When the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots met in the second week of the season, both teams were searching for answers to explain Opening Day disappointments.
The Bills had fallen into a 17-point hole before rallying to beat the New York Giants in overtime. The Patriots had been flattened by Miami.
Six games later, as they prepare for a rematch, the Bills and Pats still can't be certain about how good -- or bad -- they really are.
The Bills' offensive incompetence has convinced many that their 5-2 record has been achieved with smoke and mirrors.
After winning three of their last four games, the Patriots (4-3) certainly look more competitive than they did through their 0-2 start. But since solving their early season offensive problems, their once-strong defense has gone south. The 17-10 victory over New England on Sept. 8 was the closest the Bills have come all season to a blowout win. But a road victory against an AFC East opponent tonight, no matter how close, would do wonders for their confidence -- not to mention their division lead.
An electrified Foxboro Stadium crowd -- and a team that still looks inspired despite the lame-duck status of coach Bill Parcells -- should present substantial obstacles.
When the Bills have the ball
For the second week in a row, Buffalo's anemic offense faces a struggling defense.
Last Sunday, the Bills had relatively few problems moving the ball against the pathetic New York Jets; they just couldn't put it in the end zone. Tonight, they take on the worst pass defense in the NFL.
The Patriots have steadily given up big plays the last four games, primarily because their DBs are poor tacklers. As a result, 10- to 12-yard slant passes turn into much bigger plays, as was the case on the 63-yard TD pass from Jim Kelly to Quinn Early that decided the last Buffalo-New England game.
The Patriots' weakest spot is RCB, where Ricky Reynolds hasn't been the same since suffering a sprained ankle three weeks ago. Jimmy Hitchcock and Otis Smith have also struggled there, along with FS Willie Clay.
The big-play problems have resulted in the Pats switching from an aggressive, man-to-man scheme to softer zone coverage, which tends to be more difficult for Kelly to decipher. But the QB should be helped greatly by the return of WR Steve Tasker from a foot injury. Tasker knows how to find zone seams and can make big plays as a runner. New England also isn't blitzing nearly as much as before, thanks in large part to having been burned by Kelly's pass to Early, and hasn't gotten much pressure on QBs all season.
But the Patriots did sack Jim Harbaugh four times -- and broke his nose -- in last week's 27-9 victory at Indianapolis. One reason was that LLB Chris Slade, who had been ineffective after being moved from RE to LE in pass-rush situations at the start of the year, went back to his old RE spot and performed far better. LT John Fina could have his hands full. Willie McGinest returned to LE on third down and could pose problems for RT Glenn Parker.
The Patriots did an excellent job of stopping the Bills' running game the last time, holding them to an average of 2.2 yards per carry. But LG Ruben Brown was injured then. He's back and should have no trouble overpowering RDT Pio Sagapolutele. However, RG Jerry Ostroski faces a hefty challenge against LDT Mark Wheeler, who is a good run-stopper.
Neither of the Pats' other LBs -- Monty Brown and Ted Johnson -- offers much in pass coverage or run defense.
When the Pats have the ball
QB Drew Bledsoe is over his early-season crisis. Well, sort of.
After horrible showings against Miami and Buffalo, Bledsoe has gone on to throw nine TDs and only two INTs. He has made better decisions and thrown with more accuracy. However, he struggled two weeks ago against Washington and was unspectacular against the Colts.
The Bills sacked Bledsoe four times in the last game. RE Bruce Smith had three sacks, as he simply blew past LT Bruce Armstrong, his long-time nemesis who has not been the same since offseason shoulder surgery, and LG William Roberts, who struggles against quick rushers. But Smith could be slowed by ankle trouble and the mushy grass surface of Foxboro Stadium.
One major difference from earlier in the year is that Bledsoe is getting considerable help from his WRs, especially rookie Terry Glenn -- who made his NFL debut against the Bills -- and veteran Shawn Jefferson. Glenn has consistently gotten open on intermediate routes, something the Pats lacked last year. Jefferson's blazing speed forces extra coverage to his side and helps loosen things up for the run, although he and Bledsoe have yet to get their timing down on deep routes.
TE Ben Coates is always dangerous, but, between being used more as a blocker and a third WR, he hasn't been quite as large a factor in New England's offense as in the past. However, he might be able to exploit mistake-prone rookie SS Matt Stevens, starting his third game in place of injured Henry Jones.
The Pats are again likely to try to go straight at the Bills with a no-frills, I-formation, power-oriented scheme, but will hope for better results.
RB Curtis Martin ran for 72 yards in the first half, but was stopped cold in the second. He has not consistently seen the big holes he had a year ago and, as a result, has averaged only three yards in four games this season. The Bills were able to control him largely because NT Ted Washington dominated C Dave Wohlabaugh, who hasn't played as well as he did as a rookie in 1995. Lately, New England has been successful using a toss sweep to Martin, which could work tonight because of the Bills LBs' tendency to over-pursue.
Pats are one of two AFC East teams Bills are sub-.500 against; Miami is the other. . . . Pats rookie Adam Vinatieri has made 14 of last 17 FG attempts.
Another nail-biter, only this time Bills lose, 17-14.