This Sunday, the New England Patriots wrap up their regular season, playing host to the Buffalo Bills. The game will be shown on CBS at 4:25 EST (barring a last-second Kyle-Orton-is-starting-oh-no spurred TV schedule shakeup by the NFL). Ian “Birdman” Eagle and Dan Fouts will be providing commentary and color to the proceedings.
Throughout the season, Patriots critics have bemoaned the lack of a signature win. Yes, the Patriots had plenty of dramatic last minute wins (New Orleans, Denver) and one offensive explosion (Pittsburgh), but there wasn’t a good old-fashioned beatdown, a win that would let their fans rest easy with the knowledge that the team could outright win a game, not just hang in there for a miracle.
And this past Sunday, they got it. In a game in which nearly every expert picked the Ravens to win (whoops) the Patriots delivered pretty much across the board. They forced turnovers, they stopped the run, they succeeded in the red zone, and they controlled the ball. Yes, things weren’t perfect (Brady missed on a few throws, Vereen and McCourty were both banged up), but it was a good, solid, physical Pats win.
Which leads us to this week. The Bills stand at 6-9 in what has been a somewhat disappointing season. Despite their nearly-elite defense, a string of injuries and inconsistency on offense has left them at the bottom of the AFC East standings. Thad Lewis will get the start ahead of the recovering EJ Manuel. While you’d think that this is an easy call, the Patriots always seem to have trouble putting away the Bills (this year’s Week 1 matchup a prime example), and the young Buffalo team will be raring to screw Brady and Belichick out of a playoff bye.
So let’s take a closer look….
A Quick Playoff Rundown
I’ve spent way too much time on the ESPN Playoff Machine. But here’s the scoop.
-If the Broncos lose, and the Pats win, the Patriots get the 1-seed. The Broncos are playing the Raiders. So yeah.
-If the Pats and Broncos win, they stay in their current seeds, and take the bye.
-If the Pats lose, and Cincinnati and Indianapolis win, the Pats get the 4-seed. If one of those teams win and the Pats lose, the Pats take the 3-seed.
-Kansas City is locked into the 5th seed, and will face whoever tumbles to the 4th seed.
-If the Ravens, Chargers, and Dolphins all win, then Miami takes the 6th because of tiebreakers.
-If the Ravens and Dolphins win, and the Chargers lose, the Ravens take the 6th seed.
-If the Ravens and Chargers win, and the Dolphins lose, the Ravens take the 6th seed.
-The Chargers take the 6th if they win, and Baltimore and Miami lose.
-If all three teams lose, and Pittsburgh wins, the Steelers take the 6th.
-The Jets can’t make the playoffs. Ha.
Now that that’s all settled…
Key Matchup: Josh Kline vs. Kyle Williams
As important as a win is for the Patriots, staying healthy is even more crucial. Devin McCourty’s concussion may keep him out of this week’s game, Shane Vereen hurt his groin, the wide receivers are still trying to all get healthy for the same game, and Nate Solder will more than likely sit out as well, after suffering his second concussion in a month two weeks ago.
It’s this last absence that could be a game changer. By all means Solder needs to focus on staying healthy, especially a head injury, and that means the Patriots will plug in Josh Kline at left guard, and slide Logan Mankins to tackle. This lineup did wonders for New England against Baltimore, as Brady was only sacked twice and hit four times. Mankins is athletic enough to play tackle, where he played in college, but Kline is only a rookie, and he faces another immense challenge in the Bills’ front line.
Mario Williams, Alan Branch, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams have all put up Pro-Bowl caliber numbers, and have terrorized quarterbacks and running backs alike all season long. The 30 year-old Kyle Williams, who has a career-high 10.5 sacks and is one of the elite defensive tackles in the NFL, is especially scary, and will most likely face up with Kline. Because of the strength of his linemate, Dareus, the Patriots may not be able to double-team either tackle consistently, meaning Kline will be thrown into the fire against an elite tackle.
The Patriots need to keep Brady upright this week, at all costs. That means great pass protection, but also a consistent running attack to open up the play-action, and keep linebackers off of him. Both mean another strong game from the rookie offensive lineman, Kline.
3 Things to Watch this Week
- Rookies Coming Alive
For whatever reason, the Patriots always seem like an old team. A lot of that has to do with Brady being on the team for so long, and because Bill Belichick seems like he’ll be coaching from a walker 20 years from now, pooping unceremoniously into an adult diaper as he conjures up even more ways to bedevil opposing quarterbacks.
