After their bye week, the New England Patriots face off against the Buffalo Bills today looking to keep their journey towards another AFC East crown on track. Victory over the St. Louis Rams in London allowed the Patriots to move to a 5-3 record, while the Buffalo Bills lost to the Houston Texans to move to 3-5.
The Bills' 3-5 record already includes a loss to the Patriots, when Brandon Bolden's breakout performance helped the Patriots to a 52-28 victory. Since then Bolden has only tallied 82 rushing yards since then, before being suspended four games for violated the league's substance abuse policy. Despite Bolden's disappearance, the Patriots have continued to run a balanced offense.
Yet, it is not a player who has just been suspended, rather a player who is just coming off suspension who will attract all of the attention of Patriots' fans this week. Aqib Talib is set to make his debut for the Patriots after the team traded for the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers' cornerback at the deadline just over a week ago. Talib brings a physical presence to the Patriots' secondary and shifts Devin McCourty from starting cornerback to starting free safety.
Talib will face a tough test on his debut if he is lined up over Stevie Johnson, but it is likely that Talib is put on the Bills' second choice receiver and coverage is rolled towards Johnson. In the last meeting between the two teams, Johnson wasn't a factor, but that was primarily because of Ryan Fitzpatrick's inability to find him with the football. Instead of hitting his own receivers, Fitzpatrick threw two killer interceptions to McCourty on plays that could have been huge touchdowns. One of those throws went to Johnson late in the game when McCourty undercut an underthrown pass over the middle.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Fitzpatrick remains the starting quarterback in Buffalo for the foreseeable future. Fitzpatrick threw four interceptions when he last played the Patriots, but has performed better since then. Over the past three weeks, two games, the former Harvard prospect has thrown three touchdowns to just one interception. His completion percentage has bloated during those two games, twice going over 65 percent, while also throwing for at least 225 yards in each game.
Those are the types of numbers that Fitzpatrick will be looking to replicate against the Patriots, but this time as a complement to a strong running game. The last time these two teams faced each other, neither Fred Jackson or CJ Spiller were at 100 percent. After a week when they were underused against the Texans, the Patriots should be expecting to see a huge amount of both Jackson and Spiller this week. Containing the talented duo will be their primary objective on defense.
Offensively, the Patriots won't miss Bolden because he hasn't been a factor at all in recent weeks. Instead Tom Brady will expect to have another typical day against the Bills when he carries the offense to victory. The only thing Brady must do in preparation for this game is note how difficult it was to throw against Stephon Gilmore the last time out. Gilmore's area of the field likely won't be tested in the passing game, but forcing him into situations when he must make tackles on running backs would be ideal for the offense.
Since shutting him out in Buffalo, Mario Williams has undergone a significant procedure on his wrist to alleviate an issue that was allegedly limiting his play. Williams showed signs of improvement last week as he notched a sack against his former team, the Houston Texans. He also added in seven tackles, almost half of what he had managed through the previous seven games of the season. If Williams is closer to his Houston form, then the Patriots could have a serious problem to handle upfront. Getting consistent pressure on Brady generally is the fatal flaw for the Patriots' offense. It is also the only way the Bills can possibly contain the Patriots' balanced offense.
Even though the Bills are seemingly an improved team since their last meeting, the Patriots should expect to win this game if they play to their usual standards.