FOXBORO — How will Randy respond?
In the wake of Moss' worst statistical game in his two-plus years as a Patriot, it’s a question that was asked a half-million times this past week. The wide receiver left the world wondering where his head was at after not talking Wednesday or Thursday, leaving everyone to ponder what was going on with him.
One guy who doesn’t seem too concerned about how he’ll respond is Moss' quarterback. Every time he was asked about it this week, Brady expressed the ultimate faith in Moss as a player and a person.
“He’s a great competitor,” Brady said. “He works extremely hard. He’s a huge part of this team. They don’t break down all the film and see what we see and see what the other team is trying to do, game-plan wise.
“Randy’s a great part of this team. He’s a leader, he’s a captain. He’s a great teammate for all of us. You’re not going to find anybody in that locker room that doesn’t enjoy being around him. I love playing with the guy. He’s made catch after catch, this season, last season, the season before that really, no other player in the league could probably make.”
The Bills are a very good team when it comes to pass defense — they are fifth in the league, allowing an average of 189.2 passing yards per game, and have a league-best 25 interceptions (nine of them by rookie defensive back Jairus Byrd). However, no matter the defensive backs, history tells us that Moss has always had good numbers against the Bills. In his Patriots’ career against Buffalo, he’s had 33 catches for 450 yards with six touchdowns in five games. In his first go-round against the Bills’ secondary this season, Moss had the finest game of his career against Buffalo, coming away with 12 catches for 141 yards.
As far as how has Moss fared in what might best be called “bounce-back games,” those numbers could be referred to as good, but not great. Prior to last Sunday, Moss had four one-catch games (one this season, one in 2008 and two in 2007) in the course of his career with the Patriots. In the contests following his one-catch outings, he has averaged 6.5 receptions for 87.5 yards and one touchdown, with the high-water mark being an eight-catch, 129-yard, three-touchdown performance in the 59-0 rout of the Titans in Foxboro back on Oct. 18.
This time around? We’ll find out on Sunday. But Patriots coach Bill Belichick says it’s not only important for Moss to have a good game, but the entire team to play well: It’s a December game on the road against a divisional opponent. If New England does play well, the Patriots will likely shut the door on the division — a victory will give them at least a two-game lead with two games left to play, and it would almost be time to start passing out the hats and T-shirts.
Lose, and remarkably enough, the division still hangs in the balance.
“It’s important for everybody to have a good week every week,” Belichick said. “That’s for all of us — all the coaches, all the players — to have a good week, go out to Buffalo and have a good game. That’s what we’re all here for.”
Here are four other things worth keeping an eye on Sunday in Buffalo:
The weather. Playing in Buffalo in December has always been a crap shoot. Last season, it was 55 mph winds and goal posts on an angle. New England attempted just eight passes in the 13-0 win over the Bills. It’s not supposed to be that windy this time around, but weather.com is calling for flurries with highs in the 20s on Sunday. Yikes. Wide receiver Sam Aiken, who played in Buffalo from 2003 through 2007, shakes his head at the memory of playing late-season games at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“I just remember that wind, coming up over the top of the stadium in the right-hand corner,” Aiken said. “It’s ridiculous.”
On days like that, the special teams — particularly the punter and kicker — play a huge role when it comes to field position. (Patriots punter Chris Hanson was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after last year’s game in Buffalo because he averaged 45 yards per punt in horrible conditions.) We covered the importance of staying on point against the Buffalo special teamers here, but if the weather gets nasty on Sunday, field position — and Hanson and Stephen Gostkowski — become that much more important.
Keeping it simple. The Patriots stripped down their defense last Sunday against the Panthers, and the move appeared to work. Carolina was unable to put together any sort of sustained offensive series, and New England was able to limit the Panthers’ offense to a 23 percent (3-for-13) conversion rate on third down.
While some of the Patriots’ defensive success was due to the fact that the Panthers passing attack was having issues coming into the game, the Patriots basic set allowed the defenders to react and not have to worry about thinking too much. Most all of the players who talked about the simplified plan this week said it made things much easier, particularly when it came to communication.
“The coaches did an excellent job coming in with an easier game plan than usual,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo after the win over Carolina. “The previous two games, we had a couple of communication problems. We didn’t want that to happen [Sunday], and it didn’t, so job well done for the coaches.”â¨
One way to likely determine if the Patriots are committed to keeping it simple again is the secondary. New England went with older, more experienced defensive backs in Shawn Springs and James Sanders against Carolina. If those two are out there again on Sunday against Buffalo, chances are good that the Patriots have decided to stick with the approach that worked against the Panthers, at least for another week.
(In addition, no matter the defensive style, New England will benefit by having nose tackle Vince Wilfork and defensive lineman Ty Warren in the lineup. Warren would not comment on his status earlier this week, but both did not practice on Thursday. Expect both to be a game-day decision on Sunday.)
Aaron Schobel. No active player — not Jason Taylor, not Joey Porter, not any other defender — has more sacks of Tom Brady than the dominant Buffalo defensive end. The TCU product has faced Brady 15 times in his career and has registered 12 sacks of the quarterback. (As a team, the Bills have posted 31 career sacks of Brady, the most of any team.) He was positively terrifying in the season opener, coming away with a pair of tackles, one sack and an interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
Expect the Patriots to place a ton of emphasis on trying to slow down Schobel on Sunday. That means a steady diet of extra blockers — Mark LeVoir will likely be asked to serve as an extra tight end to help out whoever is at left tackle for New England, whether it’s Matt Light or Sebastian Vollmer. In addition, the Patriots could try a tackle rotation, as they did last week against the Panthers, using Light and Vollmer on the left side and Nick Kaczur and Vollmer on the right side. Belichick indicated it was an attempt to keep all three tackles fresh (Vollmer saw his first action last week since Nov. 22 because of a concussion, and was being worked back into the lineup gradually), but it with Vollmer back with a full week under his belt, it will be interesting to see how the snaps break down and if Kaczur is bumped down the depth chart.
Laurence Maroney. When it comes to stopping the run, the Bills are the worst team in the league — Buffalo allows an average of 170.5 rushing yards per game. Fred Taylor didn’t practice on Thursday, which likely means he’ll be a scratch on Sunday. And if it’s typical Buffalo weather, that should give another opportunity to Maroney for a big day. The running back is coming off his second-best performance of the season, posting 94 yards in the win over Carolina. If the Patriots give him the ball 20 or more times on Sunday, things appear to be set up very nicely for him to reach the 90-plus yard mark in back-to-back games for just the third time in his career.