When the Patriots run
Admit it, you liked Stevan Ridley but you didn’t expect him to be this productive. The second-year back out of LSU continues to be the key to New England maintaining a balanced offense. Ridley is big (5 feet 11 inches, 200 pounds) and strong. He runs with great enthusiasm and energy (how much coffee is this guy on?) and appears to get stronger and stronger with each carry. Fatigue has not been an issue. He has certainly shown he is capable of banging between the tackles and fighting for extra yards, but he also has the hops to get outside and rip off big chunks. Shane Vereen (5-9, 205) is more compact and muscular. He has excellent vision and moves, and runs low. He shows surprising burst. Danny Woodhead (he’s listed at 5-8, 200, but I think Vince Wilfork must have had his toe on the scale on weigh-in day) is an instinctive runner with quick feet who follows his blocks and will fight for everything. New England’s line, which has featured moving parts nearly every week, continues to get the job done. Center Ryan Wendell and guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly play to the whistle on every snap. Buffalo’s run defense has been abysmal. Tackles Kyle Williams (you’d love him in Foxborough) and Marcell Dareus (excellent athleticism) are better penetrators than anchors, and they often are caught out of position. The linebacking corps — led by the rangy Kelvin Sheppard — has underperformed.
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady has been playing at a superior level the last few weeks, and that should continue against a Bills defense that has struggled in most areas and is now without some starters in the secondary. Twin terror tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez provide matchup headaches against good defenses. It’s scary to think what they can do against the Bills. Gronkowski (6 feet 5 inches, 265 pounds) has great size, strength, and hands. He is tremendous down the seam and an absolute beast in the red zone. Hernandez has superior athleticism and versatility. Defenses have to pay particular attention because he lines up everywhere and is a threat from every spot. Wes Welker — on track for another 100-reception, 1,000-yard season — continues to befuddle defenses with his ability to get open on nearly every play. The 5-9, 189-pounder slides past defenders, makes tough catches in traffic, and then fights for extra yards. Brandon Lloyd’s quickness and body control are impressive. He continues to provide highlight-reel catches as he gets more comfortable with Brady. Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead are all solid receivers out of the backfield. Buffalo linemen Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will shoot gaps and pressure the pocket up the middle, while Super Mario Williams and Chris Kelsay bring it off the edge. Safety Jairus Byrd is the best player in the secondary. Fellow safety George Wilson loves to get physical.
When the Bills run
Fred Jackson has carved out a very solid career for a guy who was undrafted out of Coe six years ago. He is listed at 6 feet 1 inch, 216 pounds, but you’ll swear he is bigger. A rugged runner with good foot speed and deceptive quickness, Jackson has excellent instincts and vision. He will burst through seams and will take on all comers at the second level. He has had his share of boo-boos the last two seasons, but when he’s healthy, he will dish out plenty of punishment and he will consistently push the pile. The man’s not afraid of contact. Running mate C.J. Spiller is listed at 5-11, 200, but you’ll swear he’s smaller. Spiller is extraordinarily explosive and elusive — and clearly deserves more touches. Spiller has a great first move and if he picks the right hole — not a guarantee — he will get into the secondary in a flash. He lacks strength but not toughness. He has taken a lot of big hits in his brief career but he almost always answers the bell. Buffalo center Eric Wood (6-4, 310) is smart, strong, and athletic but he will still struggle to shed his initial block (hello, Vince Wilfork) and get his hands on a linebacker. Left guard Andy Levitre (6-2, 305) and right guard Kraig Urbik (6-5, 324) are solid but hardly spectacular. Wilfork and his partner, Kyle Love, continue to excel. They dominate the trenches by occupying and moving bodies and opening up space for active and instinctive linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes.
When the Bills pass
Ryan Fitzpatrick is a smart, rugged quarterback with underrated athleticism. The 6-foot-2-inch, 225-pounder processes information quickly and has one of the fastest trigger fingers in the league. He learned pretty quick that, in this offense, if you hesitate, you’ll get buried. His throwing mechanics are just plain ugly (you’ll never see him in a quarterback how-to video) but he still gets the ball where it needs to be more often than not. He is also more elusive than you’d think and has no problem tucking the ball and taking off. Stevie Johnson is Buffalo’s best receiver. He has good size (6-2, 207) and speed, and runs excellent routes. He also possesses big, strong hands. Mental lapses and immaturity have hampered his progress, however. Donald Jones (6 feet, 208) has good athleticism, body control, and strength. He is fearless across the middle and does a good job of setting up defenders with double moves. Why Brad Smith doesn’t play much is a mystery. He is a tremendous athlete with great quickness and can line up nearly everywhere on offense. Tight end Scott Chandler (6-7, 260) is a big target with reliable hands. He won’t make a lot of hay after the catch but he’s good in the red zone. Getting pressure off the edge from Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will force Fitzpatrick to fire quickly, and that leads to interceptions. It also helps protect one of the weakest secondaries in the league.
Bills’ key player: Stevie Johnson
An entertaining and talented wide receiver, Johnson has been very productive but hasn’t reached elite status because of some childish antics (he’s gotten a little better in that area) and concentration issues (still a problem).
How he beats you: With speed, quickness, and deceptive strength. Johnson has strong hands and he will use them to gain separation from defenders and make difficult catches. He runs solid routes and will run hard after the catch.
How to shut him down: By matching his physicality. If you can mug him at the line and prevent him from getting in his routes early, he will get frustrated. If he’s not involved from the get-go, he will also get frustrated — and then the pouting begins.
BILLS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Control the clock: A steady diet of tailbacks Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller will help keep the clock running, the chains moving, and Tom Brady chilling.
2. Pressure cooker: The front seven have to be aggressive to help a secondary that is torn and tattered. (Patriots fans can relate). Given the time, Brady will shred this defense.
3. Isn’t that special?: Leodis McKelvin and Brad Smith are excellent return men. Their ability to shorten the field will go a long way in Buffalo pulling an upset.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Containment: Limiting C.J. Spiller is a must. He is one of the most explosive and versatile players in the league, and if he’s allowed to find an early rhythm, the Patriots could be playing from behind.
2. Smashmouth: Ryan Fitzpatrick’s best game of the season came against the Patriots. If you don’t send him a message early (hits, hits, and more hits), history may repeat itself.
3. Tight spot: Target Rob Gronkowski early (the Bills couldn’t stop him last time) and keep going back until Dave Wannstedt figures a way to stop (or at least slow) him.