The New England Patriots travel to Buffalo on Sunday to take on the Bills in the first AFC East divisional game of the season for both teams. The Bills and Patriots have a long history of close games in early September despite New England's 21-3 record vs. Buffalo since 2003, and this one should be no different.
The Bills' new head coach Rex Ryan gave Tom Brady and the Patriots offense a particularly tough time during his time with the New York Jets, including two home wins versus Brady and the Pats early in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Ryan already showed what his defense is capable of last week against Andrew Luck and the Colts, and will certainly have something special dialed up for this much-anticipated matchup.
The Patriots are well aware of Ryan's mastery of keeping offenses off track by disguising pressure and mixing zone and man concepts, but they still have often had problems moving the ball against Rex. The Patriots' last four games against Ryan's Jets were decided by 10 total points and they went to overtime twice in the last three seasons.
All signs point to this one coming down to the very end. It should be a fantastic game against two rivals who know each other very well.
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Patriots -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Patriots' young OL vs. Buffalo pass rush
The Patriots used a rotation of interior offensive linemen in Week 1 that included three rookies. While Ryan Wendell could possibly make his debut against the Bills, it's possible the rookies will once again be called to action. Against Rex Ryan's complicated blitzes these young players will be challenged like never before. Whether or not they're able to decode who's rushing and who's not might just be the biggest key to the game. Brady doesn't hold the ball long, but if the Patriots aren't moving the ball on first and second down, putting them in third-and-longs, their offense will be under a lot of stress. If the Patriots are able to stay on time with their offense, especially with their quick passing scheme, it will be hard for the Bills to outscore them. Protecting Brady, especially early on in the game is vital.
2. Can Tyrod Taylor avoid mistakes?
The Jets and Bills under Rex Ryan are similar teams and often the Patriots' September games against his teams came down to whether or not Rex's quarterback made game-changing mistakes. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for over 300 yards four times in 2011-2012, but it was the eleven interceptions that contributed to the Bills being 1-3 in those games. Tyrod Taylor was perfectly managed by the Bills in Week 1 against the Colts. He made the right reads, ran when he had to and made perfect throws when the chance was there. The Patriots are a different kind of defensive challenge — they're going to wait and bait Taylor into bad plays. If he can avoid them and play a clean game, like Mark Sanchez did in each of his three victories over the Pats and Geno Smith did in his 2013 win over them, the Bills will have a very good chance of pulling this one out.
3. Can the Bills cover Gronk?
You can't talk about stopping the Patriots without Rob Gronkowski being at the forefront. The Patriots monstrous tight end sat out the preseason but stepped right into live game action against the Steelers and had five catches for 94 yards and three touchdowns. In his last seven games, including the post season, Gronkowski has nine touchdowns. There's no secret about Gronk, and every opposing team goes into the game knowing they must limit him, especially in the red zone, but more often than not it doesn't matter. The Patriots know how to scheme Gronkowski open and with the addition of former Bill Scott Chandler, the Patriots now have two weapons over 6'6" to target. The Bills must find an answer for Gronkowski and force Brady to hold the ball that extra second needed for their pass rush to get home.
Rex Ryan already has the Bills and their fans whipped into a frenzy for the Patriots this week. The Colts were completely unprepared for the all-out pressure Ryan brings, but the Patriots are familiar with his tactics. That doesn't always ensure they're successful, but they'll fight down to the last second. The Patriots are famous for putting up a stinker early in the season. See recent losses to the Chiefs (2014), Bengals (2013) and Cardinals (2012) as the prime examples. Rex is likely looking at his wins in early 2009 and 2010 as his model, but this one should come down to the last drive unless Tyrod Taylor hands the Patriots the game on a interception-laced platter.
Prediction: Bills 24, Patriots 17
(Rex Ryan photo courtesy of Getty Images)