8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: New England -7, Over/Under: 47
Bitter rivals meet once again tonight at Gillette Stadium, as the undefeated New England Patriots host the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football. For the second time this season, we get another installment of the now-classic series Rex Ryan v. Bill Belichick, as the two coaches meet for the fourteenth time. As you can imagine, the Patriots’ skipper has gotten the better of his counterpart, earning ten victories out of their thirteen encounters, including eight of the last nine meetings. However, Ryan does own the distinction of besting The Hoodie in their lone postseason battle, an upset of top-seeded New England back in the 2010 AFC Divisional Round of the Playoffs, so there’s that. But enough talking about the past between these two defensive masterminds, let’s talk about this season, where when these teams met once already, it had an all too familiar feel to it. Back on September 20th, the Patriots stormed into Orchard Park and jumped on the Bills early, taking a 24-13 halftime lead en route to a commanding 37-13 advantage heading into the evening’s final stanza. The hosts would score nineteen points in a frantic comeback attempt, but a final field goal from the visiting side would ultimately put the game out of their reach. The 40-32 victory was an offensive bonanza, featuring a grand total of 856 yards of offense, but also exhibited a very sloppy nature, as the two rivals combined for a total of five turnovers, along with twenty-five penalties for a ridiculous 259 yards lost. That’s over two-and-a-half football fields, folks. So we guess the moral of the story is that whether Rex Ryan wears green or blue, it doesn’t really matter, as every team that he seems to coach in the AFC East seems to be perpetually looking up to the dark empire that is the New England Patriots. With that said, let’s put all the theatrics aside, for after losing all but one of the past twenty-four meetings, there may finally be reason to believe that the Bills are indeed ready to break this eternal cycle of losing to their nemesis, and maybe (just maybe) make their long-awaited return to the postseason for the first time since 1999.
As he did with the Jets back in 2009, Ryan arrived in Buffalo (5-4, 2nd in AFC East) like a hurricane, infusing a talented yet underachieving outfit with confidence and swagger. It didn’t take long for his charges to take on his personality, as they hammered the Colts in the season opener behind a dominating defense and a physical rushing attack. However, since that point, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag, and that’s mostly due to injuries keeping a potentially explosive offense from developing any continuity. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor, Tailback LeSean McCoy, and Receiver Sammy Watkins have each missed considerable time with an assortment of injuries, but have finally come together to provide the proverbial postseason push. Since returning from an ill-fated trip to London where they suffered defeat at the hands of the Jaguars, the Bills have won back-to-back games for the first time in 2015, downing division rivals Miami (33-17) and New York (22-17) in consecutive weeks. The rushing attack, which has been solid all year (142.3 yards per game), trampled over both opponents to the tune of 414 yards. McCoy, who has struggled with a shoulder injury of late, featured heavily in both contests, rushing for 112 yards in each of those games, the first time this season in which he has strung together back-to-back 100-yard performances. However, the healthy return of Taylor has played perhaps the biggest role in their currently improved form, for the diminutive, yet shifty signal-caller has been the key ingredient in making this offense dynamic. Ryan was right to move on from the beleaguered E.J. Manuel as soon as possible, and while the addition of the former Ravens’ backup was indeed questioned by many, for after all, Taylor had never started a game in his four-year career. Eleven weeks into the campaign though, it’s become quite clear to see what Ryan saw in the 26-year old. When healthy, Taylor has completed a stellar 70.5% of his passes for 205.1 yards per game (5.85 y/a), with eleven touchdowns to four interceptions, posting a Total QBR of 65.69, while also proving adept at keeping plays alive with his legs, rushing for another 34.7 yards on the ground with a pair of touchdowns. His size and ability to stay healthy are legitimate questions at this point, but one can’t argue with what he’s been able to do on the field; the Bills are 4-2 this season with Taylor under Center, opposed to 0-2 when Manuel has been forced to start. Ryan has always been the kind of coach that craves nothing more than a Game Manager at the position, and this kid has proven on occasion to be more than