With the Patriots heading on the road for their tilt against the Buffalo Bills, here’s five things to look for in the battle of two 1-0 division rivals.
1) Not kissing the rings. Rex Ryan is a boisterous personality and you can question his coaching acumen, but his defenses are always ready to go, and his teams have always played the Patriots tough. Although Ryan is 4-9 – including the postseason – against the Bill Belichick-led Patriots, the Jets held the Patriots to 14 points or less twice during that time frame, and the Patriots average almost 6 points fewer against the Jets than they do against everyone else. In other words, don’t expect a Ryan defense to forget to cover Rob Gronkowski, as the Steelers did last week.
2) Speaking of Gronk… Ryan’s been asked plenty about Gronkowski this week, and you can expect he’ll throw everything he’s got at the league’s top tight end. But when defenses key on one player, good teams typically know how to find other players. Will extra coverage on Gronkowski lead to more opportunities for Julian Edelman? Will screen passes and draws to running backs be the way to go? Look for the Patriots to utilize some two-TE sets, with former Buffalo Bills TE Scott Chandler getting a few extra targets against his former team.
3) What we learned last week: New England was in control from the start in last week’s 28-21 win over Pittsburgh – a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated, with the Steelers scoring a late TD. But while New England’s defense came up with the big plays when it needed, it wasn’t a masterful performance – Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for 351 yards, and RB DeAngelo Williams ran for 127 yards. Pittsburgh did itself in with questionable playcalling and disorganization. Buffalo, which looked dominant against a good Colts team, has a different style of offense and a quarterback – Tyrod Taylor – who showed dual-threat ability. He was 14-of-19 for 195 yards passing and added 41 rushing yards, moving the offense efficiently. New England’s linebackers will need to be versatile; pressuring Taylor can force the inexperienced signal-caller to make mistakes, but it can also flush him out of the pocket and make plays with his feet if the defense isn’t ready for it.
4) Blount force trama: With LeGarrette Blount out of the lineup last week, New England’s rushing attack was fairly ordinary. Dion Lewis had a solid game on the ground, but most of his impact was felt catching passes. The re-addition of Blount gives New England another dimension, and his running style tends to wear down defenses. Look for New England to use both Blount and Lewis early to open up additional opportunities in the passing game.
5) Watch for the deep ball: New England’s secondary is still relatively unproven. Though Malcolm Butler kept Steelers star Antonio Brown out of the end zone until the final few seconds of the game, he still managed 9 catches for 133 yards. Pittsburgh’s receiving corps boast more top-end talent, but Buffalo has plenty of weapons. Percy Harvin connected on a 51-yard pass last week, Robert Woods is capable of catching deep balls as well. (Marquise Goodwin will not play this week, but when healthy, he’s a deep threat as well – Goodwin was a college star in the 100-meter dash and competed in the 2012 Olympics as a long jumper.) LeSean McCoy’s ability to catch balls out of the backfield frees up opportunities for wideouts as well, though McCoy is questionable this week.
Prediction: It’s tempting to pick Buffalo in a bit of a wake-up game for New England after an emotional home opener. Giving Bill Belichick an extra 3 days to prepare for an opponent rarely ends in defeat; for example, Belichick is 11-4 in the regular season after a bye. This isn’t a bye, but it’s close. With that said, Las Vegas lines have the Patriots as just a 1.5-point favorite on the road. Always assume Las Vegas knows something you don’t.
Bills 26, Patriots 23