Wins the last two weeks by the Buffalo Bills have calmed the collective nerves of Bills nation. Nerves that were frayed by the opening day shellacking at the hands of the New York Jets.
But now its time to find out if the 2012 Bills can play with the big boys. Sunday’s game with AFC East kingpin New England kicks off the toughest part of the schedule.
After the week four contest with the Pats(1-2), Chan Gailey’s squad heads out west for matchups with San Francisco(2-1) and Arizona(3-0). A home game with Tennessee(1-2) will precede the bye week.
Out of the bye, its back to back road games with Houston(3-0) and the rematch with the Pats. Four of the next six opponents were playoff teams last season and their combined record of the six was 66-30.
Of the two non playoff clubs, Arizona is one of the early season surprises but they did finish 2011 by winning seven of their last nine so maybe they’re picking up where they left off. The Cards perfect start includes a shocking win at New England, something the Bills have yet to do after ten trips to Gillette Stadium.
The home game with Tennessee looks like the “easiest” game on paper but the Titans just knocked off Detroit, a 2011 playoff team.
Of course you can flip it around and say what looked like a sure loss to the 49ers might not be since they just got beat by a Minnesota team that is supposed to be the worst in the NFC North.
If the Bills can get through this part of the schedule with at least two wins, they should still be in good shape to take advantage of the soft part of the 2012 slate. Two wins would leave them below .500 at 4-5 but none of their final seven opponents made the playoffs last season.
If you’d like to assume the Bills beat the Titans(not considered one of the big boys) then Buffalo will need one more win somewhere else. Sunday would be a great place to get it because:
A) It is the hated Patriots
B) It is a division game and the Bills are a pathetic 4-21 in division tilts since 2008
C) The Bills would be two games up on the Pats and own the tiebreaker edge
D) Even though the Bills just won in Cleveland to snap an eight game road losing streak, they will be the underdog in the next four road games
As far as Sunday’s matchup, the most intriguing story line is whether or not the Bills improved pass rush can get pressure on Tom Brady. In 20 career games against the Bills, Brady is 18-2 with a 65% completion rate and has thrown for 4,380 yards, 46 touchdowns and just 17 interceptions.
When Buffalo has picked off Brady at least twice in a game, they are 2-1. When Brady has thrown just one interception or none, the Bills are 0-17.
Interceptions can be lucky(a ball going off the helmet of Marcell Dareus and into the hands of Drayton Florence for example) but interceptions are also the result of pass rush and pressure on the quarterback.
When the Bills handed out the massive contract to Mario Williams and a not as massive but still pretty darn large deal to Mark Anderson they had this matchup in mind. A consistent rush from a four man front allows you to drop seven into coverage and gives you a better chance of beating Brady and company. Go ask the New York Giants about that.
What if Brady doesn’t drop back to throw as often as you might anticipate? For some reason, despite the presence of the franchise player under center, New England is actually running the ball more often this season. Through three games the Pats have averaged 32 rushing attempts a game after averaging 27 last season.
That’s not the only reason why Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels has many Pats fans scratching their heads. Wes Welker was briefly demoted and dropped behind Julian Edelman on the depth chart and monster tight end Rob Gronkowski has seen his role in the offense diminished.
The Amherst native was targeted just three times in last week’s loss at Baltimore and in the week two upset by Arizona, “Gronk” was targeted just twice in the first half. Hopefully McDaniels doesn’t pop in tapes of last season’s games with the Bills. If he does he’ll see the freakish tight end catch a combined 15 balls for 217 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Part of the problem is pass protection issues. The offensive line has had some struggles early on. Brady has been sacked seven times. Gronkowski has been asked to stay in and help with pass protection.
The injury to Aaron Hernandez is a factor as well. Not only did it take the Pats away from their favorite personnel grouping, the two tight end formation,it also meant teams can zero in on Gronkowski since Hernandez isn’t on the field.
The loss to the Ravens has pushed the focus back on a Pats defense that gave up a ton of yards last season. How about an average of more than 400 a game? It was actually more than a porous Bills defense yielded and was the second worst total in the league. But New England took the ball away to stop drives and did the whole bend but don’t break thing. They ended up middle of the pack in scoring defense.
Also keep in mind the Bills did put 55 points up on the scoreboard while splitting the season series in 2011. Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 65% of his passes for 676 yards with four touchdowns and six interceptions.
New England took a big hit to their pass rush when they lost Anderson to the Bills and let Andre Carter go since both men reached double digits in sacks last season. But the Pats answered by moving up in the draft to get defensive end Chandler Jones(1st round-Syracuse) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower(1st round-Alabama). They also brought in Steve Gregory to shore up the safety position but questions remain at cornerback where Devin McCourty’s play has been spotty.
With respect to special teams, we get our first chance to see if the Bills decision to dump veteran punter Brian Moorman was the correct one as Shawn Powell makes his NFL debut. Edelman handles the returns and averages 10 yards.
Despite his miss from 42 yards at the end of the Arizona game, Stephen Gostkowski is one of the more reliable field goal kickers in the NFL.
In a season where their beloved Red Sox have been an embarrassment, a loss by the Pats on Sunday might send the Boston fans into a deep depression. After all, they haven’t seen their football team lose three straight games in 10 years.