that. With all that said, when you hear the name Rex Ryan, you know that it is synonymous with defense, and we would be remiss if we didn’t discuss the effect he has had on what was one of the league’s most staunch groups in 2014. The major draw when Ryan arrived in Buffalo was what could he do with a unit that ranked fourth in points allowed (18.1) and total defense (312.2), third in takeaways (30), and first in sacks (54) last season, for his resume’ in Baltimore and New York would suggest that he would take these guys to another level, perhaps even a historic level. Well, as the old saying goes, “what looks good on paper…”. Perhaps it’s been the transition from a base 4-3 defensive front to his preferred version of the 3-4, or maybe it’s just a matter of players being utilized in ways that they are unaccustomed to, or then again it could just be injuries, but for whatever reason, this Bills’ defense has hardly lived to up to their lofty expectations. Through nine games, Buffalo has allowed 23.0 points (17th Overall) on 349.5 total yards (17th Overall), including 252.1 versus the pass (21st Overall) on 6.1 net yards per attempt (13th Overall), along with another 97.4 against the rush (12th Overall) on 4.1 yards per carry (16th Overall). Furthermore, the pressure has nearly disappeared altogether, as they have only managed a meager fourteen sacks (WTF?!?!?!?!?!) thus far, tied for second-fewest in the league. Now we know what you’re thinking, how the hell can a defensive front consisting of Mario Williams (3.0 sacks), Jerry Hughes (3.0 sacks), Marcell Dareus (2.0 sacks), and Kyle Williams (1.0 sack) only account for fourteen sacks? Well, believe it or not, but neither Mario Williams or Hughes have taken to dropping into coverage very well, while Kyle Williams has struggled with a strained PCL which will keep him sidelined for tonight’s contest. Another problem has been one of discipline, and a lack there of. Ryan’s defenses have always been amongst the most penalized in the league, and this one is no different; Buffalo has seen twenty-six of their sixty-six penalties result in a first down for the opposition, sixth-most in the NFL, and that’s with thirty other teams having already played their tenth fixture. Remember that game against the Patriots back in September? The one with twenty-five penalties for 259 yards? Well, fourteen of them were called on the Bills, for a whopping 140 yards. Something tells us that gifting the Patriots 140 yards is in really poor taste, but hey, it is the start of the holiday season…
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Meanwhile, all the Patriots (9-0, 1st in AFC East) have done is remain undefeated through nine games, as the defending Super Bowl Champions look primed for a return to the Big Game. On the surface it’s been business as usual for these guys, who continue to take their opponent’s best shot and move forward. And this 2015 incarnation may be one of the best yet, or at least according to the numbers; through nine games, the Patriots rank first in scoring (33.7) and fourth in points allowed (18.8), while possessing the league’s most prolific passing attack (338.1 yards per game), coupled with the second-ranked rush defense (88.0 yards per game). In a season where injuries have created a maelstrom of chaos throughout the league, particularly to their rivals in the AFC, New England stands virtually unscathed. Notice we used the term virtually. No, while Bill Belichick’s charges have managed to avoid the calamitous season-ending injury to the likes of say Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski, they haven’t proved themselves immune to the plague of injuries that has ravaged so many rosters around the league. It began three weeks ago as the diminutive Dion Lewis suffered a torn ACL on a routine run in a 27-10 victory over the Redskins, then continued last week as leading Receiver Julian Edelman sustained a broken foot in their 27-26 comeback victory at MetLife Stadium over the Giants. Belichick refused to label the injury to the latter as season-ending, but it was very evident in his tone that he didn’t expect Edelman to return until the postseason, and even that may be a stretch. Now the loss of these two players may seem inconsequential in the grander scheme of things, for after all, this team always finds ways to fill the void left by those ranging from stars to role players. Remember how they went 11-5 after Brady tore his knee up in 2008? Or how Danny Amendola replaced the departed Wes Welker? Or how about any of the legion of players they’ve replaced along the Offensive Line over the last two years? The bottom line is that the Patriots always find a way, and if somebody bites the dust, then it’s simply next man up. However, losing the likes of Lewis and Edelman could prove to have an adverse effect on this offense, and it may be one that they find difficult to fix.
