When the Patriots run
LeGarrette Blount continues to impress with his no-nonsense, bruising running style. The 6-foot, 250-pound tailback with a fullback’s body is most effective when he takes the ball and goes. Any hesitation or tippy-toeing leads to negative plays. Blount lacks an explosive first step but he has good vision and deceptive quickness, allowing him to get to the second level. He violently attacks defenders by lowering his shoulder and driving them backward. Gang tackling is the order of the day with this beast. Stevan Ridley (5-11, 220) is quicker and speedier than Blount. He runs with energy and has excellent vision. Ridley accelerates and decelerates smoothly and moves well laterally, allowing him to avoid tackles. With Shane Vereen at less than 100 percent, the increasingly frustrating Brandon Bolden (is it possible to trip over the yard lines?) may need to assume a bigger role. Bolden (5-11, 220) is a slashing runner who flashes good speed and power, but his lapses in concentration have to be maddening to the staff. Fullback James Develin (6-3, 260) has the size and leg drive to push the pile. The Bills have stout tackles in Marcell Dareus (6-3, 319) and Kyle Williams (6-1, 306), who have the quickness and strength to close lanes. Inside linebackers Kiko Alonso (6-3, 238) and Nigel Bradham (6-2, 240) are extremely athletic and rangy. Alonso is speedy and instinctive — he is always around the ball.
New England offense: 119.9 (12th)
When the Patriots pass
Peyton Manning will soon collect his fifth MVP award — and that’s no surprise, given the weapons at his disposal. But nobody has been more valuable to his team’s success than Tom Brady, especially considering that he started 2013 sans his top three targets from last season and that injuries have ravaged his offense. The fiery Brady continues to lead this offense with his head and his arm. Julian Edelman (5 feet 10 inches, 198 pounds) has been terrific. He is tough and competitive and can catch the ball in traffic or outside his frame. He has quick feet, strong hands, and, most important, Brady’s trust. Danny Amendola (5-11, 195) has the versatility to play in the slot or outside. He has deceptive speed and good hands. Aaron Dobson (6-3, 210) is the deep threat. The rookie has excellent size and great speed. He is versatile enough to play the short game, too. He hasn’t developed as quickly as he showed he might in training camp (still too many drops, and a lack of fight), but because of a lack of bodies, Dobson hasn’t been banished to the doghouse. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and backs Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden will be counted on for some quick hits and screens. The Bills have talent in the secondary, including corners Leodis McKelvin (he can mirror) and Stephon Gilmore (he’s fluid and fast). Safety Jairus Byrd (he’s big, strong, and dependable) is above average.
When the Bills run
Buffalo has arguably the best tailback tandem in the NFL in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. It’s not a true thunder-and-lightning duo but it’s pretty close. Jackson is listed at 6 feet 1 inch, 216 pounds but appears bigger. He is muscular, wide, and very physical. He has excellent vision and will take on all comers. Jackson is not just a brute, however. He has deceptive quickness and speed, and a nifty package of shake-and-bake moves in the open field. Spiller is a thriller. The 5-11, 196-pounder operates at one speed: blinding. Blessed with outstanding vision and instincts, Spiller has just enough bulk to bang between the tackles if need be. He’s at his best, however, when attacking the edges. Spiller is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Fullback Frank Summers (5-10, 255) can land some devastating blows but won’t carry the ball much. Center Eric Wood (6-4, 315) is Buffalo’s best offensive lineman. He has great size and surprising quickness. Wood is tough and competitive, and plays to the whistle — he’ll win most of his mano-a-mano battles. Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower (6-3, 270) has the size and strength to be an effective run-stuffer but too often gets caught out of position or lost in traffic. Brandon Spikes (6-3, 250) is the most instinctive linebacker on the club. He is a violent tackler who plays with great energy. Safety Steve Gregory will need to provide lots of run support.
When the Bills pass
Thad Lewis gets the start under center for Buffalo, and if that name doesn’t sound familiar, don’t feel bad. Unless you live in the Greater Orchard Park area or are a diehard Duke fan, you have plenty of company. The 6-foot, 215-pound Lewis is smart, has good presnap recognition skills, and takes care of the ball. Lewis lacks height (he has trouble surveying the field at times) and arm strength but he’s a decent athlete who can step up in the pocket, extend plays, and find passing lanes. He can be streaky and is much more comfortable delivering short and intermediate passes. Backup Jeff Tuel (6-3, 221) is a decent athlete with a decent arm. Stevie Johnson is Buffalo’s best receiver, but he won’t play Sunday because of a death in the family (his mother). Rookie Robert Woods (6 feet, 201 pounds) is both quick and fast. Woods is an excellent athlete with soft hands who moves in and out of his cuts seamlessly. Tight end Scott Chandler (6-7, 272) is a massive target. He’s more slippery than a man his size has a right to be, and although he lacks speed, he will go all out to make every catch. Tailbacks Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are exceptional receivers out of the backfield. New England’s secondary would be vulnerable without safety Devin McCourty. When healthy, cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard are tough to play against. Slot corner Kyle Arrington runs hot and cold.
Bills’ key player: Kiko Alonso
An extremely intense player, this rookie inside linebacker has instantly made the defense better through toughness and leadership. He flies around and makes plays everywhere. The 6-foot-3-inch, 238-pounder never takes a play off.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With intelligence and athleticism. Alonso makes excellent presnap reads, locates the ball quickly, and crashes into opponents with great ferocity. Some guys hit. This guy thumps.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By getting a grip. He excels at shedding blocks, so you have to work as hard as he does once you get your mitts on him. If you let him off easy, he will leave your ball carriers bruised and battered.
BILLS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Screen test: Thad Lewis has to get the ball into the hands of tailbacks Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller on some quick passes to move the chains and build confidence.
2. Brothers in arms: Kyle and Mario Williams are not related. But they are equally adept at punishing the quarterback. They must apply pressure — and pain — to Tom Brady.
3. Future enterprisers: There’s not a lot left to play for this season, but that’s not an excuse to take Sunday off. The foundation for 2014 starts now, so play like it matters.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Home fires burning: There’s a lot on the line, including a bye and a home playoff game, so maintain the intensity from last week. Letdowns not allowed.
2. Block party: The Bills can get to the quarterback. It’s imperative to maintain a clean pocket, because this would be a hollow victory if Tom Brady gets dinged. Even a little.
3. Early to bed: Come out fast and furious and put this away quickly. Building and maintaining an early lead allows you to coast into the postseason on a healthy note.