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Unconventional preview: Bills-Patriots II

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 9, 2012 10:57 AM

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Welcome to the ninth installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noon.

This Sunday, the 5-3 Patriots come off their bye week by hosting the 3-5 Bills, who put a scare into them in Week 4 before the Patriots offense went into unstoppable mode in the second half en route to a 52-28 rout. Despite the addition of Mario Williams (thus far an underachiever) and the emergence of C.J. Spiller, Buffalo seems destined to plod toward another season of mediocrity. Meanwhile, the Patriots will take their first step in their attempt to match what they accomplished last season, winning their final eight regular-season games after a 5-3 start to cruise into the playoffs. It would be stunning if this isn't their first victory of the second half. Let's dig in to the rest of the preview.

1. Devin McCourty: With the acquisition of talented, troubled cornerback Aqib Talib from the Buccaneers, it seems all but certain that McCourty, a solid tackler who inexplicably lost the instincts he showed as a rookie when it comes to playing the ball in the air, will make the switch from cornerback to safety. But Talib's debut is delayed by a week because of his four-game ban for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy, so it's worth keeping an eye on whether McCourty has what could be his farewell performance at cornerback against Stevie Johnson (who is hampered by a thigh injury) and the Bills' receivers.

2. C.J. Spiller: The Bills' explosive third-year running back is averaging 7.2 yards per carry, and while that might suggest coach Chan Gailey is utilizing him just right, the argument can be made that he doesn't get the ball enough. Spiller hasn't had more than 15 carries in any game this season, the high coming in Week 2 when he followed up a 14-carry, 169-yard performance against the Jets with 123 yards on the ground against the Chiefs. In the last three weeks, Spiller, who suffered a collarbone injury September 23 but didn't miss a game, has had just 45 total touches -- 30 carries, 15 receptions. If the Bills are going to be able to match the Patriots on the scoreboard, Spiller used more often and not in moderation.

3. Stevan Ridley: The Patriots racked up 247 yards on the ground in that first meeting with the Bills, including 106 and a pair of touchdowns by Ridley, the increasingly impressive second-year running back. He had 22 carries in the first matchup, and with Brandon Bolden, who had 16 attempts for 137 yards in that game, banged up, it will be interesting to see whether Ridley takes on more of the load or someone such as speedy Shane Vereen gets a decent chunk of carries.

It's pretty amazing how both the Bills and Patriots hosed the 49ers in late-'70s trades that sent a seemingly washed-up star to San Francisco for a bushel of draft picks. The Patriots did it, as you may remember, with Jim Plunkett, the former No. 1 overall pick who during his five seasons with the Patriots took a weekly beating akin to what Michael Vick is enduring this season. Perceived as damaged goods and having lost his job to Steve Grogan, he was sent to the Niners before the 1976 Draft for three first-round picks (two in '76, one in '77), a second-rounder ('77) and backup quarterback Tom Owen. The Patriots turned those picks into Pete Brock, Tim Fox, Raymond Clayborn and Horace Ivory, while Plunkett didn't find redemption until he moved on to the Raiders.

But the Bills pulled off an even bigger heist in March 1978, trading washed-up franchise icon O.J. Simpson to his hometown Niners for five picks. With the selections, they ended up with three marginal players -- defensive ends Scott Hutchinson and Ken Johnson and receiver Danny Fulton -- but also hit the jackpot twice. Joe Cribbs, a running back chosen in the second round in '80, ran for 1,000 yards three times and in 1981 averaged 15 yards per catch out of the backfield. Another of the picks turned out to be the top choice in the 1979 draft, which the Bills used on linebacker Tom Cousineau. He did not sign with them and went to play in Canada, but they did eventually trade him to Cleveland for the pick that would net them Jim Kelly. Simpson played just two seasons in San Francisco, totaling a little more than a 1,000 yards. No idea what became of him after football.

You asked for it -- no, demanded it -- and now you've got it. Yes, it's a highlight reel of Vince Young's greatest plays as a member of the Buffalo Bills. So what if he never actually played a regular-season game for the franchise, having cut him in late August to make room for clipboard-holding specialist Tavaris Jackson. And so what if the clip is set to horrible music and includes multiple slo-mo replays to make it appear as if the former Rose Bowl hero and third overall pick in the 2006 draft had more big moments during the Bills' pursuit of the preseason championship than he actually did. Someone put together a Vince Young-as-a-Bill highlight film, and the least you can do to reward that effort is to watch the damn thing. Snickering and snark is optional.

My grievances, like the Patriots, were also on a bye week. I'll be back to yelping about the injustices of something like a diva wide receiver next week.

In the teams' first meeting in Week 4, Tom Brady led the Patriots on six consecutive touchdown drives in the second half, an extraordinary display of the potency and potential of their offense. But that's not what the players will remember -- Bill Belichick will have it drilled into their brains that Buffalo led by 14 points in the second half, and that it's imperative to play a complete game, just as they did against the Rams in the week before the bye. Buffalo's secondary is banged up, which means a big day for Brady and a busy day for the Gillette Stadium scoreboard operator. Patriots 45, Bills 21.

(Previous game's prediction: Patriots 27, Rams 16. Final score: Patriots 45, Rams 7. Season record: 5-3.)

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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