Anyone who has watched the Patriots’ prolific offense over the years will tell you that they pass the ball quite a bit, and that many of Tom Brady’s passes are of a short variety. No. 12 is very adept at exploiting small windows in coverage, particularly when it’s close to the line of scrimmage. In that, he has made quite a living finding any member of the horde of smaller Receivers on short comeback routes. How else does Wes Welker catch 676 passes in six years? When Welker departed New England three years ago, his exit was hastened due to the emergence of the aforementioned Edelman, who at 6-0, 198 lbs. was bit bigger than his predecessor, but essentially played the same role at a fraction of the price. So in the three seasons sans Welker, No. 11 went on amass 258 receptions, 2,720 yards and seventeen touchdowns over the course of thirty-nine games, all the while averaging 6.6 catches per game on 10.5 yards per catch. When compared with Welker (7.2 catches per game, 11.1 yards per catch) you can see that both players were deployed primarily in a ten-yard window. In effect, when New England eschews the running game, they supplement it with short throws, with the designs of stretching the defense horizontally, so that they can eventually attack over the top with Gronkowski or someone else. It’s the old West Coast Offense in it’s purest form. And in that offense, one of the main features was Tailbacks who could catch, and this team has had no shortage of that over the years. From Kevin Faulk, to Danny Woodhead, to Shane Vereen, to most recently Dion Lewis, Brady has always made good use of pass-catching Tailbacks. Lewis, who was out of the league altogether in 2014, made quite the impact for a team that was looking to replace the aforementioned Vereen; in seven games, the 5-8, 198 lbs. former Fifth Round Pick amassed thirty-six catches on fifty targets for 388 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while also rushing for another 234 yards and two scores on forty-nine carries. He was Brady’s proverbial Swiss Army Knife. In fact, in the previous tilt with Buffalo, Lewis’s skills were on display, as he shredded the Bills’ defense for 98 yards on six catches, the second time this season in which he had accumulated over ninety receiving yards. However, if you pay attention to the numbers, then you’ll see that his receptions per game (5.1) and yards per reception (10.8) were very comparable with that of Edelman. Without those players, the void looks fairly significant, for Lewis and Edelman accounted for a cumulative 138 passes thrown their way, or in other words 37.3% of No. 12’s passing attempts. It will be interesting to see how Belichick and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels counter when Buffalo no doubt floods the short zones in coverage where those two operated so frequently. Making this even more intriguing is the relative health of the Offensive Line, which last week played without the trio of Tackle Sebastian Vollmer (Head) and Guards Tre Jackson (Knee) and Marcus Cannon (Toe). With an unsettled Line, Brady has oftentimes resorted to even more short throws than normal, particularly when Tight Ends Gronkowski and Chandler are not staying home to help in protection. All three Linemen are pronounced Questionable for tonight’s contest. So where does Belichick go now? Look for Danny Amendola to handle the majority of Edelman’s duties in the slot, for his size (5-11, 183 lbs) and skill set (10.1 yards per catch) are very comparable to that of his teammate. As for Lewis, the likely candidate will be the unheralded James White, who is also comparable in size (5-9, 204 lbs) and skill set (7.3 yards per catch). Adaptability has always been the key word in New England, and we have a feeling that Brady will find a way to do so once more; the two-time MVP is turning in another stellar season, completing 67.8% of his passes for 338.1 yards per game (8.2 y/a), twenty-four touchdowns to just three interceptions, all the while posting a QBR of 71.6. The ten-time Pro Bowler was far from his best last week against the Giants, but with the game on the line, he once again became vintage Tom Brady; against the team that has brought him quite a bit of misery over the years, Brady overcame a late interception to engineer four-play, 44-yard drive to in which he found the aforementioned Amendola thrice for three first downs, setting up the game-winning Stephen Gostkowski 54-yard field goal. And here comes big bad Rex Ryan, whose defenses he has had the pleasure of matching wits with on man an occasion; dating back to Ryan’s time as Defensive Coordinator of the Ravens, he and Brady have crossed paths fifteen times, with the Quarterback earning an 11-4 record including the Playoffs, throwing twenty-eight touchdown passes to eight interceptions. In the meeting at Orchard Park earlier this season, he was spectacular, completing 38-of 59 passes (64.4%) for 466 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. We’ll see if he can replicate that performance tonight.