Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's game between the Patriots and Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium (1 p.m. ET):
Mike: The Patriots have owned this matchup, winning the last 14 games between the teams. It is the third longest winning streak over a single opponent in the history of the NFL. This reminds me of something you said last year about the Bills: Beating a team so often can demoralize the mentality of players on that team. The Bills have to stop making critical errors before they can hope to compete with the Patriots.
Tedy: That's right, and the Bills have generated some nice momentum of late by winning four of their last six games. It could be five of the last six had receiver Steve Johnson held on to that ball against the Steelers. I thought their win over the Dolphins last weekend, in a game Miami had to have to keep its playoff hopes alive, reflected a Bills team that is still playing hard and doing some good things. At 4-10, they're looking at this game against the Patriots as one that can be a springboard into next season, to say "We're moving in the right direction under first-year head coach Chan Gailey." To overcome that hurdle of finally beating the Patriots would be big for them.
Mike: As for what the Patriots can accomplish on Sunday, it's pretty big as well. A victory would clinch the AFC East division title and also the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. You coined the phrase "hat and t-shirt game" for situations like these. What do you anticipate the atmosphere being like in the locker room leading up to the game this week?
Tedy: It adds to the excitement. Those hats and t-shirts mean something. It means you've accomplished something. There have been plenty of teams that have been Wild Card teams and gone to the AFC or NFC championships and have nothing to show for it -- no division title or anything. When you win your division, it says something, right there on the hat and t-shirt -- "Division Champs." I was always proud to put those t-shirts on and you want a set of three -- division, conference and you all know what the last one is. It starts with that first one, though.
Mike: Before looking closer at the Patriots-Bills matchup, let's look at a technical aspect of the game. Paul, from Canada, writes into the weekly mailbag on ESPNBoston.com with this: "Players and analysts often talk about disguising their defensive looks. Could you clarify how they do this?"
Tedy: OK Paul, let's focus on the safety position. When you are playing a classic Cover-2, as a fan watching the game, you will see two deep safeties that have the responsibility of covering each half of the field. If they wanted to disguise this look, one of the safeties could come down into the box and give the illusion of an eight-man front which would indicate a single high safety. This must be done before the snap of the ball. As the ball is snapped, the "down" safety gets back to his half field responsibility while the deeper single high safety would then slide over to his half field coverage. This is a basic Cover-3 to a Cover-2 disguise. These disguises can get much more complex when you involve corners and linebackers.
Patriots vs. Bills
Mike: One of the reasons the Bills are playing better of late is that they are getting some solid quarterback play from Ryan Fitzpatrick. He has thrown for 2,749 yards this season, with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Tedy: He's not a quarterback you'd consider building your whole franchise around, but I think he is a quality player. He is very aggressive, very decisive on what he wants to do, and he gives his receivers a chance to make plays on the ball. I compare him to Shaun Hill of the Detroit Lions, when Hill was playing with no care in the world, with nothing to lose. Fitzpatrick has nothing to lose. I like his style.
Mike: When we watched that Bills-Dolphins game, a couple of those throws were just eye-opening. The 18-yard touchdown to receiver David Nelson, in particular, was a throw that not too many quarterbacks will make. It was very risky into heavy traffic, but also very well done.
Tedy: He doesn't care who you are as a defensive player. That was Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby down the middle of the field in sort of a "Tampa 2" type of concept. Nelson was threatening the middle of the field and Dansby dropped back and was in position, yet Fitzpatrick still threw the ball because he had nothing to lose. Fitzpatrick doesn't look at jersey numbers, he doesn't care who you are, where you're from, how much you get paid; if he sees the read and likes where he is going to put the ball, he's going to trust his players to make a play. That will be a test for the Patriots this week -- they could be in position, but can they make plays on the ball?
Mike: As we've seen to this point in the season, the Patriots can. They are plus-20 in the turnover differential with 29 take-aways and a league-low 9 give-aways. The Patriots are 11-0 this season when on the plus side of the turnover differential and 81-3 since 2001. Fitzpatrick should give the Patriots a chance to up those numbers, but he will also make some big plays himself. His safest play will be handing the ball off to running back Fred Jackson.
Tedy: Coach Belichick called Jackson one of the best backs in the league and I agree with him. He's their best offensive player. I don't know why they strayed away from him at times earlier this year; I know they had Marshawn Lynch at the time and they were figuring out what they had in first-round draft choice C.J. Spiller. Now they're back to knowing Jackson is their main guy. When the Bills play well, it's usually because Jackson had a big day. In their four victories, he's averaging about 112 yards from scrimmage.
