LeGarrette Blount could be in for another big week. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)
What you have to know when it comes to Sunday’s Bills-Patriots game at Gillette Stadium.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL
For one more game — at least until You Know Who returns — this is the unquestioned strength of the New England offense. The Patriots lead the league in rushing, and LeGarrette Blount (75 carries, 298 yards, four touchdowns) is the top individual rusher in the NFL after three weeks. From this viewpoint, if Jimmy Garoppolo plays, that could mean the Patriots will rely more on the passing game, and by association, more on the likes of Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. If Jacoby Brissett is under center, look for them to pack it in, rely on more big formations with extra tight ends and fullback James Develin and lean on Blount just as much as they have done over the course of the first three games. It’s worth noting that over the course of his career, Blount has enjoyed limited success against Buffalo with a nice yards per carry average, but has never really been cut loose: in five career games against the Bills, Blount has averaged just 12 carries and 65 yards a game, but has a whopping 5.53 yards per carry. That could change this week. On the other side, the Bills are tied for 15th in the league in run defense, having allowed an average of 98 rushing yards per game. (The Jets hit them for 123 yards on the ground in a Week Two win in Buffalo.)
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL
There’s so much uncertainty here for the second straight week, I’m almost tempted to leave this section blank. Everyone knows the story: it’s either going to be Garoppolo (42-for-59, 496 yards, four touchdowns and a passer rating of 119) and his right shoulder, or Brissett (17-for-28, 61 percent, 195 yards, 81.7 passer rating) and his thumb. As previously stated, the game plan is going to depend on who’s out there — if it’s Garoppolo, more pass attempts, if it’s Brissett, more of a run-based attack. But regardless of who’s under center on Sunday, when it comes to the passing game, the Patriots will rely on the likes of Julian Edelman (18 catches, 24 targets, 180 yards), Danny Amendola (9 catches, 10 targets, 138 yards, one TD) and Chris Hogan (8 catches, 13 targets, 122 yards, one TD) and tight ends Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett (10 catches, 14 targets, 138 yards, one TD).
Buffalo is 22nd in the league against the pass (285 yards per game allowed), but one of their strengths of this group is its ability to take advantage of things when an opponent becomes a one-dimensional team. Last week, the Bills were able to get up early on the Cardinals and force them to pass to get back into it. As a result, they became the first team in the NFL since 2013 to come away with four fourth-quarter picks. Overall, they have second takeaways (four picks and three fumble recoveries) and just two giveaways (both fumbles). That plus-five is good enough to tie them for third in the league, and trail only Minnesota (plus-8) and Philadelphia (plus-six). When it comes to getting after the passer, outside linebacker Jerry Hughes (three sacks) is probably their best pure rusher. As a ream, they’re tied for third in sacks with 10.
WHEN THE BILLS RUN THE BALL
This was clearly the strength of the Buffalo offense through the first three games, and now, with wide receiver Sammy Watkins (foot) on the sidelines, it’s even more the case. The Buffalo running game is powered by LeSean McCoy, a speedy, multidimensional back who can stress a defense as a slashing runner who can also catch the ball out of the backfield. “Shady” has 227 yards on 48 carries (4.7 yards per carry) and three touchdowns through three games, to go along with 13 catches for 98 yards. McCoy had a pair of touchdowns and his first 100-yard rushing game Sunday against Arizona. Buffalo will also mix in some designed runs for quarterback Tyrod Taylor (16 carries, 112 yards, one touchdown).
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots have done well against the run for two-thirds of the first three games of the season. Things kind of got away from them in the second half against the Cardinals, a game where New England yielded 92 rushing yards, most of them to David Johnson, a back whose skill set does bear some resemblance to McCoy. While statistically, the game against the Texans represented a season-high in terms of rushing yards allowed — 109 — much of that came when the game was no longer in doubt, so we’ll excuse those numbers. The fact those numbers have come without Dont’a Hightower in the lineup for the last two games is a good sign for the Patriots, and from this viewpoint, if he’s out there on Sunday, it’ll go a long way toward taking away Buffalo’s offensive strength.
