We have arrived at the last game of the 2013 regular season. Last week, the New England Patriots (11-4) proved a lot of doubters wrong, including me, as they rolled over the Baltimore Ravens 41-7. While Tom Brady didn't have his great statistical game, New England used the ground game to their advantage with two touchdowns from LeGarrette Blount. The Pats also forced Joe Flacco into two interceptions as they clinched their 10thdivision title in 11 years.
Now, the Patriots are just one win away from a much needed bye to rest some of their injured players. This includes safety Devin McCourty (head injury) and their trio of young receivers. If the Broncos lose in Oakland, the Patriots would get home-field advantage throughout the entire playoffs. The season comes full circle as they host a Bills' team that gave them everything they could in the opener this year.
For the Buffalo Bills (6-9), it's been a season of ups and downs for first year head coach Doug Marrone. One of the main issues for the Bills is that first round pick, quarterback E.J Manuel, has been battling injuries most of the season. Thaddeus Lewis will get the start this week due to Manuel's knee not responding well to treatment. The Bills are 2-2 in Lewis' start this season, but Lewis will not have wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who will be out for this game. The strength of the Bills is their 2nd ranked rush offense behind Fred Jackson and C.J Spiller as well as their defense, which leads the league with 56 sacks and is 2nd in the NFL in interceptions. The Patriots needed a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to survive Week 1 in Orchard Park. What will happen this week?
Here are my three keys to this Sunday's game (4:25 ET, CBS) in Foxboro:
SpillIng Over Into 2014: If the Bills are going to pull off the upset, they need to continue their success on the ground. For that to happen, C.J Spiller has to end his injury-plagued season a high note. Back in Week 1, Spiller had just 17 carries for 41 yards. He has struggled to find the end zone this season, scoring just two touchdowns in nine games. He is just one half of the Bills' rushing threat. Fred Jackson is coming off of a 100+ yard game against the Miami Dolphins and has scored eight touchdowns this season. If the Bills can leave Tom Brady and company on the sideline, it limits the amount of possessions the Patriots have on offense.
Kickin' It With Kiko: Earlier, we talked about how the Bills were one of the top teams in sacks and interceptions. One of the guys in the middle of that defense is rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso. The second round pick out of Oregon is fourth in the NFL with 145 tackles and is in the top ten in interceptions with four. Alonso has not had many tackles in the last three games, but he has had double digit tackles in six games this season. This includes recording 22 tackles against the Bengals back on October 13th. On the front seven, Buffalo has three players with double digit sacks. Those three are Mario Williams (13 sacks), Kyle Williams (10.5) and Jerry Hughes (10). Mike Pettine's scheme will need to at least equal their three sack total from Week 1 to stifle Tom Brady.
Hunting In The Woods: With Stevie Johnson and Marquise Goodwin out for the Bills at wide receiver, someone has to catch passes on the outside for Thaddeus Lewis. The player to watch at wide receiver is rookie second round pick Robert Woods. Woods will likely be covered by Aqib Talib as the one target the Patriots will want to avoid catching the deep pass. Last week, Woods had three catches for 70 yards against the Dolphins. His afternoon was cut short after being ejected for swinging at a Miami Dolphins' defender. Woods had a touchdown in the first matchup with the Patriots and has led the Bills in receiving yards each of the last two games.
The Bills have never beaten the Patriots in Gillette Stadium and their last win in New England came in 2000. The odds don't help Buffalo in this one, While Thad Lewis has had some flashes this season, he has turned the ball over six times in four games. This is a Patriots' defense that still thrives in forcing turnovers. One of the better cornerbacks this year has been Logan Ryan, who has had opponents have the 2nd lowest passer rating when players throw his way (Richard Sherman of the Seahawks is 1st). The Bills will compete considering Doug Marrone has built up confidence for his team by winning its last two games. However, New England has found the right mix of the run game and the passing game just in time for the playoffs. Patriots don't get home field advantage, but they do secure a first round bye and a home game in Foxboro two weeks from now.
PATRIOTS 30 BILLS 20