Saturday, September 24, 2011
Patriots expect tough game from Bills
By Chris Forsberg
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There's a moment captured in NFL Films' "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" in which the Patriots squeak out a 17-10 win in Buffalo late in the 2009 season and New England's coach tells his son on the sideline, "We sweated that one out, like we always do against these guys."
It wasn't exactly the truth.
Not only have the Patriots won 15 straight regular-season meetings against the Bills -- the fourth-longest streak in NFL history -- they haven't lost in Buffalo since opening day in 2003 (Lawyer Milloy's revenge game). During those seven straight wins in Orchard Park, N.Y., the Patriots have won by an average of 23 points per game, including a 56-10 thrashing in 2007 and a 34-3 throttling last year.
But it's a new season, and it's more likely that Belichick showed his troops clips from that 2009 game than any of the 39 touchdowns or 4,105 yards that Tom Brady has thrown for in 18 career games against Buffalo (tops of any opponent he's faced).
"It doesn't get any easier for us," sighed Vince Wilfork. "We're going to have to go on the road and play some good football if we want to walk away with the W. But it's going to be tough, I guarantee you that, because this is a new Buffalo Bills team. They're 2-0. Looking at them on film, they're making big plays after big plays. They actually look pretty good. It's not smoke and mirrors with them. They're the real deal, and that's how we approach it.
"Right now, no consecutive games, how many we won against them, that doesn't have anything to do with this year. It's going to be a tough-fought football game."
There are certainly reasons for the Patriots to be wary of Buffalo. The Bills boast the league's top rushing and scoring offense through two games. After throttling Kansas City in Week 1, Buffalo clawed its way back to top Oakland, showing more resiliency than has been spotted in recent years.
Alas, New England's toughest opponent might be the injury bug. The Patriots emerged battered and bruised from last Sunday's win over the Chargers. After putting two players -- center Dan Koppen and defensive lineman Myron Pryor -- on injured reserve this week, the team's final injury report still contained 15 names, including three players who are officially out (tight end Aaron Hernandez, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and defensive lineman Mike Wright) and eight who are questionable.
The injuries have forced the Patriots to scramble a bit, making a handful of roster moves in order to add depth in thinned areas (defensive line, secondary). Heck, New England isn't even certain if Zoltan Mesko (questionable, left knee) will be able to punt on Sunday, which could force some interesting fourth-down decisions.
"That's football," Belichick said with a shrug. "Every team has guys on the injury list. Every team has guys on injured reserve. You play with what you've got."
Offensively, there are fewer concerns, but the absence of Hernandez means the Patriots will likely have to make changes. After running 125 of their 151 offensive snaps with multiple tight ends, injuries -- and a lack of available tight ends -- might force the Patriots to open things up a bit. That could lead to opportunities for wide receiver Chad Ochocinco to assert himself after all the scrutiny he endured from tweeting his "awe" of the Patriots' early season efforts.
Up front, the loss of Vollmer will press rookie Nate Solder back into a starting role. He performed admirably in Week 1 in Miami against the likes of Pro Bowler Cameron Wake, showing glimpses of why he was the 17th overall pick in the draft. The Patriots do lose the ability to utilize him as a blocking third tight end, a luxury enjoyed last week against San Diego with Vollmer able to suit up.
Defensively, it's a bit more daunting. The secondary is ailing. Rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling (hip) and safety Patrick Chung (hand) are part of the group listed as questionable. The Patriots were forced to bring in former 49ers corner Phillip Adams as emergency depth, while Antwaun Molden, signed late in the preseason, could be thrust into a larger role than he had seen in three seasons with Houston.
The defensive line is dinged up, but that group can take some pressure off the secondary with a sustained pass rush, something that wasn't always there against San Diego. New England's defensive front will face its biggest ground challenge this week with Buffalo's rushing attack led by Fred Jackson.
Throughout the week, the Patriots showered Buffalo with praise, but Sunday's game might ultimately hinge on their own health and being able to overcome attrition.
And don't even bring up that 15-game winning streak.
"That doesn't really mean anything," Belichick told the Buffalo media on a conference call. "I mean, most of the players that played in those games will be watching them on TV, so I don't think that really matters."
Added Brady: "I'll tell you, [the streak doesn't mean] anything for this game. It doesn't matter if you have won 100 in a row. The team that is going to win this weekend is the team that plays the best. It has nothing to do with the team in '07 or the '05 game. None of that matters. The team that is going to win is the team that makes the most plays, that plays well under pressure [and] that does the right thing consistently over the course of 60 minutes.
"This is a dangerous team that is very talented and very explosive in all phases of the game. They have a great punter, great kicker; they're very good on special teams; [they have] a damn good defense and an offense that's scoring a ton of points. Certainly, we would never think that this team is not a threat."
Yes, the Patriots are bracing to have to sweat another one out.
|Chad Ochocinco has just three catches for 59 yards in two games.|
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.