105.5 THE TEAM – For the second straight week of practice it was all eyes on LeSean McCoy. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to see. The Bills star running back sat out every, single, day of practice. That doesn’t bode well for him suiting up come Sunday for maybe the most important game of the season.
A loss would drop the Bills to 1-4 in games against AFC opponents, which makes life very hard come December when tie breakers can either earn you a playoff spot, or leave you watching the postseason on the couch for a 17th straight season.
A win on the other hand would mean a 2-2 record against division opponents, but maybe more importantly a clean sweep of the Patriots in 2016 – something that hasn’t happened since 1999, which coincided with the last time Buffalo made the playoffs.
In order for that to happen, here’s three things they must do…
Lorenzo Alexander said it best earlier this week: “[Brady’s] ability to read coverages, get the ball out of his hand, discern what the defense is trying to do is just on another level.” He’s spot on. So how do you combat it? “You have to do a good job of trying to move around, trying to confuse him, if you can confuse him, and get our hands on some balls, if possible, on the back end and try to create some turnovers,” he added. That’s exactly what the Bills did in their second meeting with New England in 2015, devised a gameplan that included exotic blitzes and coverages that kept Brady off-balance. He was hit 10 times that day, sacked once and threw an interception. There’s no “go-to” plan to beat Brady and while mixing packages and getting pressure seems like a pretty simple concept, with No. 12 it’s a more complex mind game than usual. The Bills defense has to make him think and work a little harder, to have any chance in this game.
2) Control time of possession
Last week the Bills went three-and-out four times and nine of their 11 drives lasted six plays or less. Even though two of those drives resulted in a combined 10 points, the fact that they didn’t possess the ball very long, killed their defense in the long run. Miami dominated time of possession, holding the ball for over 37 minutes. Even the 2000 Ravens defense would have been tired. It’s hard to win any game when your defense is on the field for 37 minutes.
As the old saying goes, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Problem is Buffalo’s offense isn’t that good without Sammy Watkins and most likely LeSean McCoy. It’s going to be a challenge, but they have to find a way to stay on the field and put together elongated drives in order to give the defense a breather. Part of that is converting on third down. In Week 7 the Bills were three-of-13 on third down. That can’t happen. Opponents are converting more than 41 percent of their third down chances against New England’s defense, so there will be opportunities for Buffalo.
3) Be alert for the Patriots run game
Even with Brady back under center the Patriots still possess the sixth best rushing attack in league, featuring the sixth ranked rusher in the league, LaGarrette Blount. As a unit they average 122.7 yards per game, while Blount individually accounts for a little over 80 yards per game. Just last week he rushed for 127 yards for his third 100 plus rushing yard performance of the season. Historically, Buffalo’s defense has done a good job slowing Blount, but they’re still licking their wounds from the 214 yard day Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi had against them last week, and you can guarantee New England took notice. Focusing on Brady and the passing game could leave the Bills defense vulnerable to stopping the run. They’ll have to be aware of both. Adding a run stopper like Marcell Dareus into the fold is a huge help.
Key Stat: Through seven weeks the Bills red zone defense has been fantastic, surrendering touchdowns on just 36.4 percent of their opponents trips inside the 20. That figure tops the league and the trend will have continue against a Patriots offense that is seventh in red zone scoring, at a clip of 65.2 percent. Something’s gotta give this week. If it’s Buffalo’s very stout defense, they’ll be in trouble.
Injury Report: It’s obviously not looking good for LeSean McCoy who is listed as doubtful and didn’t practice all week. It’s more likely than not that Buffalo simply cuts their losses to avoid risking further injury to McCoy. What a concept, right?
Of course safety Aaron Williams (neck) and wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (concussion) have already been ruled out. Meanwhile nine other Bills are listed as questionable. They are: DT Corbin Bryant (shoulder), TE Charles Clay (knee), DT Marcell Dareus (hamstring), T Cordy Glenn (Ankle), RB Mike Gillislee (foot), LB Jerry Hughes (hand), LB Lerentee McCray (knee), G John Miller (shoulder) and WR Robert Woods (foot).
Of that group I’d assume most will wind up playing. Dareus has declared himself in several times already this week. Clay is almost always listed as questionable, but active come kickoff. The trio of Gillislee, Hughes and Miller practiced in a limited capacity every day, so they should be fine. The biggest question mark is Woods, who was limited at practice each day this week, but his foot injury is all about how much pain he’s experiencing. He hopes to play, however until he’s out there running routes and cutting it’s hard to know if he really will.
It’s worth noting on the Patriots side of things, TE Martellus Bennett did not practice on Friday with an ankle injury. If he can’t play it would make life a little easier for the Bills defense, although Gronk is still an impossible puzzle to solve.
Storyline to keep an eye on: You could go a number of directions here. There’s WR Chris Hogan’s return to Buffalo – he sparked a debate earlier this week, claiming Anchor Bar’s wings are better than Duff’s. Of course there’s the conversation over the pregame skirmish that ensued between these two team’s back in Week 4; will it boil over into something again? And you could go with Brady trying to tie Brett Farve for the most wins against a single opponent in his career. To me the most intriguing storyline is the 2016 debut of Marcell Dareus. If he’s immediately the Pro Bowl caliber player he’s capable of being, not only will this Bills pass rush be even stronger, but the defense could make life very difficult for Brady and the Patriots. Dareus is an x-factor this week.
My Prediction: It’s being called a must win, and it pretty much is. Only two AFC teams have a worse record within the conference than Buffalo and they’re the Jaguars (1-4) and the Browns (0-5). Unless the Bills plan on winning each of the final 7 games on their schedule, all of which are against AFC opponents, they need this one. Like last year’s 20-13 Monday night loss in New England, this is a game where the Bills defense could ugly it up and keep the offense within striking distance. The problem is, I don’t know that they have enough fire power on offense to pull off an upset. If they can’t orchestrate extended drives down the field, they’ll leave their defense tired and vulnerable, again. Buffalo is ill-equipped to compete with New England right now, particularly offensively. Tom Brady’s revenge tour continues 31-14.
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