(WGR 550) -- One last hurrah for the Buffalo Bills in 2013.
The season of rookie head coach Doug Marrone will be complete once 60 minutes tick off the clock on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, giving the Bills their official base for their rebuilding project. What seems like ages ago now, Buffalo and the New England Patriots last met in the first week of the season with the latter barely squeaking out a victory at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Can the Bills do the same to the Patriots and collect a win on the road? Here are some things to look for in Buffalo's regular season finale against a team they have struggled against so mightily:
1) EJ's 2013 evaluation is kaput
- After a week of holding out hope that rookie quarterback EJ Manuel's knee would come around and be well enough to play against the New England Patriots, head coach Doug Marrone and company decided it was in the team's best interest to rest the first round pick. With it, Manuel missed a total of six starts and ends the season with a whole host of questions. Those can be asked another day, making way for the true question: can Thad Lewis firm up his grasp on the backup job heading into 2014? A solid performance against the Patriots would go a long way, but if he were to pull off the seemingly unthinkable and win, that opens up a whole new set of issues. Upon hearing the news of Manuel's injury forcing him to miss Week 17, the overwhelming fan reaction on Twitter was mostly made up of exasperation, even leading some to proclaim a desire for the Bills to draft a new quarterback. While that likely won't happen, those sentiments will only grow louder if Lewis were to play well or even win against the Patriots, combined with Manuel starting to struggle in 2014. The Bills are in the weird position where perhaps a win this week would do more harm than good, but of course that can all be rectified by their young quarterback improving and playing at a high level in 2014. It's certainly a situation worth monitoring, however.
2) Brady the glue that holds the Patriots' patchwork roster together
- As the New England Patriots have gone through roster mismanagement, injuries and everything in between, they have kept afloat in large part due to their future Hall of Fame quarterback. They've been without tight end Rob Gronkowski for the majority of the year, and won't have him in Week 17 against Buffalo either. They've had multiple injuries on the defensive side of the ball, most notably to two of their best defenders in defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo. They've also dealt with multiple issues with their ball carriers, too. All in all, it's been as frustrating as an 11-4 season could possibly get, but Bill Belichick and Brady keep them going. New England has won four of their past five games, and over that span the quarterback has thrown for an average of 333.8 yards per game, 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Their skill positions have been a revolving door around Brady, but he has continued to star despite all of it.
3) Fred & C.J. must lead the way
- With the aforementioned problems to the Patriots on defense, it's opened up some holes for opposing teams to exploit. Statistically speaking, New England has the fourth-worst run defense in all the NFL, allowing an average of 131.7 yards per game. The losses of Wilfork and Mayo have been huge, but in the middle of their defense teams have been able to take advantage of starters Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. Former 49ers defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga figures into the mix as well, but it hasn't been as daunting a task for teams with Wilfork and Mayo both missing. If the Bills want to pull off the upset on the road, they'll need a steady effort from Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller all game long. The duo combined for fantastic yardage against a much tougher Miami front-four, and should see some success. The big problem will be if the Bills fall down by a couple of scores early on and are forced to abandon the run more than they would like. If Buffalo can set the pace, stay close and keep the run game going, they could keep this one within striking distance near the end of the game. It's a tall task, though, with number-12 still playing for New England.
4) Patriots OL woes
- While it's not as much of a mismatch as it was last week against Miami, the Bills defensive line should be favored to do some damage against a weakened front for the Patriots. New England has been forced to reshuffle with a concussion suffered by normal starting left tackle Nate Solder and have opened up a major hole in their offensive line. If Solder (questionable) sits once again, that means New England will likely go with normal starting left guard Logan Mankins at left tackle, paving the way for rookie guard Josh Kline to get his second straight start. From an inexperience perspective alone, if that happens Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kyle Williams should once again be a force to be reckoned with throughout the game. Injuries have been the story of the Patriots' season, and the offensive line hasn't been any different. There's a major opportunity for the Bills to make Brady sweat a little bit without Solder in the game.
5) The Gillette Stadium curse
- The Bills came close in 2012, but couldn't find the play late in the game that they needed to do something they haven't done before. Since New England moved into Gillette Stadium, Buffalo has failed to fly home with a victory. While some coaches will scoff at the past having any ounce of an impact and what's to come, but Marrone has welcomed the challenge. In explaining why this game is significant for the Bills despite being eliminated from the playoffs already, the coach brought up the fact that they had never won in that stadium. It's a commendable approach for a head coach hellbent on changing the culture of past years at One Bills Drive, and one that may get his team to come out playing harder than expected for a Week 17 game on the road with nothing to play for.
Injuries Buffalo OUT: S Aaron Williams (ribs), WR Stevie Johnson (Not injury related) DOUBTFUL: QB EJ Manuel (knee) PROBABLE: HB Fred Jackson (ribs), DL Kyle Williams (Achilles), WR Marquise Goodwin (knee), WR Marcus Easley (knee), QB Thad Lewis (left shoulder)
New England OUT: WR Josh Boyce (ankle) DOUBTFUL: S Devin McCourty (concussion) QUESTIONABLE: OT Will Svitek (ankle), LB Dane Fletcher (groin), WR Aaron Dobson (foot), CB Kyle Arrington (groin), DE Rob Ninkovich (ankle), HB Shane Vereen (groin), T Nate Solder (concussion), CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee), WR Kenbrell Thomphins (hip), LB Brandon Spikes (knee), S Steve Gregory (finger) PROBABLE: QB Tom Brady (right shoulder), WR Danny Amendola (groin), CB Aqib Talib (hip), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (knee), T Marcus Cannon (ankle)
Prediction: Patriots over Bills
- Even with all the injuries to the New England Patriots and ways for the Bills to exploit them in that capacity, it comes down to one simple factor. New England still has Tom Brady, and the Bills have never won in Gillette Stadium. Had the Bills fielded a roster with a quarterback that could keep up with Brady, they might stand a chance. But with Thad Lewis lining up behind center and with the Patriots needing a win for a potential first-round bye or even home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, one can't expect that team to lay an egg in this spot.