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Buffalo’s offensive productivity hinges on the running game. Perhaps the most inflated statistic in all of the NFL is that the Bills average 124.3 yards per game on the ground. Their inability to run the ball in crucial situations has been a thorn in the team’s side all season long, although when their running game is on track, the Bills are one of the toughest teams in all of football to beat.

With Antowain Smith returning to the lineup this week, the Bills now have three healthy running backs who should be able to keep each other fresh late in games. The Bills were extremely successful last week, rushing for 159 yards against a Cardinal front seven that is experiencing many of the same problems the Patriots are going through.

Even with the return of MLB Ted Johnson, the Patriots are overmatched against teams that have strong interior running attacks. Many of the defense’s problems stem from injuries in their secondary, which forces Pete Carroll’s unit to play less aggressive against the run. With Ty Law out of the lineup, the Patriots are having to play more conservative at the safety position, which means SS Lawyer Milloy is not giving the unit the same “44” look against the run that he was earlier in the season.

The Patriots are again at a disadvantage in the secondary with Law on the sideline. Kato Serwanga and Tebucky Jones will split time at the cornerback position, forcing New England to match Steve Israel up on Eric Moulds. Israel has been banged up recently, and even though he has had a huge season as the teams’ No. 2 cover corner, Israel is outmatched in size and speed, and is going to require assistance in the deep third. This presents a problem for the Pats, who ordinarily like to play aggressive with their safeties. Expect New England to run a lot of cover two looks in the secondary, giving the corners help in the middle of the field, but leaving the pressure up to the front four in most cases.

The Patriots have one matchup advantage that could keep them in this game; DE Willie McGinnest versus OT Marcus Spriggs. Spriggs continues to improve at tackle, but he still has trouble with some of his footwork and technique. McGinnest should be able to beat Spriggs to the spot on several occasions and even win the battle of strength in pass rush. The Patriots are also going to target this position in blitz, meaning that the Bills are going to need to give their inexperienced tackle some extra help in pass protection.

New England offense vs. Buffalo defense

The Patriot offense played the entire team right out of the playoff picture. Ernie Zampese’s offensive scheme relies heavily on timing and rhythm between the quarterback and his receivers. In the first half of the season, QB Drew Bledsoe had that rhythm, throwing 13 touchdowns with just four interceptions. However, things fell apart in the last six (1 5 record) games, when Bledsoe threw 15 interceptions and just five touchdowns.

Teams have found the way to disrupt Zampese’s offense by incorporating a heavy blitz package and pressing the New England receivers off the line of scrimmage. The other scheme that defenses have employed is a double team on WR Terry Glenn. With Glenn taken out of the game, and the Patriot receivers doing little to break free from bump and run coverage, Bledsoe has been a sitting duck in the pocket.

Adding to the Patriot troubles this week will be a relentless pass rush from the Bills, who rarely blitz more than one linebacker, but frequently get to the quarterback. The Bill only have 31 sacks on the season, but it is their ability to get in quarterbacks faces and force hurried throws that makes this unit so special. Buffalo usually drops at least six men in coverage to defend against the pass, but expect more of an aggressive approach on Sunday.

A key player for the Bills is going to be nickel corner Antoine Winfield, who will frequently match up against the Patriot slot receiver (Troy Brown) in three receiver sets. Brown has emerged as a go to receiver the past couple of weeks and he should match up well against Winfield. Both players are undersized with great speed and natural athleticism. Winfield has stepped up to the test this season, even though teams have been targeting the rookie in nickel situations. Considering that the Bills will double Glenn and play soft coverage on WR Shawn Jefferson’s side, this could be the one matchup that the Patriots rely on during 3rd down situations.

On top of all the problems that the Patriots face throwing the ball, the running game has become a major liability. With the injury to rookie RB Kevin Faulk,
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Terry Allen has taken over full time duties and fumbled the ball, twice last week against the Eagles. Allen finished the game with 31 yards on 14 carries, a 2.2 average. The Bills are third in the league in run defense, yielding just 83.4 yards per game, and should have very little trouble shutting down the Patriots stagnant running attack.