WHEN THE BILLS PASS THE BALL
Numbers can be bent any way you want, but the truth is that if you want to stop the Bills, stack the line of scrimmage with an eye toward containing McCoy and make Taylor to beat you over the top. Taylor is in the bottom half of the league when it comes to most major passing categories — he’s completed 47-of-77 pass attempts (61 percent) for 527 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions through three games. Taylor has cracked the 100-yard passing mark through the air in only one of his three games (297 yards against the Jets), and in three career games against the Patriots, he’s 0-3 while going 44-for-70 (63 percent), 477 yards and three touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 73.3. McCoy leads the team in catches, but without Watkins, expect Taylor to also lean on wide receiver Robert Woods (11 catches, 15 targets, 81 yards) and tight end Charles Clay (seven catches 12 targets, 67 yards). The Patriots’ pass defense is 18th in the league, having allowed an average of 271 passing yards per game. In terms of the challenges that have been presented to the New England pass defense to this point in the season, the Bills are easily the weakest of the bunch.
Kicker Dan Carpenter is 3-for-4 on field-goal attempts and 8-for-9 on extra points. Punter Colton Schmidt is toward the back of the pack with a 40.6 average (27th), and 38.4 net average (23rd). Former Patriots draft pick Brandon Tate is Buffalo’s primary returner, and has shown to be pretty good in limited work; his average of 24.2 yards per kick return on six chances is fifth-best in the league, and his 17 yards per punt return (on four return chances) is fifth-best in the NFL.
On the other side, kicker Stephen Gostkowski is 6-for-7 on field-goal attempts and 9-for-9 on extra points. Punter Ryan Allen bounced back after a tough Week Two to deliver one of the best individual efforts of the year last week against the Texans, dropping six of seven punts inside the Houston 20. His 42.3 average per punt is 24th in the league, while his 41.7 net is tied for ninth. Danny Amendola is fourth in the AFC when it comes to punt returns at 10.2 yards per opportunity, while rookie Cyrus Jones has averaged 25 yards per return on his two kick return chances.
THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… McCoy is able to get started and the Bills can get some sort of traction in the passing game. The Patriots have struggled at times to contain multidimensional runners like McCoy in the past, and if Taylor can get the passing game on track with Woods, Clay or another target, Buffalo will have a punchers’ chance. One other thing to look out for? New Buffalo offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn had the Bills operating at a higher tempo last week against the Cardinals than they had in the past. If the Bills are able to get rolling, they could hurry things up in an attempt to get the Patriots on their heels.
THE BILLS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… the Patriots get out to an early lead and control the tempo of the game. New England has been in control from start to finish in just about all three of their games to this point in the season — according to ESPN, the Patriots have trailed for just 6:02 this year. If New England is able to establish command early, look for a healthy dose of Blount in the second half, as he’s been able to establish his bonafides as one of the best closers in the game this season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 34 — The Patriots have outscored their opponents by a 34-0 margin in the first quarter over the course of the first three games. The total is the most first-quarter points scored by any team in the league, and the point differential is the largest in the league for any quarter.
UNDER THE RADAR PERFORMER: We have a soft spot for guys who made their bones as special teamers, and so linebacker Lorenzo Alexander is an easy pick here. The 33-year-old, a 6-foot-1, 244-pounder out of Cal bounced from Carolina to Baltimore to Washington, eventually finding a role as the Redskins’ special teams captain. He wasn’t re-signed by Washington — despite a Pro Bowl berth as a special teamer in 2012 — and ended up going to Arizona and Oakland before signing with the Bills this spring. Now, because of injury and some personnel shuffling, he’s become part of Buffalo’s linebacking corps, starting on the outside last week against the Cardinals and logging six tackles, 1.5 sacks, and one forced fumble during Sunday’s upset win. (He’s tied for the team lead in sacks with three.) Bottom line? He’s the kind of guy who would become a gonzo cult hero if he was in New England, a core special teamer who has climbed the ladder and carved out an impressive niche in the league. And how can you not love a guy who does this on Sept. 11?
QUOTE OF NOTE: “The one thing I do know for sure is Tom Brady is not the quarterback. And I feel good about that.” — Rex Ryan on who might be under center for the Patriots on Sunday. Brady has a 25-3 career mark against the Bills.
PREDICTION: I said it earlier in the week, and I’ll reiterate it now: It doesn’t matter who’s under center for the Patriots on Sunday, it’s not going to matter much. In fact, if the New England defense and special teams are half as good as they were last Thursday against the Texans, this game isn’t going to be close. If it was being played in upstate New York against a completely healthy Bills team, it might be a different story. In the end, Rex will be able to rally his troops and make it interesting for a good portion of the first half, but the Patriots are deep enough in all phases to come out of this with their fourth straight win to open the season. My take: New England 27, Buffalo 17.