Anyone thinking the Patriots will coast to an easy victory Sunday against the Bills should talk to a Dolphins fan.
The Bills may be coming to Foxborough with a 6-9 record under first-year coach Doug Marrone, but they smacked the Dolphins, 19-0, last Sunday, holding them to 103 total yards and preventing them from clinching a playoff spot. The Bills are on a two-game winning streak after also winning at Jacksonville, and Bill Belichick knows all too well that the Bills present a tougher matchup than their record would suggest.
“They gave us all we wanted and more in that opening game,” Belichick said of the Patriots’ 23-21 last-second win over the Bills in Week 1. “Obviously they played very well [Sunday] in their win over Miami and been playing good. Really they’ve had a lot of good moments throughout the year, it wasn’t just [Sunday].”
The Bills haven’t been able to establish much rhythm on offense because their rookie quarterback has been in and out of the lineup. E.J. Manuel suffered three separate knee injuries in the preseason and regular season that have held him out of five games, and possibly will again Sunday. The Bills have gone 2-3 with Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel, but the injuries have hindered Manuel’s development.
But other than Manuel, the Bills have enjoyed remarkable health this season. They lost defensive end Alex Carrington and made a switch at left guard, but otherwise enter Sunday’s game with almost the identical lineup that faced the Patriots back on Sept. 8.
The strength of the Bills is on both sides of the trenches. On offense, second-year left tackle Cordy Glenn is having a breakout season both in run and pass blocking. The 343-pound mauler has allowed only two sacks and five quarterback hits in 360 passing plays, and has been a big contributor to the Bills’ No. 2-ranked rushing attack (142.5 yards per game).
The Bills are fairly stout up the middle with right guard Kraig Urbik and center Eric Wood, and a bit vulnerable with right tackle Erik Pears, who has struggled in the run game.
On defense, the Bills’ top players have all made it through the season. They have one of the best pass-rushing lines in defensive end Mario Williams (13 sacks) and tackles Kyle Williams (10.5 sacks) and Marcell Dareus (7.5 sacks).
Rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso is one of the top candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year (four interceptions, two sacks, 145 tackles, and a forced fumble). And they have five players with multiple interceptions: Alonso (4), linebacker Manny Lawson (4), safety Jairus Byrd (4), safety Jim Leonhard (4), and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (2). The Bills’ 22 interceptions are second-most in the NFL.
However, the Bills generally struggle on run defense. They impressively held Miami to 14 rushing yards Sunday but overall are 23d in rushing defense (119.7 yards per game) and 20th in yards per rush (4.2). They hadn’t allowed fewer than 134 rushing yards in their five previous games before Sunday.
On offense, the Bills have the NFL’s No. 2 rushing attack (142.5 yards per game), featuring the same two-headed monster as always: Fred Jackson (836 yards, eight touchdowns) and C.J. Spiller (822 yards, two touchdowns).
Jackson, 32, has 1,170 total yards and nine touchdowns this year, and has been playing with broken ribs, he revealed Sunday. He had 108 total yards in the first matchup with the Patriots.
“He just continues to amaze me,” Marrone said. “He’s taken some good shots along the year. Early on, I think maybe some other players — not talking about players on this team, I’m talking about other players that have had what he has — I’m not sure they can go out and perform like that.
“I give him a lot of credit and I admire him for that. That’s not an easy thing to do, to play with that type of injury.”
Their receiving corps is completely intact, though the numbers aren’t impressive because of the quarterback situation.
Stevie Johnson has a team-high 52 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns, and rookie second-round pick Robert Woods, who was ejected from Sunday’s game for throwing a punch, has 39 catches for 560 yards and three scores.
Tight end Scott Chandler is the big target over the middle with 50 catches for 600 yards and two touchdowns.