Batten down the hatches, Bills fans, ‘cuz it’s about to get stormy out there.
After back-to-back wins, the Buffalo Bills now go into the painful part of their 2012, a stretch of six games that will really tell the tale of where the team is at in their progress towards relevancy.
We’re talking four of the next six away from Western New York, including a two week West Coast trip to face the 49ers and Cardinals, both of whom look strong this season.
There’s also a visit to the powerhouse Houston Texans to visit Mario’s old (and now hostile) stomping grounds, a home game against the Titans (who used a repeat of the Music City Miscall in their OT win this past week… minus the forward lateral), and oh yeah, there’s the Patriots… twice.
Bookending this gauntlet of horrors for the Bills is New England, the beginning and end to the nightmare that is the middle of Buffalo’s schedule.
Meaning that not only will Brady and coach Grabby Hands be waiting in Foxboro at the finish of this seven week marathon (there’s a bye in with these six games), but Buffalo must first welcome them to Ralph Wilson Stadium this weekend to kick the party off.
Last season, the Patriots were stunned into defeat when Buffalo overcame a 21-point deficit in the second quarter to end a 15-game losing streak to their East rivals, kicking a field goal as time expired to get a raucous 34-31 win.
The Ralph just about blew its top that day in 2011, so much you’d have thought it was “The Comeback” all over again.
Even if it did turn out to be just a meaningless win in the grand scheme, it was still just nice to see the Bills shake off their mantle of ineptitude and failure for one sunny afternoon in the Queen City.
Too often the JV team in comparison, Buffalo took down their “big brother” last season and it trulybecame the apex of all of 2011 for them.
Their second meeting in 2011, Buffalo leapt out to an early 21-0 lead, only to have said lead snatched back in a fantastic display of irony.
The Patriots went on from there to score 49 unanswered points and left Buffalo to limp into the postseason with their tail between their legs, firmly chastised for their earlier victory.
Now, with the Bills currently rocking a 2-1 record off of two straight strong (albeit, easy) wins, you’ve got to think that if they want to come out of this rough stretch in one piece (i.e. above .500), they really need to get this week’s divisional matchup at home.
Not only would it keep Buffalo in first place, it would also put them two full games above New England, even their AFC East record to 1-1, and would put them at 3-1, meaning they could very well be at 5-4 when they start the easier part of their run (starting with Miami on an all too rare Thursday night game in Orchard Park).
So, who’s going to step up and win this one for Buffalo then? I mean sure, it’ll be a team effort in the end, but who are Bills’ fans going to rain their accolades down on if Chan Gailey and the boys pull out another home win against New England?
Here’s a list of possibilities:
Fred Jackson – Sure, he’s been limited in practice this week, is claiming to be only 70-75 percent healed from his sprained LCL just two weeks ago, and is already complaining about his inability to cut wearing a brace, but Jackson looks like he’ll at least try to give it a go this Sunday.
With C.J. Spiller likely still out with a sprained shoulder this Sunday, the Bills’ backfield is looking a little bare on big talent and though Tashard Choice did some good, hard running against the Browns last week, Buffalo needs even a partial Jackson if they’re going to beat New England.
Though Fred missed the loss to end last year, he was instrumental in Buffalo’s win in 2011, taking 12 carries for 74 yards and a touchdown, while adding another 87 yards on five catches. Even if he’s only about ¾ of the way back, having Jackson lined up in two-back sets with Tashard Choice should make for some good play-action sells.
Also, he’s a receiving threat and Buffalo is looking pretty thin in that area right now. While he may not be the guy Sunday, the deciding factor in the game, his presence alone makes this more winnable overall.
Mario Williams – The man Buffalo paid to take down Brady, Super Mario started off slow this season, but looked vastly more dominant against Cleveland and got his first sack and a half.
Though his presence has been evident in the background since week one, the stats just weren’t there until last week, so it’s got to be a good sign for Bills’ fans to see those sacks along with seven tackles and a fumble recovery through three weeks.
That being said, Williams hasn’t really played Brady all too often in his career, as he has only faced the Patriots twice since being drafted in 2006. In those two games Mario has five tackles and just a single sack, so it isn’t like he owned Tom (and this was when Williams was in his prime).
Sure, the Patriots’ offensive line isn’t what it used to be but guard Dan Connolly and tackle Sebastian Vollmer are seven and four year NFL veterans respectively and should hold Mario more in check than rookie Mitchell Schwartz last week.
Though I think Mario will be a factor in a Bills’ win, he won’t be the game changer of the day.
Ryan Fitzpatrick – His two games last season, Fitz was a combined 56-86 with 676 yards and four touchdowns… as well as six interceptions and two sacks.
It was more of the Jekyll and Hyde that was Ryan’s 2011 season, as for all the good he did in half of each of those New England games, he did just as poorly the other two halves (early in the first game, late in the second), so putting any weight on his shoulders is a 50-50 flip at best.
That being said, Fitzpatrick has shown this season that he can play solid, mistake-free ball when given protection and a run game.
He’s not the guy who’ll throw you down the field for the win, but he’s averaging just under 200 yards per game in 2012, has eight touchdown tosses to just three interceptions, and hasn’t been sacked once (his fumbled throw counts as one, but…).
If Jackson and Choice can combine for over 100 yards on the ground and the Bills’ fantastic offensive line keeps playing like they have been, Fitz could see the opportunity to take the game, but he’s still not my projected star.
Kyle Williams – Here’s the guy, the one who’s going to take it to Brady and make his Sunday a scrambling, sack-heavy, hell of a day.
Though he only had two tackles in the initial game against New England last year and was out for the second, there’s something about Williams in this 4-3 scheme that is quickly showing him to be more dangerous than Mario.
In three games this year, the Bills’ starting defensive tackle already has nine tackles (three in each game) and is in the top ten in sacks with three so
He’s a game changer this season; both the strongest, most complete pass rusher on that Bills’ front four, as well as a untiring run stuffer, with the added bonus of six seasons of experience playing the Patriots.
If we’ve learned one thing about New England the last season or so, it’s that if you hassle Brady, he gets a little frantic and is liable to start making mental mistakes.
Whereas past seasons have seen a better array of offensive scoring weapons available to help him out, only Rob Gronkowski has more than one TD through three and the Patriots’ running game is average behind Stevan Ridley (he has only one score and is averaging a pedestrian 4.5/attempt, only slightly better than Buffalo’s third stringer, Choice).
Also, the New England line has allowed seven sacks this year, which may make for a rough day for Brady when he faces Buffalo’s defensive line as a whole.
Yep, there’s a good chance Kyle Williams will be in Brady’s face so much Sunday that mistakes rookie Stephon Gilmore could find himself with his first NFL interception as he’ll likely be on veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd all day (Tom’s fave target to this point, he’s been hit 22 times for 237 yards, but has no TDs in 2012).
Add to that the loss of Aaron Hernandez, who was so key to the NE passing attack, and the underwhelming role of Wes Welker prior to last week, and you may find Brady struggling several drives in this game.
With many teams showing that a good front rush can rattle the Patriots’ franchise arm, we may not see another four INT day like Brady had last year, but a heavy dose of Kyle Williams and crew could spell some turnover love and set up a long day in Buffalo for Tom.
Hell, maybe even another victory… wouldn’t that be something.
Joshua Bauer is a writer with Football Nation