The Patriots have set a very high bar in the last two seasons down the stretch. New England has not lost a game in the second half of the season since Week 17 of 2009 in Houston, finishing both 2010 and 2011 with 8-0 records.
The start of the second half presents a favorable matchup with Buffalo, who didn’t present much of a problem after halftime in their Week 4 meeting. Tom Brady led six straight scoring drives for a convincing 52-28 win. The game featured four Patriots gaining 100 yards from scrimmage for the first time in team history, and was the second time in Bills franchise history they had surrendered at least 50 points in a home game.
The additions of Logan Mankins and Aaron Hernandez to the Patriots lineup for this meeting won’t help the Bills, nor will traveling to Foxborough. The Bills haven’t beaten the Patriots on the road since a 16-13 Buffalo win in Week 10 of 2000, the first year of the Bill Belichick era.
Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:
1. Deep thoughts: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a known commodity at this point. He’s at his best when afforded the opportunity to complete short throws, but cannot be relied on to hit deep balls consistently. As a result, his average pass length is 7.2 yards downfield, third lowest of 33 qualified quarterbacks. Fitzpatrick has a plus-5 TD-INT differential on throws 10 yards or fewer, tied for 10th in the league, but Fitzpatrick has missed on 44.4 percent of his attempts deeper than 10 yards downfield, the highest percentage in the league. Overall, Fitzpatrick’s 43.1 completion percentage on deep throws ranks 29th among qualified quarterbacks. New England’s pass defense has invited deep attempts this season by allowing a league-high 14 plays of at least 30 yards on throws deeper than 10 yards downfield. In Week 4, Fitzpatrick was 8-of-20 (both season highs) with three touchdowns and three interceptions deeper than 10 yards downfield, including 1-of-7 for 16 yards and two interceptions targeting Stevie Johnson. It will be interesting to see if Fitzpatrick continues to attack the Patriots' defense downfield, and who exactly that would benefit.
2. Running it up: Buffalo’s rush defense has been dreadful this season, posting league worsts with 5.6 yards per rush allowed, 13 rushes of at least 20 yards, 14 touchdowns and 79 first downs. Buffalo’s defense has allowed more rushing touchdowns than the Texans, Bears, Lions, 49ers, Patriots and Dolphins combined (12). The Bills invested a lot of resources (draft picks and free-agent contracts) in improving the defensive line, but the return on investment has been very poor. Buffalo has allowed a staggering 4.1 yards before contact per rush. Even if no rusher had gained a single yard after contact against the Bills all season, they would still have only the 12th-best rush defense in the league. The Patriots rushed for 247 yards in Week 4, with 200 coming inside the tackles, and rushed for 19 first downs, the highest single-game total of any team this season. Until the Bills show they can stop the run, there’s no reason for the Patriots to stop trying.
3. Spilling over: While Fred Jackson has been productive for a few years in Buffalo’s offense, C.J. Spiller has been effective this season for the Bills while playing through a shoulder injury. Spiller and Jackson have been splitting rushing duties in the five games since Jackson’s return from a Week 1 right knee sprain. The problem that Spiller and Jackson have is lack of opportunity. Buffalo’s point differential this season is minus-68, fourth worst in the league, and the Bills haven’t been able to run the ball due to frequently playing from behind. Spiller, in particular, needs to be more involved with Buffalo’s offense. Spiller has averaged 5.6 yards per rush in the last five games with Jackson, fifth best among qualified running backs, but is only averaging 9.0 rushes per game. Thirty running backs have more rushes than Spiller over the last six weeks. Factoring in Spiller’s impact in the passing game pushes him to 62 touches during that span (29th among backs), despite a 6.1 yards-per-touch average that trails only Doug Martin (7.4) and Adrian Peterson (6.4) among backs with that many touches.