Week 15 Preview: New England at Buffalo

Drew Bledsoe was the quarterback. Gregg Williams was the head coach. They were the last two figures at the helm in Buffalo the last time the Bills defeated the New England Patriots. It was the opening weekend of the 2003 season and it was probably the most memorable win of the decade for the Bills, as they stampeded over the Patriots, 31-0. And that was the last time Buffalo beat New England.

It’s been five full seasons since the Bills last victory over the Patriots and on Sunday when the two teams square off for the final time in 2009, New England will be looking for their 13th straight win over Buffalo and 6th straight seasons of sweeping the Bills. The losses have been many and they’ve come in many ways. Blowouts, shutouts, close calls, and fourth quarter collapses. You can call this a rivalry if you want to, but I can’t bring myself to use that adjective because in a rivalry, you know, the other team has to actually win a game here or there.

This matchup could be best characterized as big brother versus little brother playing in the backyard. Oh sure, the little brother plays well and comes close on a few occasions, but he just can’t find a way to solve his older brother. Indeed, the Patriots have spent a large portion of the decade bullying the Bills. I don’t think I need to tell you what a win in this spot would do for the Bills, the fans or interim head coach Perry Fewell.

If the Bills are to pull off the upset and beat New England, they would give Fewell as many wins against the Patriots as the Bills’ previous three head coaches had between them. Gregg Williams went 1-5 against in three seasons against New England. Mike Mularkey went 0-4 in two seasons, and Dick Jauron lost all seven meetings. A win on Sunday would force the Bills’ front office to strongly consider Fewell as a permanent head coaching option in 2010.

Indeed, this is the Bills’ Super Bowl. They are staring down a fifth straight losing season, while extending their playoff drought to ten years. To his credit, Fewell has the Bills playing respectable football since taking over for Jauron. He’s dealt with countless injuries to the offense and defense, particularly on the offensive line. They’ve shuttled Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick in and out of the starting quarterback role. The run defense hasn’t been able to stop, slow or contain any running back this season. And yet, under Fewell, the Bills are playing with a pulse rather than the collective cadavers they appeared to be under Jauron. The Bills are 2-2 under Fewell, their latest win last Sunday against Kansas City 16-10 in which the defense made several key fourth quarter stands to preserve victory. The two losses under Fewell have been by a combined 12 points.

One could argue now is the time to get a win over New England. Their aura of invincibility seems to be vanishing away little by little with each week. The Patriots are 1-5 on the road this season. Their only “road” victory was in London against Tampa Bay. Last week, they dealt with the distraction of sending home four players, including Randy Moss, from practice for arriving late. Linebacker Adalius Thomas, who was one of four players sent home, publicly criticized Bill Belichick’s decision and was benched for the Carolina game. And Moss’s 1-catch-for-16-yards performance last week drew public comments from several Panthers players about his effort, claiming Moss quit playing during the game. Moss has just six catches in New England’s last three games.

But for New England, it’s funny how those distractions never deter them from winning. The Patriots defeated Carolina 20-10 to hold a one game lead in the division over the New York Jets and Miami. Aside from the distractions, injuries are starting to creep up to some of New England’s big names. Brady is dealing with finger, rib and shoulder injuries. Defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren both suffered injuries in last Sunday’s win over Carolina. Wilfork left the game with a foot injury and Warren suffered an ankle injury. Both behemoths in the middle of New England’s defense are questionable for Sunday’s game.

The Patriots are prime for a road win, and if you’re New England there might not be a better place to get a road victory than in Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Patriots are 5-0 in their past five trips to Buffalo, dominating the Bills by a combined score of 163-40. From 2003-08, New England has been the NFL’s best road team with a 38-10 record away from Gillete Stadium.

In the first meeting of the season, the Patriots needed a double-digit comeback in the fourth quarter to beat the Bills, 25-24. The Bills led 24-13 with almost two minutes left in the game, but Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass to tight end Ben Watson to slice into the lead. On the ensuing kickoff, Leodis McKelvin fumbled and the Patriots recovered. Deep in Buffalo territory, Brady found Watson for the second time in a matter of seconds, giving the Patriots the improbable comeback victory.

What the Bills should do: With both Wilfork and Warren iffy for the game, and with the Bills finding new success on the ground with Jackson and Lynch, Buffalo should rely heavily on the run and keep Brady and company on the sidelines and off the field. Last week against the Chiefs, the Bills rushed for 200 yards as a team despite Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ineffective day through the air. On defense, get to Brady. Quarterbacks are like hockey goalies: the more you’re in their face and crowding their space, the less comfortable they are.

What the Patriots should do: Rely on the arm of Tom Brady and the NFL’s 2nd ranked pass offense to best the Bills’ 5th ranked pass defense. Randy Moss and Wes Welker have been two gigantic problems the Bills haven’t found any solutions to, so expect the full arsenal through the air regardless of weather conditions. The last time it was a winter wonderland, the Patriots creamed the Titans, 59-0. So we know that snow won’t force the Patriots to become a running team.

Final Prediction: Patriots 27, Bills 14.

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