By BBD Writer: Eric Samulski
The Bills head to Foxboro on Sunday with their divisional and playoff lives hanging in the balance. Sitting at 3-5, the Bills are currently two games behind New England in the division and two behind Pittsburgh for the final wildcard spot. A three game deficit with seven to play would be a hole that I don’t know if the Bills are capable of digging themselves out of. However, more important might be the pride that’s on the line in this game. The Bills have been whipping boys all season long and need to actually beat a competitive team to prove that they won’t always remain the division doormat. A win over the Patriots might be the first step towards trying to close the season on a high note.
They might be able to achieve that goal if they can find the answers to the following questions…
Question One: Can the Bills prevent Gronk from going off?
I mentioned last week that the Bills have trouble with athletic tight ends. Rob Gronkowski is the most dominant tight end in football. It’s not a great match-up for the Bills and never has been. He had 11 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown during the teams first meeting this year and had 108 and 109 yards receiving and four total TDs in the two games last year. Not only have the Bills not stopped him, they haven’t even been able to prevent him from dominating a game. If they stand any chance of winning, they need to find somebody that can keep Gronk from tearing their defense apart.
Question Two: Will Chan Gailey actually commit to the run?
A lot has been made about the Bills decision to run the ball only twelve times against the Texans despite coming in as the fourth ranked rushing attack in the NFL. Spiller and Jackson are arguably the Bills two most consistent offensive producers and if they stand any chance of winning, they need one, or both, to have a solid game. Unfortunately, the sledding isn’t much easier against the Patriots seventh ranked run defense. The Pats allow only 3.5 yards per rush, have forced a league-leading seven fumbles, and have allowed only one run longer than twenty yards. Still, Gailey will need to commit to running the ball if the Bills want to establish offensive momentum.
Question Three: Can the Bills limit the Patriots rushing attack?
The Patriots come into the game as the fourth-ranked rushing attack and absolutely destroyed the Bills on the ground in the first meeting. Both Brandon Bolden and Steven Ridley rushed for over 100 yards in the contest. It’s another potentially troublesome match-up for the Bills who rank 31st in the NFL and allow 5.7 yards per rush. However, the Bills front seven was able to do a solid job preventing Arian Foster from running away with the game last week. Ridley is not even half of Arian Foster, so another good effort could set the Bills up nice.
Question Four: Can the Bills hit Brady?
It’s a well-known fact that Tom Brady doesn’t like to get hit. Besides the fact that he complains to the officials and criticizes his offensive lineman, his accuracy numbers drop when he’s forced to leave the pocket. At 6’4” 225 pounds, Brady is not the most mobile of quarterbacks. Additionally, the Patriots offense is predicated on timing routes. If the Bills are able to get some pressure on Brady and disrupt his timing, they can put a wrench in the Patriots offense and give Fitzpatrick and crew a fighting chance to put up as many points as the Pats.
Question Five: Can Fitz take advantage of the Patriots weak secondary?
If there is one way to take advantage of the Patriots right now, it’s through the air. They currently rank 28th against the pass and have allowed 42 plays of 20 or more yards. Even with the acquisition of Talib, this is still not the team’s strength. Gailey needs to break the mold and trial to dial up a couple long passes if he’s going to take advantage. The Bills can’t simply rely on wide receivers breaking slants into long gains.
Question Six: How will Chris Hairston adjust to being the full-time RT?
Chris Hairston did an admirable job filling in for Cordy Glenn when the big man was out, but with Erik Pears going on the injured reserve, Hairston is being counted on to step into a full-time gig at right tackle. In my opinion, that’s where his skill set is best served. A strong, physical blocker, Hairston was exposed by speed rushers on the left side. He’ll still face a bit of the same on the right but not with anywhere near the same frequency. If Hairston can lock down the right side of the line, the Bills can get back to playing the physical game that they were employing early on in the season.
Question Seven: How will the cornerback rotation work with McGee now out?
The Patriots aren’t the only team that’s been having an issue in the secondary. Jairus Byrd has been having a solid season, and Stephon Gilmore has shown real upside, but Aaron Williams and George Wilson have been a problem. McGee was rotating in with Williams, but now that McGee is on the IR, rumors are flying that McKelvin might see some action as a starting outside corner. It’s not an assignment that has worked for the Bills in years past. If they have any chance of stopping opponent’s passing attacks, they’re going to need to start getting some production from recently activated Ron Brooks. Brooks was originally counted on to fill the slot, but the Bills might need him to step his game up quicker than anticipated.
Prediction: Patriots 27 Bills 20
I think the Bills can put up a fighting chance in this game, but the match-up simply doesn’t work in their favor. They can make a concerted effort to run the ball and keep the Patriots offense off the field, but the defense just hasn’t proven that they can stop a legitimate offensive attack. I’d love to say differently, but I think Brady and Gronk will hurt the Bills secondary, and when Gailey inevitably turns the offense over to Fitzpatrick, the Bills will stall on the comeback trail.