Mike: Jackson played at Coe College, a Division III school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He is a great story, playing indoor football, then in NFL Europe, before spending a year on Buffalo's practice squad. He took the long road and you see him now, with those 811 rushing yards and five touchdowns, as well as his 28 receptions and two receiving scores, and you know he's earned every bit of it. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio compared his production to Bears running back Matt Forte.
Tedy: The other thing you see from the Bills is an improved offensive line. Last week against the Dolphins, they were going up against the top pass-rusher in the league in Cameron Wake, who has 14 sacks and is on his way to the Pro Bowl. Wake didn't have a sack last week and that's a reflection of how that line is playing better. Chan Gailey said that win over the Dolphins in Miami was as good of a team win as they've had. So you're on that team and you're feeling like you're starting to get it. Players are learning how to win.
Mike: Along that offensive line, one name to put on the radar is Eric Wood. He was a first-round draft choice last year and Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia really liked him coming out of Louisville. He was definitely on the Patriots' radar, but I think the Bills surprised them by taking him 28th. Meanwhile, at receiver, you have some players that fans might not be able to pick out of a lineup with Lee Evans on season-ending injured reserve.
Tedy: When we watched the game, we had to do it with our roster right next to us, as you have some college free agents playing for them. But the guy you probably have heard, and seen highlights of, is Steve Johnson. He's made some big plays for them. You probably remember him playing well a few weeks ago and then raising up his shirt and it said "Why so serious?" He's that guy. He's also the guy, the next week, who dropped that ball against the Steelers that cost them the win. He was devastated after that. He's an emotional kid. You also have David Nelson, a rookie out of Florida, and he's been hot as of late with a touchdown catch in each of the last three games. He is tall -- 6-foot-5, 215 pounds. He's a huge target for Fitzpatrick.
Mike: Looking at the Patriots' defense, do you see any cause for concern based on what you saw against the Packers?
Tedy: They won the game and that's all you really care about at this time of the year. As for the performance of the unit, I want to focus on the safety position and Brandon Meriweather. I'm discouraged on some of the angles that he is taking on some of the deep balls thrown. Even when he got the interception that was nullified by penalty, I thought that was a poor angle. A better thrown ball, I think that is over his head and possibly another touchdown. That is something to watch this week, because you are facing a quarterback like Fitzpatrick who doesn't care, and will put that ball up there.
Mike: Let's look at the Bills' defense, which ranks 32nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (158.6), so this could be a big day for BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. Personnel-wise, Bill Belichick called defensive lineman Kyle Williams one of the most underrated players in the NFL. And this secondary has shown the ability to make plays on the ball. Players have talked this week about the Bills being a game-plan defense, so you could see the 3-4, but they've also leaned toward the 4-3 this year.
Tedy: One of the reasons they've probably gone more 4-3 is from having so many injured linebackers. There are six of them on IR and when you have that many, it can make the 3-4 a bit difficult to run. They've tried to sign a few linebackers to build depth and one of them is old Patriot Pierre Woods.
Mike: Woods wears No. 49 for the Bills and he has been active for two games, playing mostly on special teams. Some of the reporters in Buffalo were asking Woods about how the Patriots approached things, especially against the Bills, and he talked about how the Patriots always looked at them as dangerous. Said Woods: "You respect every opponent because it's any given Sunday. I'm pretty sure people didn't think that the Bills were going to win the last two games like we did. Cleveland beat the Patriots, Miami beat the Jets, so nobody knows?" It's true, but also spoken like a true Bill Belichick player.
Tedy: One other player to watch on special teams is C.J. Spiller on punt returns and kickoff returns. He's taken over on punt returns for Roscoe Parrish, a human joystick who is on injured reserve. The Patriots remember Spiller from his 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first meeting between the teams.
Fan question and predictions
Mike: As we do each week, let's answer a question from a follower on Twitter. @SVN2010 asks your opinion on which team might give the Patriots the biggest test in the playoffs.
Tedy: The Patriots have already beaten all the best teams in the AFC. When it comes to re-matches, if the Colts make it to the playoffs and through the first round, I feel that would be a tough out. I know the Ravens look good and the Chiefs know the Patriots better than anyone, but I feel the Colts would have confidence coming to Gillette based on how they almost got the victory in the first game.
Mike: Weather conditions are unpredictable, but the initial forecast calls for temperatures in the high teens with the possibility for some snow showers. The Patriots are the better team and should win if they bring their best effort. I think the offense should return to its form after a struggle of sorts against the Packers and the defense will continue to pick up those crucial turnovers. The potential is there for special teams fireworks. Patriots 27, Bills 20.
Tedy: The Bills have played the Pats tough in the last couple of games. They want this game badly so it can be a springboard into a positive offseason. You never know what to expect from a team that has nothing to lose. This won't be a cakewalk. Pats 30, Bills 24.