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Ten things you have to know about Bills-Patriots

12.28.13 at 12:04 pm ET
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Here’€™s everything you need to know about Sunday’€™s Bills-Patriots game:

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:

1. Linebacker Brandon Spikes against the Buffalo running game: The Bills run the ball just about as well as anyone in the league. Buffalo averages 145.2 rushing yards per game (second in the NFL) and is the only team in the league with at least two backs who have 800 yards or more through 15 games ‘€” Fred Jackson has 193 carries for 836 yards and eight touchdowns, while C.J. Spiller has 182 carries for 822 yards and two touchdowns. They’€™ll face a team in New England that has, at least statistically, shown better numbers against the run over the last month. In the previous four games, the Patriots have allowed an average of 109.75 rushing yards per game. It doesn’€™t sound like much, but in that span, New England’€™s average rushing yards allowed per game has gone from 139.7 yards allowed to 131.7 yards allowed. It’€™s not much, but it’€™s an improvement, one, the Patriots hope to continue to build on Sunday against Buffalo. Spikes will likely lead the charge in this department — the linebacker, who is clearly hobbled with a knee issue he’€™s been battling over the last month, will have the primary responsibility of tracking Spiller and Jackson.

2. Quarterback Tom Brady against the Buffalo pass defense: Brady has owned the Bills’€™ pass defense for the better part of the last dozen years. The quarterback has led the Patriots to 21 regular season victories over the Bills, recording his highest regular season victory total over any opponent. Additionally, Brady has thrown for more touchdowns (53) against Buffalo than any other opponent, and has more 300-yard games (7) against Buffalo than any other NFL team. The Bills have played very good pass defense as a team over the course of the 2013 season — they’€™ve gotten good pressure up front (more on that in a second), but they’€™ve also gotten improved play when it comes to coverage. Buffalo has four different players with four picks, including Kiko Alonso, Aaron Williams, Jairus Byrd and Jim Leonhard. That depth in pass coverage will surely provide some challenges for the Patriots’€™ pass catchers.

3. The Patriots offensive line against the Buffalo front seven: It’€™ll be another stern test for the New England offensive line, which has met some really impressive defensive fronts over the course of the year. While they haven’€™t kept Brady’€™s uniform completely clean — if he’€™s sacked twice against the Bills, it’€™ll equal his career-high for sacks absorbed in a season with 41 (2001 in 15 games) — they have done well given the fact they’€™ve dealt with injuries to right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (lost for the season) and left tackle (Nate Solder, who has struggled with concussion issues as of late but appears likely to play). Buffalo is the only team in the league with four defenders with 7.5 or more sacks — Mario Williams leads the way with 13 — and have shown an ability to get pressure off the edges or up the middle. For the Patriots, part of the game plan will likely be the same it was over the course of several games this season against some of the league’€™s best pass rushers like Miami, Baltimore and Carolina — Brady has to get the ball out as fast as possible to try and negate the Bills pass rush. As a result, don’€™t expect too many deep shots downfield. Instead, look for the strength of the Patriots passing game on Sunday to focus on the short and intermediate routes to receivers like Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen.

4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’€™ fans need to know: It’€™s tough to call Scott Chandler an under-the-radar opponent anymore — he leads the team in receiving yards, and is second on the team in receptions — but the tight end has consistently been a tough cover for New England. In two games against the Patriots last year, Chandler had nine catches for 127 yards and three touchdowns on 16 targets. While he was held to four catches for 38 yards in the season opener against New England, managed to carve out a really nice niche for himself this year with 50 catches on 77 targets for a team-leading 600 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Bills don’€™t really throw the ball with any sort of consistency, but when they do, Chandler is one of their first options.

5. By the numbers: (tie) One, Brady has thrown more touchdown passes against the Bills — 53 — than any other team in his career, and has a 21-2 record against Buffalo. Two, the Bills are the only team in the league with two running backs (Jackson, Spiller) with at least 800 rushing yards each.

6. Quote of note: “We always say that as the season goes on, the games only get bigger and bigger and bigger, and I think that is this week, too. We’€™ve worked too hard for too long to get to this point. We’€™ve got a great opportunity ahead of us, and you just don’€™t want to go out there and not give it your best and put out an effort that’€™s less than 100 percent of what you’€™re capable of, because, like I said, it’€™s been 11 months of work to get us back to this point.”€ — Brady.

7. Patriots fans should be worried about the Bills finding any sort of consistency through the air. Buffalo does a pretty good job moving the football, but they haven’€™t really been able to get any sort of traction in the passing game all year. Chandler is one of the two primary targets in the passing game and has occasionally done a nice job playing off wide receiver Stevie Johnson, but Johnson has been ruled out for Sunday for personal reasons. One pass catcher who could play a big role is rookie Robert Woods, who has had some fits and starts over his first year in the league (he was tossed from last week’€™s game for throwing a punch), but has done relatively well with 39 catches for 560 yards and three touchdowns this season, with one of those touchdown catches coming in the regular-season opener against New England. Woods could find himself opposite Aqib Talib on Sunday, which could make for a combustible matchup.

8. Bills fans should be worried about the Patriots continuing their strong red zone play from the previous week. Entering last week, New England was clearly struggling to find answers in the red zone — the offense was still learning how to operate without Rob Gronkowski when it got inside the 20. But against one of the best red-zone defenses in the league in Baltimore, the Patriots were able to post touchdowns in all three of their red-zone trips, with two rushing touchdowns from LeGarrette Blount and a Brady-to-Vereen touchdown pass. New England could turn to the ground game again against the Bills, and while Vereen and Blount will likely play a role in this regard, it could be a good time to bring Stevan Ridley down off the shelf and re-insert him into the offense on a regular basis. Ridley would help out in this area in several aspects, not the least of which is the fact that he made his bones as a red-zone standout last season: Ridley rushed for 12 red-zone touchdowns last season, second only to Houston’€™s Arian Foster.

9. One more thing: Through most of the last 23 games between the two teams, the Bills have lost to Brady even before they stepped on the field. Buffalo has been psyched out by the sight of the quarterback, and more often than not, when the Bills have fallen behind the Patriots by multiple scores, they’€™ve abandoned the running game and started to pass the ball, trying to match Brady score-for-score. If Buffalo is able to keep it relatively close (10-14 points) before the start of the fourth quarter, it needs to stick with the Spiller-Jackson combo on the ground. One of the things that really distinguished Manuel in the season opener was his willingness to rely on his various offensive options (particularly the ground game), understanding that if you’€™re a young quarterback, it takes a village to beat the Patriots. Youngster Thad Lewis needs to remember this on Sunday.

10. Prediction: The Bills have done a lot of good things on both sides of the ball. They have one of the best young defenses in the league, and when the ground game gets started, it’€™s impressive to watch. In addition, a 7-9 finish would feel like a step forward for a team that is still building toward something. That being said, the Patriots have far more at stake this weekend than finishing the regular season on a positive note — if they win, they get either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed and have next weekend off. If they lose, it’€™s No. 3 or No. 4, and they’€™ll have to take the long road if they want to get to North Jersey. Ultimately, the singular characteristic of this 2013 New England team is an impressive mental toughness and resilience, particularly when it’€™s been faced with a meaningful challenge: with only a couple of exceptions, this Patriots team has sealed the deal. This Sunday should be more of the same: New England 28, Buffalo 20.

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