There’s are some old football handicapping adages that say nothing stays forever, and that no trend is etched in granite.
We’re not sure those oft-repeated sayings have applied much to the AFC East in recent years, especially since the New England Patriots (1-2) have made the playoffs for nine seasons running and the Buffalo Bills (2-1) haven’t made the postseason at all this millennium.
Thus, it’s no wonder that the current division standings, early as it might be in the 2012 campaign, are causing a bit of a commotion. Just the mere sight of seeing the Patriots under .500 – which hasn’t happened since the first week of the 2003 season, after New England lost at Buffalo 31-0 – and the Bills tied for the lead in the division has caused more than a few double-takes.
We’ll get another idea if the long-established order in the East might really be up for challenge this Sunday at Orchard Park when the upstart Bills play host to New England. A late-week check of the Don Best NFL odds screen notes that Bill Belichick’s Patriots are listed as 4-point favorites at the vast majority of Las Vegas sports books, with the total hovering between 50 and 51.
Kickoff time on Sunday is at 1:00 p.m. (ET), with CBS providing the TV coverage. The duo of Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf and their hearty laughs will provide the description of the action at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
We made brief mention of that 31-0 loss by the Patriots at Orchard Park in 2003 because it also marked a bottoming out of the Belichick regime at Foxborough. Remember, the Patriots had missed the playoffs in 2002 after their win over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, and that opening-week embarrassment vs. the Bills in ‘03 marked what was likely the low-water mark of the Belichick regime.
It was also a short-lived low-water mark, as New England quickly got back on course and ended up the Super Bowl winner that season. Moreover, Belichick would avenge that 31-0 loss with a win by the exact same scoreline over the Bills in the final week of that regular season, the first of 15 straight Patriot successes vs. Buffalo that endured until an early-season 34-31 setback at Orchard Park a year ago.
As it did nine years ago, Belichick’s New England returned that favor in the rematch later last season by a 49-21 count, making it 16 of 17 straight-up wins for the Patriots over Buffalo since that opening-week 2003 debacle. New England is also 11-5-1 vs. the spread in those last 17 games vs. the Bills.
Now, is Buffalo really ready for a breakthrough?
The Bills teased as early last season when breaking quickly from the gate at 3-0 and 5-2 before collapsing in the second half of the season. The breakdowns were spread across both platoons and exacerbated by injuries. When the dust cleared, Buffalo had allowed more yards than it ever had on the defense side and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick disappeared into the abyss the second half of the season, eventually ending up with an NFL-worst 23 interceptions. Moreover, the future of head coach Chan Gailey appeared very much in jeopardy after just one season on the job.
But the Bills have temporarily righted the ship the past couple of weeks after a season-opening 48-27 loss to the Jets in which Fitzpatrick again was the culprit with three picks. Gailey, however, has pulled back a bit on the offensive throttle the past two weeks as Buffalo has been more intent on establishing an infantry diversion despite injuries to RBs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Third-string RB Tashard Choice, the ex-Georgia Tech star, stepped into the breach with 91 yards rushing at Cleveland in a 24-14 Bills win last week.
For this week, Spiller is likely out with a shoulder injury while Jackson is listed at 50-50 to participate after his opening-week knee injury suffered against the Jets. Choice, however, appears to be a serviceable fill-in.
Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick has been the beneficiary of improved running game, not tossing an interception the past two weeks as the Bills scored double-digit wins over Kansas City and Cleveland.
Fast September starts are also a Bills trademark, having scored 200 points in their last six September games (33.3 ppg) with 26 TDs. And the calendar still says “September” for this Sunday’s game.
Where Buffalo also appears to be upgrading is on defense where first-year coordinator Dave Wannstedt and his new 4-3 scheme seems to have uncovered a much-needed pass rush. Of course, that was an offseason emphasis in Buffalo as free-agent additions of DEs Mario Williams (ex-Titans) and mark Anderson (ex-Patriots) seemed to indicate. But after rarely touching Jets QB Mark Sanchez in the opener, the Bills have recorded a combined nine sacks the past two weeks vs. the Chiefs and Browns.
Moreover, the Bills have not yet been gouged by opposing rush attacks as they were a year ago when six different backs gained 100 yards or more. Thus far, only Jets RB Shonn Greene (94 YR) came close, with Buffalo stuffing Cleveland runners to the tune of 33 rush yards last week.
As for the Patriots, they can only wish that their defensive numbers could be progressing as have Buffalo’s. Especially vs. the rush, as Belichick’s stop unit has gone from allowing just 20 yards on the ground in the opener vs. Tennessee to conceding 105 yards vs. Arizona and 121 vs. Baltimore, the last two in losing efforts.
Indeed, Belichick has several concerns with a defense that is still in adjustment phase to several new faces, many of those added in last April’s NFL Draft. Breakdowns late in the game last week at Baltimore, when the Ravens were moving easily in their last two drives, resulted in the Patriots’ second consecutive narrow defeat.
The key for this game likely will be New England’s attempts to establish an infantry diversion that has been a bit hit-and-miss the past two weeks after an impressive opening effort vs. the Titans. Buffalo’s improved pass rush can cause lots of problems for Tom Brady if the Patriots can’t balance the offense. Meanwhile, how well the Bills establish Choice (or perhaps Jackson) on the ground as a complement to Fitzpatrick will also be a key development.
The Bills would rather not turn this game into simply a contest between Brady and Fitzpatrick. In September, however, that matchup might not be as one-sided as it seems.