Friday, December 24, 2010 Updated: December 25, 10:50 PM ET
10 things for Patriots-Bills
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
A look at 10 areas that project to be crucial, from a New England Patriots perspective, in Sunday night's game against the host Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium (CBS, 1 p.m. ET):
1. Limiting Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller on the ground. A big part of the Bills' recent success is because of solid quarterback play from Ryan Fitzpatrick, and his job is made easier when Fred Jackson -- and to a lesser extent C.J. Spiller -- get things going on the ground. The Patriots figure to be willing to live with a game in which the Bills are forced to throw the ball, figuring that Fitzpatrick's fearless approach will eventually result in some turnovers on which they can capitalize. That's why keeping Jackson in check is a top priority.
2. Establishing early balance with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. The Bills rank last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (158.6), so there should be good opportunities to create positive momentum in the running game. A message in the Patriots' locker room Friday reminded players to bring extra long stud screws for their cleats because there was a good chance of snow, and in those types of conditions, the running game and ball security figure to have added importance.
After Vince Wilfork was on the field for 75 snaps last week, it'll be interesting to see his workload against the Bills.
3. No repeat in the return game. C.J. Spiller, the Bills' 2010 first-round draft choice, showed how explosive he can be when he returned a kickoff for a 95-yard touchdown in the first meeting between the teams back in September. The Patriots have looked vulnerable on kickoff coverage at times this season and Spiller can be a game-changer.
4. Vince Wilfork and the big guys up front. The Patriots were short on defensive line depth last week, which contributed to Vince Wilfork playing a whopping 75 of 84 snaps (including penalties). It looks as though Ron Brace (concussion) has a chance to return to action in Buffalo, while Mike Wright (concussion), rookie Brandon Deaderick (shoulder) and Myron Pryor (back) have been ruled out. How the Patriots piece it together up front -- especially after players like Wilfork had such a heavy load last week -- will be important to monitor.
5. Safety help over the top of Steve Johnson. With veteran receiver Lee Evans on season-ending injured reserve, Steve Johnson -- a third-year player out of Kentucky -- has emerged as Fitzpatrick's top target in Buffalo. His 72 receptions are almost double the next player on the Bills' receiving charts, and he's scored a team-high 10 touchdowns this season. He's the target that should draw the most attention from the Patriots' secondary, which could be affected by James Sanders' battling the flu.
6. Who steps in at right guard? Starting right guard Dan Connolly (concussion) has been ruled out. Second-year player Ryan Wendell and five-year veteran Quinn Ojinnaka are top candidates to fill the void, and both would be making their first start this season. Guard can be an overlooked position, but with the way the Patriots use the guards to pull in the running game, they are a key part of the attack. Wendell also is the top candidate to replace Connolly in the wedge on kickoff returns.
7. Tom Brady and the turnover differential. The Patriots are 11-0 this season when they have a plus turnover differential and 81-3 since the 2001 season. Naturally, Brady is the key. He enters the game with a streak of 292 consecutive passes without an interception, the third-longest streak in NFL history. However, he's been flirting with trouble the past few weeks with tipped and underthrown passes. The Bills -- who are a game-plan defense, switching between a 3-4 and 4-3 alignment -- have just 10 interceptions on the season, tied for the fifth fewest in the league.
8. Kickoff returner Brandon Tate and the field-position game. The Patriots rank fifth in the NFL in average drive start (30-yard line), while the Bills' kickoff coverage has created opportunities for the opposition. The Bills rank 28th in the NFL in terms of opponents' average drive starting position. A late December game in Buffalo usually means field position will be a big part of the strategy.
9. Rob Gronkowski and continuing to dominate in the red zone. The Patriots are one of the NFL's best offenses inside the red zone, with 36 touchdowns in a league-high 56 trips. That ranks them third at 64.3 percent. Meanwhile, the Bills' defense has struggled inside the 20, ranking 26th in surrendering 27 touchdowns in 44 trips (61.4 percent). Tight end Rob Gronkowski, at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, has become a key target in those tight areas of the field. This is a homecoming for Gronkowski, who grew up in Amherst, N.Y., and was a Bills fan. He'll be carrying an even heavier load Sunday with fellow rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez ruled out with a hip injury.
10. Health at outside linebacker and pass-rush burst. One of the Patriots' top pass rushers -- outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham (calf) -- has been ruled out and another -- Tully Banta-Cain (groin) -- missed practice time this week and is questionable. The Patriots will have to rely more heavily on the likes of Rob Ninkovich and Eric Moore to generate more pressure.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.