The New England Patriots may be traveling to Buffalo this weekend to play the Bills, but there is very little about this trip that will feel familiar for Bill Belichick's team. The Patriots are used to entering Ralph Wilson stadium and expecting victory as just another step on their way to a division title. In recent years the Bills haven't had the talent to overcome the Patriots, but they proved last season that any complacency will be punished by an upstart group of players.
Last year's Bills outfit was hopeful, but after a season of investment and a seemingly excellent slate of draft picks, this year's version entered the season with high expectations.
Although they were emphatically beaten on opening day against the New York Jets, the Bills have won two games in a row since to reach 2-1 after three games. This despite the consecutive injury losses of Fred Jackson, David Nelson and CJ Spiller. Spiller and Jackson could play today, and Spiller's emergence into a superstar talent is a new dimension for the Patriots to handle. Along with Spiller, the Patriots also will have to handle the Bills' new defensive line additions
However it is not the new look Bills who really make this trip to Buffalo feel uncomfortable. Instead it is the Patriots themselves who have a plethora of issues to work through. From the absences of Aaron Hernandez, and his supposed replacement Kellen Winslow, to the uncertainty surrounding the team's offensive line. More than anything however, the Patriots' confidence may be shaken.
For the first time since 2003, after an opening day loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots are below .500. Couple that with the team's baffling treatment of Wes Welker, Tom Brady's anti-Brady performances and a young defense that is yet to prove its consistency
, and it is very difficult to completely trust the 2012 piece of Bill Belichick's legacy so far.
The Patriots' offensive line is going to play a major part in determining the outcome of this game. Even though the group has been relatively good this year, compared to most NFL offenses, the slight dropoff has exposed just how crucial the Patriots' elite protection has been in recent years. Rarely did the Patriots' offensive line get great credit for their work, but without players like Matt Light and Brian Waters at their best(at least most recently), Brady has struggled to produce.
Curiously, it is the performances of two veterans—Mankins and Dan Connolly—who have really cost the Patriots so far. It may actually be a blessing in disguise that Logan Mankins has been ruled out of the game, but the Patriots would likely have preferred to have the veteran leader on the field going against arguably the best defensive tackle pairing in the NFL in Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus. Dareus and Williams will be key to disrupting Brady's rhythm as they push the pocket back into him.
If the Bills can knock Brady off of his spot, they will then rely on their opportunistic secondary to create turnovers. None of Stephon Gilmore, Aaron Williams, Leodis McKelvin, Justin Rogers, Jairus Byrd or George Wilson are shutdown defenders, but each will be keeping their eyes in the backfield in this game trying to jump routes.
Without Aaron Hernandez, the Bills will be able to keep rookie first round pick Stephon Gilmore on the outside to cover Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd has had an impressive start to his Patriots' career, but he and Tom Brady are yet to develop a consistent understanding with each other. Lloyd likely won't get many opportunities to go deep because Brady won't get much time to throw. That should put Wes Welker back into focus like he was last week against the Baltimore Ravens.
Welker had a big outing against the Ravens, but his biggest plays came on defensive mistakes. Against the Bills, both he and Deion Branch will need to have a greater impact if the Patriots are to take over the game and be victorious. Offensively, if the Patriots can avoid committing turnovers, they should be fine.
Defensively the Patriots gameplan will be determined by the health of the Bills' two star running backs. If Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller are healthy, or even if just one of them are healthy enough to carry the load, then the Patriots will be reluctant to blitz Fitzpatrick and look to force him into mistakes. Because Fitzpatrick likes to get rid of the ball quickly, the Patriots will likely be playing press coverage regardless of the quality of the running game. If they can combine blitzing with that coverage, it will put the Bills in a very difficult situation.
That is all presuming that the Bills don't have either of Spiller or Jackson. The dropoff between those two backs and Tashard Choice is palpable. Choice is a decent runner, and the Bills' offensive line is an excellent run blocking group, but his potential impact on the game falls much short of being a game-breaker. The Patriots defense has also proven itself more than capable of containing any kind of running game.
Because the Bills are a team within their division, there is nothing new for the Patriots travelling to Buffalo. However, they face the prospect of being 1-3 after a quarter of the season. That is something that is new to Bill Belichick's side.Cian Fahey writes for Irishcentral, Footballguys.com and the Guardian. You can follow him on twtiter @Cianaf