C.J. Spiller (182 carries, 822 yards, 2 TDs). When you put those two together, it's one of the better tandems in the NFL. I've said this in the past, but I've always had a lot of respect for Jackson, both when I was playing and as an analyst. He can hurt you with the inside running game, can get to the outside and also as a pass-catcher. He wears the captain's "C" on his jersey, so you know how respected he is among his teammates. He's dealing with a rib injury and has missed some practice time this week. And Spiller's speed is always a threat. He can do so much that the first thing you do as a defense is account for where he is at the snap.
Mike: The Bills' 511 rushing attempts lead the NFL. One area that interests me is that the Bills' offense, outside of the quarterback (Lewis over Manuel last week) and left guard (Doug Legursky now starting), has the same personnel it did in the season opener. So as the Patriots prepare this week, there's a "review from Week 1" type of feel to it. This is also a chance to compare two rookie receivers -- Buffalo's Robert Woods (39 catches, 560 yards, 3 TDs) and New England's Aaron Dobson (36 catches, 513 yards, 4 TDs). Both were second-round picks, Woods 41st overall, Dobson 59th.
Tedy: When Woods was coming out of the draft, he was viewed as one of the most pro-ready receivers out of Southern Cal. He's had a good year, but last week, he was ejected from their 19-0 win over the Dolphins in the third quarter after throwing a punch at Dolphins safety Reshad Jones. He was blocking Jones on a running play, got driven back as the play was ending, and you saw him bring his right arm around and strike Jones in the helmet. Woods talked about it the next day, saying he learned his lesson. We'll see how he responds against the Patriots.
Mike: Defensively, it's interesting in that the Bills are probably healthier in Week 17 than they were in facing the Patriots in the season opener. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd didn't play in the opener, so quarterback Tom Brady will have to account for them this time around.
Tedy: This defense really starts up front and it's been impressive to watch. The coordinator, Mike Pettine, comes from the Rex Ryan system, so it's not a big surprise that you see so many players with high sack totals -- Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5), Jerry Hughes (10) and Marcell Dareus (7.5) leading the way. This will be a big test for a Patriots offensive line that had to move some pieces around last week, with Logan Mankins shifting from left guard to left tackle against the Ravens and rookie Josh Kline filling in at left guard. What Mankins did was very impressive, and if he is called upon again, this is another big challenge because the Bills' defensive line is one of the best in the NFL. One thing the Patriots used with success against the Bills in the past is the counteraction in the running game, which helped against the two anchors in the middle -- Dareus and Kyle Williams. After having success against the Ravens running the ball last Sunday, we'll see if they come back to it again.
Mike: Jerry Hughes is an interesting player to watch as well for the Bills. He was a first-round pick of the Colts in 2010 but never panned out. The Bills traded for him at the end of the season, dealing linebacker Kelvin Sheppard in a rare player-for-player swap, and that's been one of the better acquisitions by first-year general manager Doug Whaley. I remember some draft analysts had the Patriots taking Hughes in their mock drafts that year.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Gail BurtonLeGarrette Blount -- who had his best game of the season last Sunday -- is emerging as the Patriots' go-to option on the ground.
Tedy: One of the best ways to slow down a good pass rush is to run the ball, and that was one of the more impressive parts of the Patriots' win over the Ravens. This is the time of year when a bigger running back like LeGarrette Blount is most effective, and it's also the time of year when the running game is emphasized a bit more as the playoffs are right around the corner, so I'm interested to see if Blount can keep it going. When they traded for him in April, I thought he'd ultimately become their top back and it's taken a little longer than I anticipated. But I like the way the Patriots are using their backs, spreading around the carries, which seems to have helped them solve one of their big issues with ball security. It's smart to use all their backs.
Mike: Blount, just from a size perspective, reminds me a little bit of what it was like when Corey Dillon was here. It's different seeing a 250-pound running back. As a former linebacker, what do you see from Bills rookie Kiko Alonso? When defensive rookie of the year candidates are mentioned, Alonso seems to be near the top of the list.
Tedy: Kiko Alonso is a young linebacker I've enjoyed watching this year. Very productive in all areas a linebacker needs to be: stopping the run, rushing the quarterback and in pass coverage. He is an instinctive player who has become a much-needed addition to this defense in the middle. This front seven has a promising future with the strength of its front four with Alonso at linebacker.
Mike: The running game is the key for the second straight week as the Patriots grind it out to earn a first-round playoff bye. Patriots 27, Bills 17.
Tedy: This is a promising young Bills team. It will be interesting to see if Doug Marrone can get them to play hard in a meaningless Week 17 game for them. One this is for sure: This game is huge for the Patriots and they will come to play and earn the first-round bye. Patriots 31, Bills 21.
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