The New England Patriots look to resume their winning ways as they shuffle off to Buffalo for a clash against the first place Bills. The Patriots enter play on the heels of a controversial 31-30 defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens while the Buffalo Bills were road warriors in their 24-14 victory in Cleveland.
This weekend's action represents the first without the presence of replacement referees after three weeks of overall poor officiating. With greater officiating consistency expected, the attention can again turn to the play on the field where both teams are vying for playoff berths in 2012.
Last season the Bills and Patriots split their two contests; with Buffalo playing inhospitable hosts to the Patriots, passing for 369 yards in a come-from-behind 34-31 win. In their rematch, New England closed out their regular season on an eight game winning streak, crushing the Bills 49-21 in Week 17.
There are some differences from last season's teams that split their season series. The Bills have added a pair of solid defensive ends in Mark Anderson and Mario Williams to fortify one of the league's weaker defensive units, while the Patriots added youth in Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones to their defensive front seven. The results for both teams are mixed at this stage of the season and the next few weeks will go a long way in determining the division pecking order.
As last season's early matchup indicated, the Bills are a talented and developing team looking to ascend the AFC ladder and become a legitimate playoff contender. In their way stands perennial conference power Patriots who have their sights set on a return trip to the Super Bowl. Here is a look at key factors for the Patriots as they look to return to .500 and build some momentum for a playoff push.
With an improved defense, the Bills should have the ability to put additional pressure on the Patriots offense and cut down on the 41 points per game allowed last season. In 2012, the Bills rank fourth in the AFC in sacks (nine) after ranking second worst in the conference a year ago. While much of the attention has been placed on the arrivals of Anderson and Williams, it has been the performance of nose tackle Kyle Williams that has gone relatively unnoticed. For the season, Williams leads the Bills with three sacks, a rarity for a nose tackle to lead a team in this statistical category.
While signing defensive ends Mark Anderson and Mario Williams were notable additions in fortifying their pass defense, it has been the rush defense that has also seen significant statistical improvement. Where last season the Bills ranked near the bottom of the league in each rushing category, today the team tanks in the middle of the pack in each. The improved run defense means opportunities for Tom Brady to orchestrate an efficient and effective passing attack, but will need ample time to throw.
An improved rush defense also means more challenges for the Patriots to reinforce a running game that has been inconsistent over the season's first three weeks. After a breakout season debut with 125 rushing yards, Stevan Ridley has been used intermittently since, gaining only 108 yards in his next two contests. In order for the Patriots to keep the Buffalo Bills' defense honest the team will need to turn to Ridley earlier and more often on Sunday.
Despite improving against the run, the Bills' defense has again been one of the league's best in forcing interceptions. The bookend defensive ends are more than capable of getting to Brady and the yet proven revamped right offensive line will be challenged to keep the Bills out of the backfield; in particular the combination of Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly who will have their hands full containing Pro Bowl talent Mario Williams throughout the game.
With tight end Aaron Hernandez likely to miss his second straight game with a high ankle sprain, the onus will be on Brady to target slant passes to Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Deion Branch. As the Baltimore Ravens proved successful last week, the Bills will also look to limit the number of times Rob Gronkowski is targeted this weekend. To counter this, the Patriots should look to utilize a three wide receiver offensive set again on Sunday.
Not only will the effectiveness of the wide receivers be key, the Patriots will be wise to include outlet passes to Danny Woodhead out of the backfield to move the chains and keep the Buffalo defensive front seven honest. Last week, both Welker and Lloyd had breakout performances and will look to build on the developing chemistry between the pair and their star quarterback.
With both C.J. Spiller (shoulder) and Fred Jackson (knee) both hampered by injury, one of the NFLs most potent rushing attacks will struggle to be a force against an improved Patriots' run defense. Spiller has gained an average of 102.7 yards per game this season but suffered a shoulder injury in last week's victory against the Cleveland Browns while Jackson returns from a knee injury sustained in Buffalo's Week 1 blowout loss to the New York Jets. As of Thursday, Jackson was a limited practice participant and is listed as questionable to go against New England on Sunday.
With Buffalo's running game slowed by injury, additional pressure will be placed on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to carry more of the offensive responsibilities in Week 4. The 2012 season has been somewhat of a mixed bag for Fitzpatrick, who has played better of late after an abysmal performance in Week 1. With a solid running game, the passing game (or lack thereof) has not been a hindrance to the team's success.
For New England to pull out a victory they will need to minimize Buffalo's ability to generate long pass plays with a secondary that has not been proven effective in this area. With a 1,000 yard receiver in Stevie Johnson and a mobile tight end in Scott Chandler, the Bills have players who can get into the New England secondary and create havoc if given he time to. With the league's current leader in passing touchdowns in the Bills' backfield, the Patriots will need to apply ample pressure with their front seven and limit Fitzpatrick's time to throw.
Coming off a frustrating loss on Sunday night, the Patriots are now in the rare position of looking up in the division standings. Outside of their Week 1 blowout of Tennessee, New England has not played a balanced game on either side of the line of scrimmage. Familiarity breeds contempt and in this week's matchup, the Bills will look to reverse the trend of Patriots' dominance. Despite the additional motivation, the injured Bills' running backs will take from Buffalo's versatility and have a significant impact on Sunday's outcome.
Even though the team has struggled at times, New England has managed to score 30 points or more in two of their games. The Bills defense has improved but is still not considered to be among the league's best; and the Patriots have more than enough weapons to put up another big number this week .
New England Patriots 34
Buffalo Bills 23
Scott Duhaime is a fan and follower of the New England Patriots for over 30 years, witnessing the team's ascent from league irrelevance to among the league's elite franchises.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @Scott_Duhaime
Yahoo! Sports NFL Box score: New England Patriots 30 @ Baltimore Ravens 31
Yahoo! Sports NFL Box score: Buffalo Bills 24 @ Cleveland Browns 14