When the Bills run
RB Willis McGahee has been elevated to the starting role, with Travis Henry serving as the backup. The Bills, no matter who's running, should be able to control clock by running at Cardinals' undersized front seven. Bills are only team in NFL with no rushing touchdowns. But with McGahee's size, power and quickness, Bills will be tough to defend near goal line if they stick with running game in red zone.
Cardinals allow 4.8 yards per carry, third worst in the NFL. But after yielding an average of 180.6 yards on ground in first three games, they have held opponents to 55.6 yards in last three. S Adrian Wilson and LB Ronald McKinnon lead quick and athletic defense that goes after ball. They have forced 16 fumbles and recovered 10, both NFL highs. Cardinals are only team in NFL to not allow a rushing touchdown.
When the Cardinals run
At age 35, Emmitt Smith has been an effective back, gaining 100 yards in two of past three games. He's not as quick as he once was, but he hasn't lost his great vision and instincts. He still has nose for end zone (five TDs). Cardinals will look to pound Bills behind offensive line anchored by mammoth tackles Leonard Davis (6-foot-6, 381 pounds) and L.J. Shelton (6-6, 335).
Smith likes running inside, but that won't be easy with DTs Sam Adams and Pat Williams in the middle of the Bills' defense. Running wide is no picnic, either, because linebackers are excellent in pursuit. Cardinals may try to run out of three-wide receiver formations in an effort to spread Bills' defense out and give Smith running lanes.
When the Bills pass
Despite throwing for 203 yards last week, QB Drew Bledsoe was erratic with four interceptions and missed open receivers. Bills must do better job protecting him in passing situations. Bledsoe should find some favorable matchups with his receivers and thin Cardinals secondary. Cardinals will likely double-team Eric Moulds, giving Lee Evans, Josh Reed and tight end Mark Campbell chances to work against single coverage.
Bledsoe is still effective when given time to work through his progressions. It will be up to Cardinals DEs Bertrand Berry and Calvin Pace (four sacks each) to make Bledsoe uncomfortable in the pocket. Cardinals have ball-hawking secondary, which had four interceptions against Seattle last week and has eight this season. CBs David Macklin and Duane Starks are active but can be beaten if put in man coverage.
When the Cardinals pass
QB Josh McCown moves well in pocket and is threat to run. But the third-year player is still a work in progress. Rookie WR Larry Fitzgerald has been as good as advertised. Return of WR Anquan Boldin, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, should be big boost to offense. WR Bryant Johnson and TE Freddie Jones are solid possession receivers.
The Cardinals' offensive line struggles in pass protection (20 sacks allowed), so Bills will try to rattle McCown with different blitz packages. Bills DE Aaron Schobel (five sacks in three games) could have big day against Davis, who has trouble with quick pass rushers. SS Lawyer Milloy brings some order to the Bills' secondary, which is still without injured CB Troy Vincent.
Field position could be a key factor. Bills P Brian Moorman has placed eight of 29 punts inside opponents' 20-yard line. Cardinals P Scott Player has had 10 kicks downed inside 20, but he's also had one blocked. Nate Clements could have breakout game on punt returns against Cardinals, who allow 10 yards per return and gave up a 71-yard touchdown.
Bills KR Terrence McGee is facing one of league's better coverage units. Cardinals K Neil Rackers helps with eight touchbacks on kickoffs, second best in NFL. Absence of KR Josh Scobey is blow to Cardinals. Karl Williams hasn't been much of a factor returning punts. Cardinals have a major scoring weapon in Rackers, who tied NFL record with three field goals over 50 yards (55, 55, 50) last week and has five field goals over 50 yards this season.
Despite their insistence that they're better than record, Bills continue to find ways to lose with drive-killing penalties and turnovers. Bills' season isn't in total ruins yet, but they have no more room for error. Bills play better with lead, and with the way their defense is playing, a few early scores might all that's needed to win today.
Cardinals coach Dennis Green promised to have competitive team, and he's delivered. Cardinals have lost 16 straight on road since 2002, but three losses this year were by a combined 13 points. Despite having NFL's 24th-ranked defense, Cardinals are tough to score on. They have NFL's best red-zone defense, allowing just five TDs on opponents' 21 possessions (23.4 percent) inside 20-yard line. They're also opportunistic with NFL-high 18 takeaways.
Home-field advantage and better overall talent should give Bills the edge, 20-13.