But make no mistake, the Pats are in the midst of a youth revolution. Brandon Spikes, Chandler Jones, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Devin McCourty, Alfonzo Dennard, and Dont’a Hightower are all looking like above-average NFL starters at this point and are all under the age of 26.
But this year’s rookie class has been truly impressive. Despite some health issues of late and a rash of drops in the opening weeks, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, and Kenbrell Thompkins have all done their jobs more than adequately, and will only improve with another offseason working with Brady. Undrafted rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano were shoved into the starting line after Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly were gone for the year, and both, especially Jones, have impressed. Likewise, Jamie Collins was forced into a starting role with Jerod Mayo’s season-ending injury, and has shown great potential. Duron Harmon, one of the most head-scratching picks in Belichick’s tenure, has more than impressed, and had some great plays last week against Baltimore. Logan Ryan may be the best of the crop, and while his two interceptions off of Flacco were great, his leaping pass deflection was even better. And Jesus, let’s not forget Ryan Allen!
The question, of course, is how all this youth will perform come playoff time, when there is little time to suffer growing pains. They have one more game to work out the kinks (and Harmon, Ryan, and the afore-mentioned Kline may all draw the start because of injuries) before things get serious.
Julian Edelman has had one helluva season that I can’t imagine anyone, especially the Pats, saw coming. In retrospect, it’s insane that the pats are only paying him 750K, and he’ll be looking at a hefty payday come the offseason.
But in this game, he can cross off two mighty impressive milestones. With four catches, this Sunday, Edelman will have 100 for the season. With nine receiving yards, he will reach 1,000 yards. He can accomplish this against the Buffalo Bills, against whom he had his breakout game, with 7 catches for 79 yards and 2 TDs.
For the next few months, there will be constant debate about whether the Patriots should resign the diminutive Edelman, and how he compares to Wes Welker, who New England let walk this past year. But in the meantime, Brady and the Patriots will need Edelman more than ever as they enter the postseason, and he will almost certainly continue his dominant streak against Buffalo.
3. Movie Magic
So, on the Friday before their game against Baltimore, Bill Belichick took the entire team to the movies to see Lone Survivor. The film, detailing four Navy SEALS’ mission in Afghanistan in 2006, stars noted Bostonion Mark Wahlberg, and apparently the story’s themes of brotherhood and resilience helped, as the Pats thrashed the Ravens that week. (Plus as an FNL superfan, I’m behind any Peter Berg/Taylor Kitsch combo, even Battleship)
Now, if you’ve read anything I’ve written, you’d know that I’m all for using movies as motivation to win football games. So, here are the three films currently showing at the Showcase Cinema de Lux in Foxboro that Bill B. should take his team to see:
- Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Because like the original, the Patriots seem to have been around forever and are still delivering after all these years. Because the Channel 4 News Team exemplifies a group of men reaching unattainable heights of perfection and manliness. And because, like Ron Burgundy, Tom Brady has many leather-bound books and his house smells of rich mahogany.
- American Hustle
Again, nothing better than a team coming together. What Bill Belichick has pulled together this season is the work of a true con artist and may go down as his greatest coaching performance in a career full of them. And Brady will find new hair-inspiration (hairspiration?) in Bradley Cooper’s perm.
- Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Because, as the title suggests, now is the time for the Patriots to get the gears moving. If they win against Buffalo, they get an extra week to heal their wounds, and to secure a playoff matchup at home, where they are 41-6 since 2008. Any team that’s going into the playoffs stays that way. Plus, the hope that some of that J-Law magic rubs off on them.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Bills 14
You’ll notice I barely mentioned the Bills in this article, and that may be a mistake. If this game were a bit more meaningless (say, the Pats had locked down the 1 or 2 seed), I’d probably swing it more in Buffalo’s favor.
But it’s not meaningless. The Bills are playing for pride. The Pats are playing for a playoff seed, which trumps pride every time. Look for Belichick to come into the game with the intent of locking down Fred Jackson/CJ Spiller like he did in Week 1, forcing Thad Lewis to beat them with his arm, which is not a sentence Bills fans want to read. Look for Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan, and Tavon Wilson to be chomping at the bit to make plays in their last regular season starts, to instill confidence in their being playoff contributors. The Pats perfected their run/throw balance last week, and will keep it up against a similarly formidable front seven.
The Pats don’t lose at home. Not in a game this important. The amount of confidence after the Baltimore win may leave them temporarily vulnerable, but Belichick and Co. walk away unharmed.