Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week, it's the Patriots visiting the Bills on Sunday.
Mike: This will be the 100th meeting between the teams. The Patriots have been the dominant team in the series of late, with 12 straight wins and 17 of the last 19 going back to the 2000 season. From your experience, what is it about the Bills that make them a good matchup for the Patriots?
Tedy: The Bills are a team that the Patriots always had confidence going up against. When you beat a team consecutively for so many years, you sort of feel like you have the right formula to beat it. Even when the Bills have a good game, like the opener this year, you still don't believe they can really beat you until they actually do it. Yes, the first game was close. Toward the end of the game, the Patriots were down two scores, but you still have this feeling that something could happen that will deliver you the victory because those things have happened in the past against the Bills. Lo and behold, they fumble the kickoff, the Patriots come back and that's the ballgame.
When a team loses to another team consecutively for so long, like the Bills have to the Patriots, not only do they have to prove to themselves and their fans that they can win but they also have to prove it to the Patriots.
Mike: Buffalo in December means unpredictable conditions. The extended forecast currently calls for temperatures in the 20s with a 20 percent chance of precipitation.
Tedy: Last year's game, the wind was blowing over the goalposts. I was hurt for that game, but I saw it from TV, the official put the ball down, and the wind would blow it away. You never know what kind of conditions you're going to get in Orchard Park. You can get one forecast and it can be the opposite. The first half could be one thing, and the second half it's something different. This is the game out of all games where you know weather can be a huge factor.
Mike: The Patriots are 8-5 with three games to go -- at Buffalo, home versus Jacksonville and at Houston. They have a one-game lead in the AFC East over the Dolphins and Jets. Bill Belichick has called it a one-game season.
Tedy: I know I've harped on this for a good part of the year, but I think this week specifically is about proving you can win on the road. I think last week gave us all some indications as to why it hasn't happened at this point. To win on the road, you have to have the mentality that all you have are the people in that locker room, and that's all you need. There has to be a common goal of taking over a visiting city, taking over however many thousand fans Orchard Park holds. You're battling that many fans in addition to that team on the field. There are a lot of obstacles you face when you go on the road, and you must be together for that one common goal.
You had four players arrive late last week, and Adalius Thomas did not step up and take accountability while the other three players turned their focus to the game. That shows you there are different mentalities in the locker room. People are thinking different things, and they're not all together. How can you be together on the road and attack that one common goal when you're not all together in the locker room? To bring that team together, I think it starts with Adalius. Is he with the team now? Last week, he wasn't.
Mike: There have been some signs in recent days that perhaps things are changing. Thomas spoke with reporters Monday and said the last week was behind him and he was only focusing on the Bills. On Tuesday, he showed up at the team's Salvation Army holiday party. Maybe that's a step in the right direction. In a situation like this, I wonder if it would help if Bill Belichick reached out and cleared the air with him. One player described the atmosphere between the two as "high tension" of late, and if other players can feel that, maybe trying to address it and put it behind them would resonate throughout the room. What do you think Thomas himself could do to show he's fully committed to his teammates?
Tedy: One simple way he could show it is by accepting responsibility for his actions. Judging by his comments and actions earlier this week, maybe he's done that already. This could help them come together on the road for that common goal: getting that first road win.
Patriots defense vs. Bills offense
Mike: One significant difference between the Bills' offense now and when the Patriots were preparing for them in the opening week is that the no-huddle is no longer a big part of their plan. The Bills struggle on offense, ranking 26th in points scored (16.5 per game) and 29th in total yards per game (273.8).
Tedy: When you look at their offense, let's start with the quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. He is athletic, and I think the Patriots will make it a point to keep him in the pocket. When you are an inexperienced quarterback, sometimes you rely on other things to help you win football games -- quarterback scrambles, getting out of the pocket, if a play breaks down trying to extend it and throwing it up to a receiver. From a Patriots' perspective, you want to keep him in the pocket and make him be a quarterback.
Mike: Fitzpatrick was named the starter by interim coach Perry Fewell shortly after Dick Jauron was fired, and Buffalo is 2-2 since that time. Local fans might remember him from his days at Harvard. He is completing just 53 percent of his passes this season, with five touchdowns and nine interceptions. He does have a 98-yard touchdown pass, which was a strike to Terrell Owens, so you have to respect the long ball if you are the Patriots. In terms of keeping Fitzpatrick in the pocket, let's touch on which players will have that responsibility.
Tedy: A lot of times against running backs with a lot of speed, you talk about "setting the edge," and it can be the same against an athletic quarterback. That would fall to the outside linebackers in the base defense or the defensive ends in a sub defense -- so players like Thomas, Rob Ninkovich, Tully Banta-Cain, Pierre Woods and Derrick Burgess. The other thing to think about is that if you dial up blitzes, they will probably come from the outside, not up the middle because Fitzpatrick can scramble away from those.
Mike: You mentioned in your Thursday chat that going up against running back Marshawn Lynch was always one of the biggest challenges in facing the Bills. They have had some instability on the offensive line this year but can still hurt an opponent with the run, as they are averaging 4.3 yards per carry and 113.4 yards per game.