Steve Christie is slowly improving his average this season. He has now connected on 22 of 31 field goal attempts with a long of 52 yards. Kevin Williams is a solid, average punt return man averaging 10.5 yards per punt return, but his lack of flair and explosiveness leave the Bills with marginal field position too often. Buffalo’s coverage units have been solid this season, averaging 9.5 yards per punt return and 22.1 yards per kickoff return.

Adam Vinatieri remains extremely reliable for the Patriots, connecting on 23 of 27. Lee Johnson is averaging 42.3 yards per punt, but his directional punting has only been marginal. Troy Brown has emerged as a solid punt return specialist, averaging 9.5 yards per return. The Patriots coverage units have been solid, allowing 10.4 yards per punt return and 23.0 yards per kickoff return.

Buffalo WR Eric Moulds vs. New England CB Steve Israel

This matchup becomes critically important because Ty Law is out of the lineup again this week. With Tebucky Jones matching up against Peerless Price on the opposite side, the Patriots must tailor their coverage to Jones’ side in order to give the inexperienced corner help in the deep third. Israel has also been fighting some nicks of his own, and could have some real trouble with Moulds’ speed down field.

Buffalo TE Jay Riemersma vs. New England FS Tony George

The Patriots are forced to use Carter in coverage because of the matchup problems that Riemersma presents to linebackers. Riemersma’s return to the lineup gives the Bills an added dimension to their offense, forcing safeties to remain disciplined in the middle of the field where Riemersma is capable of getting down the seam. This opens up the outside for Buffalo’s wideouts, and will force the Patriots into a number of single man coverages with a depleted secondary.

New England OT Zefross Moss vs. Buffalo DE Phil Hansen

Both players have had up and down seasons, which makes this matchup so interesting. Moss should be able to handle Hansen in the running game, and even though Hansen is not a pass rush threat, he could pose problems for Moss. Moss has had real trouble this season with his quickness and footwork. Injuries have slowed the veteran, so this could be a matchup of concern for the Patriots in the passing game.

They get pressure on Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots watched their playoff hopes dwindle largely in part to poor pass protection. The Bills do an excellent job of getting upfield without having to resort to a lot of personnel in the blitz package. If Buffalo can get to Bledsoe and force the Patriots out of rhythm in the passing game, they will have successfully stalled the New England offense.

RT Marcus Spriggs holds up against the blitz. Spriggs continues to improve, but he still has trouble with some of his footwork and technique. The Patriots are going to target the Bills young tackle, meaning that the Bills are going to need to give the inexperienced youngster some extra help in pass protection.

The secondary keeps WR Terry Glenn in check. The Patriots are trying desperately to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers, but Glenn and the rest of the receiving corps have done a poor job of catching the ball. If the Bills can take Glenn out of the game by either double teaming the receiver or playing cloud coverage to his side, New England is going to struggle to get in a rhythm throwing the ball.

They establish some rhythm in the passing game. Bledsoe has been locking in on Glenn too often, and has had a difficult time finding his other receivers in the passing game. New England needs to shorten the field in the passing game and do a better job of distributing the ball. The deep timing routes are not even an option anymore because teams are blitzing Bledsoe and getting to him before his receivers are coming out of their routes.

Their redzone production improves. The Patriots have been squandering opportunities in the redzone all season long, and now only have a 36.6% touchdown success. The problem the Patriots have is that they cannot run the ball, meaning that they have to throw the ball in the redzone against a compact defense that only has a short field to work against.

They limit mistakes and turnovers. New England committed seven turnovers last week and have been penalized all too much this season. For a team that is struggling on offense, turnovers and penalties take the unit out of field position and ruin the pace of the passing game.

The Patriots playoff hopes have all but faded, and the team is now reduced to playing for pride, as even their head coach’s job is in deep jeopardy. Buffalo is coming off a critical win in Arizona on Sunday night, and will use the short preparation week after a long trip back east to find a way to get to QB Drew Bledsoe. The Bills are tough up front on defense and should be able to get to Bledsoe without having to vacate coverage. Expect the Bills to run the ball with great success against New England’s depleted and undersized front seven, in what should be a close game. The Patriots will make a run at it in front of the home crowd that has essentially given up on the team and the coaching staff,
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but Buffalo has too much at stake and should be able to win the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball.