By Jim McBride December 20, 2009
Patriots at Bills
Today, 1 p.m., on Ch. 4 (Line: Patriots by 7)
When the Patriots runThe Patriots’ ground attack is getting better and healthier at the right time. If you can run the ball in December - particularly in Orchard Park, N.Y. - then you will be in every game. Laurence Maroney spearheads the ground game. A bruising, 5-11, 220-pound tailback, Maroney may lack flash, but he runs hard - he’s averaging nearly 4 yards per tote - and gets stronger the more carries he gets. Maroney runs a little too upright and lacks patience and vision but when he picks the right lanes he can be explosive at the second level. He has good change-of-direction skills and will punish defensive backs. Versatile Sammy Morris is a solid backup who provides some pop but lacks the speed and durability to be a consistent threat as a tailback. Morris (6 feet, 220 pounds) also lacks the bulk to be an effective fullback. He can’t push the pile and he’s not an overwhelming blocker. Kevin Faulk (5-8, 202) has excellent quickness and runs low. He has good vision, instincts, and awareness (he always knows where the first down marker is). The return of veteran Fred Taylor, working his way back from ankle surgery, would have been a huge boost, but he’s out for this game. Taylor (6-1, 228) would have had the power and agility to be an effective between-the-tackles runner and the quickness to be an outside threat. Buffalo left tackle Marcus Stroud (6-6, 310) has excellent size and awesome strength but lacks speed and motivation. Right tackle Kyle Williams has a nonstop motor and packs a wallop. Inside linebacker Paul Posluszny has impressive read-and-react skills and is a ferocious tackler.
When the Patriots passWhile all eyes may be on Randy Moss today, the Bills would be better served to train theirs on Wes Welker. One of the most productive players in the league, Welker possesses the uncanny ability to always be open. The key for Welker is to get a clean break off the line - teams don’t press him. He has tremendously quick feet, strong hands, and impressive toughness. Welker does his best work underneath but the 5-9, 185-pounder has shown in recent weeks that he can stretch the field a little, particularly down the seam. Teams could assign someone to jam Welker, but that just leaves one fewer defender on Moss down the field. The Patriots circled the wagons around Moss this week and it’s a safe bet the big receiver will be targeted early today to get him in the flow. Sam Aiken, who is no stranger to the chilly conditions in Western New York, has made great strides as a receiver. He has inconsistent hands but is an absolute beast after the catch. The Bills have a solid secondary. Corners Terrence McGee (tremendous quickness and mirror skills) and Drayton Florence (long arms and quick feet) will hold their own. Safeties Donte Whitner (a ruthless hitter) and Jairus Byrd (an exceptional ballhawk) cover a lot of ground. If the winds are swirling today, look for Tom Brady to rely on screens (Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney are reliable receivers who can be demons in the open field) and quick hitters (tight ends Benjamin Watson and the forgotten Chris Baker have the skills to move the chains).
When the Bills runBuffalo has a solid tailback tandem in Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. When motivated, Lynch can be a monster who wears down defenses with a nifty package of speed, power, and attitude. Lynch (5-11, 215 pounds) runs with exceptional vision and good pad level. He has the strength to break tackles and the quickness and elusiveness to make defenders miss. He’s played through several injuries in his young career. He often appears uninterested and that attitude affects not only his performance, but that of his teammates, too. Jackson is one of the most underrated players in the league. The 6-1, 215-pounder has good size and strength and loves to pound the ball between the tackles. He has good vision and lateral quickness, allowing him to slip through tiny cracks and get to the second level. Lynch and Jackson have combined for 1,153 yards, a particularly impressive number considering Buffalo’s offensive line is constantly in flux because of injuries. The pair might be catching the Patriots at the right time. New England’s top run defenders, massive nose tackle Vince Wilfork and the ultrastrong Ty Warren, are both out because of injuries, and reserve Myron Pryor is sidelined, too. The Patriots will have to rely on Titus Adams (likely making his first NFL start) and rookie Ron Brace (he eats space but lacks consistency) to fill the void. With the line at less than full strength, more responsibilities fall to inside linebackers Jerod Mayo (he’s smart and fills holes aggressively) and Gary Guyton (tremendous athleticism). Safeties Brandon Meriweather and Brandon McGowan love to get physical and support the run.
When the Bills passThe Bills seem to have a new starting quarterback every time they face the Patriots. Today it’s Harvard alum Ryan Fitzpatrick. A 6-4, 225-pounder, Fitzpatrick is smart (duh) and athletic. Fitzpatrick has a strong arm with plenty of zip and maintains his accuracy even on deep patterns. He’s quick on his feet and will make plays outside the pocket. He doesn’t get flustered and he doesn’t take risks. Fitzpatrick is more apt to take a sack than make a bad throw. He needs to read through his progressions more quickly to cut down on sacks and move the chains more consistently. He should get the time today because New England’s pass rush has been virtually nonexistent. Buffalo’s top vertical threat is the physically gifted Terrell Owens. A powerful receiver with deceptive speed and good size, Owens can be a QB’s best friend. Of course, he can be a QB’s worst nightmare, too. His abundance of physical skills is tantalizing. His lack of concentration and maturity is frustrating. Lee Evans runs precise routes and explodes in and out of his cuts. He tracks passes well and has strong hands - he rarely drops balls, even after big hits. Josh Reed is another solid route runner with good hands. He lacks speed, however, and doesn’t make many yards after the catch. Tight end Shawn Nelson (6-5, 240 pounds) is a huge target but is counted on more for blocking than catching. Running backs Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson are above-average receivers who excel on screens and misdirections.
Bills' key playerFred Jackson
This rugged runner has enjoyed success in college (Coe), the NIFL (2004), the UIFL (2005), and NFL Europa (2006). Now he's making his mark on football's biggest stage.
How he beats you: With versatility. Jackson is a tough interior runner, is an exceptional receiver out of the backfield, and is one of the league's top kick returners. Oh, and he loves to block.
How to shut him down: By wearing him down. He's not explosive so it's important to catch him and punish him every time he touches the ball. He can't hurt you if he's wagging his tongue on the sideline.
Bills' keys to victory1. Holiday rush: Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson have to set the tone. Grind down the clock to keep Tom Brady and Wes Welker on the sideline.
2. Niagara Falls: Talented and ferocious ends Chris Kelsay and Aaron Schobel must bring the heat and take down Brady before he takes down the Bills. Remember Week 1?
3. Return policy: The electric Roscoe Parrish can make big plays in the kicking game. He must use his quickness and speed to score points, change field position, and seize momentum.
Patriots' keys to victory1. Bring the heat: Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has to get creative with the pass rush. Bring everyone from every angle to prevent Ryan Fitzpatrick from having his Chad Henne moment.
2. Balance sheet: A balanced attack is not just desirable, it's a must in Buffalo. Equal parts Laurence Maroney and Wes Welker should keep the Bills off balance.
3. Deep thoughts: Target Randy Moss early. The quicker he's involved, the quicker last week's controversial performance becomes old news.
PredictionPatriots 27, Bills 14
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