Tedy: Lynch (422 yards, 108 carries) and Fred Jackson (731 yards, 176 carries) combine for a formidable running tandem. Both run hard and fight for extra yards. They are difficult to tackle. That could be a problem for the Patriots, who have shown some problems tackling at times. They'll be tested in that area. One of the things you heard last week was that the Patriots simplified things to make it easier on the defense, and the defense responded and felt it played well. The Patriots did allow 305 total net yards to the Panthers, a team with Matt Moore at quarterback, so that's important to keep in mind. But if they feel keeping it simple helped them, and that's what players responded to, I could see it happening again.
Mike: It's probably also important to point out that it's easier to simplify things against a vanilla-type offense like Carolina than against another opponent. I mean, without sounding too harsh, Carolina was having trouble just lining up. I expect the Bills to take some shots down the field with receivers Lee Evans and Owens.
Tedy: Terrell Owens seems like he's always demanding the ball. This is the week when he's probably screaming for the ball louder than usual. Patriots defensive backs still showed they are giving up big plays on that Steve Smith touchdown and with that in mind, a receiver with the ability and mentality of Terrell Owens has probably been asking for the ball all week.
Tedy: The last time we saw obvious personnel shakeups was after the Denver game when there were multiple mental errors and the communication was lacking. Coach Belichick often goes with older, veteran players he feels will give the team the best chance to get back on the winning track. After the loss to the Dolphins, he might have felt the same thing. It was a game the Patriots should have won. One problem they had was Chad Henne completing passes, and maybe that was because of some communication issues.
Mike: We should also touch on Vince Wilfork. I think he has been terrific this year, but he has not practiced Wednesday and Thursday with a foot injury.
Tedy: The Wilfork injury is the last thing you want right now. To play a solid 3-4 defense, the best player has to be the nose guard, and that's the way it's been for the Patriots. With Vince, it's been nose guard and defensive end -- he's played both because of a lack of depth. Without Vince in the middle, and with that Buffalo running attack, that could pose a significant problem for the Patriots.
Patriots offense vs. Bills defense
Mike: The Bills look like a unit that can be pushed around a bit. Whereas the other teams in the AFC East have big, sturdy players in the front seven, this is a bit of a different style of play.
Tedy: When you look at the statistics, it's obvious what the Patriots should do: run the ball. The Bills are ranked 32nd versus the run, the bottom of the league. Opponents are averaging 170.5 yards per game on the ground and 5 yards per carry. Meanwhile, they are ranked fifth against the pass (189.2 yards per game). Sometimes when you look at teams, you simply attack the weakness when it's that glaring. With another week of rest, maybe this is the time we see Fred Taylor. It seems like a perfect week to spread the carries around to the different running backs, especially when dealing with the unpredictable weather. I'm not saying abandon the pass totally, because when you have a weapon like Wes Welker, you want to continue to use it.
Mike: It might not seem like it because of his production in the past four games (11 catches), but Randy Moss is another weapon simply by the way opponents devote so many resources to defend him.
Tedy: I know a lot of people talked about Moss' effort and whether he quit or not against the Panthers. Personally, I don't think he quit. He was more frustrated. The sign of a great player is how they respond, and I feel like the Patriots will make a concerted effort to get Randy back on track this week.
Mike: One other aspect that might be undersold is what Tom Brady is battling through. It's my belief that he is hurt more than people might realize.
Tedy: I think this time of year, nobody is 100 percent. Brady said it himself, everyone is banged up. He may be banged up more than everybody else, as I think everybody has seen the shots he's taken. Whether it's the finger, shoulder or the shot to the ribs he took in Miami, Brady is as tough as they come. He is trying to lead by example by showing his toughness and still playing well. He's sending a message to the team that if the starting quarterback is sucking it up when he's in pain, you should, too.
Mike: The Patriots rotated their offensive tackles last week. My sense is that we might see more of that this week. You always have to keep an eye on the edge when end Aaron Schobel is rushing. He has more sacks against Brady than any player and will be a tough matchup for whoever is playing left tackle.
Tedy: If the Patriots have three players at two positions that they feel can give them quality play, they will rotate them. It was just like they did with me, Ted Johnson and Roman Phifer during those championship runs. We had a little bit of a rotation there and knowing that, you never got upset about it, never second-guessed the coach's decision. You respected your teammates and their skills also. Elsewhere along the offensive line, I think Logan Mankins has been a stud at left guard. He's a tractor over there.
Mike: One final thought on this aspect of the matchup is Bills rookie safety Jairus Byrd. He plays in sub packages and leads the NFL with nine interceptions. He was a former teammate of Patriots rookie Pat Chung at Oregon. Brady will have to keep an eye on his whereabouts, as the word on Byrd is that he's a ball hawk. I'm sure games in Buffalo at the older Ralph Wilson Stadium bring back different memories for you.
Tedy: One of the things I remember about Orchard Park is the incredible amount of Patriots support we had there. Fans often traveled there. During this 12-game winning streak over the Bills, there have been some blowouts and some times in that stadium where it almost felt like the old Foxboro Stadium. Fans would trickle down behind the bench, and we'd have a good time. I'm sure the Patriots are hoping there is more of that on Sunday.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.