When the Bills run
The emergence of RB Willis McGahee has made a huge impact on Bills' ability to follow game plan of ball-control football. McGahee is averaging only 3.7 yards per carry, but his heavy workload (93 carries in three starts) has kept team out of long-yardage passing situations. Bills use a lot of two-back, two-tight end power formations, and DT Justin Bannan has been effective pulling guard on sweeps and counter plays.
Patriots, who yielded 98 yards to Travis Henry in Week Four, have struggled stopping run. Their three-man defensive line has had problems with cutback runners like McGahee. NTs Vince Wilfork and Keith Traylor must hold gaps to keep blockers off active LBs Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson and SS Rodney Harrison. Teams have run on Patriots by spreading defense out with three-wide receiver formations.
When the Patriots run
What a difference RB Corey Dillon has made. He's rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his last three starts, and Patriots are 4-0 when Dillon hits century mark. Dillon is a big back who still has a burst through the hole. Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass will get touches, but establishing Dillon is Priority One.
Bills held Dillon to 79 yards in Week Four. Patriots had very little success running inside with DTs Sam Adams and Pat Williams and MLB London Fletcher anchoring NFL's best interior run defense. Expect Dillon to bounce outside on off-tackle runs, but OLBs Takeo Spikes and Jeff Posey and SS Lawyer Milloy do good job of stringing plays out. Running out of spread formations might be best chance for Dillon to succeed.
When the Bills pass
Bills' running game has taken pressure off QB Drew Bledsoe, who has been efficient in recent games. In three victories, Bledsoe was sacked only once in 75 pass attempts thanks to improved offensive line. Rookie Lee Evans is growing as effective complementary receiver to Eric Moulds. McGahee is threat on screens, while FB Daimon Shelton and TE Mark Campbell have been go-to guys inside 20-yard line.
Patriots sacked Bledsoe seven times in Week Four but may not be able to blitz as often tonight because of injured-depleted secondary that includes WR Troy Brown as extra cornerback. Coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel are known for unconventional schemes that keep opponents guessing. Look for them to cook up a few tricks to protect secondary and free up LBs Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel to pressure Bledsoe.
When the Patriots pass
QB Tom Brady spreads ball around as well as anyone -- eight players caught third-down passes last week -- and keeps drives alive (44.9 percent third-down conversion rate). WR David Givens has converted 36 of 37 catches into first downs. Brown and David Patten are crafty route runners. TE Daniel Graham excels on seam routes and finding end zone (five TDs). Vrabel's receiving skills in red zone must be respected. RB Kevin Faulk is effective on screens.
Bills blitzed on 42 of 56 plays in last meeting, but Brady wasn't sacked while throwing for 298 yards and two touchdowns. He burned blitz with four completions of 30 yards or more. Bills must continue pressuring Brady, who has been sacked nine times in last three games. Bills' secondary has improved since SS Lawyer Milloy's return, but CB Terrence McGee must bounce back after being burned repeatedly last week.
The first of McGee's two kickoffs for touchdowns came against Patriots. He could go the distance again as Patriots have NFL's third-worst kickoff coverage. A better matchup will be Patriots speedster Bethel Johnson (23.6 yards on kickoff returns) against Bills' top-ranked kickoff coverage. Nate Clements has come on as Bills punt return man, but Patriots have gotten little from Faulk.
Bills P Brian Moorman has put opposing offenses in poor field position all season. He also burned Patriots in last meeting with 34-yard run on aborted punt. Patriots P Josh Miller is having a career year, ranking third and fourth in NFL in gross (45.3) and net average (38.8), respectively. Bills K Rian Lindell has made seven straight field-goal attempts, while Patriots K Adam Vinatieri has made 18 of 19 field-goal tries and leads all kickers with 76 points.
Bills have improved significantly in recent weeks. McGahee has energized running game, Bledsoe is getting better protection from offensive line, the defense continues to play at a high level and team is limiting mistakes. Most important, Bills are brimming with confidence after three wins in four weeks. However, they must conquer their road woes. Bills are just 2-13 in last 15 road games, including 0-3 this year.
Patriots have won six of last eight meetings and outscored Bills, 79-28, in last three home wins. Patriots enter tonight with 15-game home winning streak, including playoffs. A key to Patriots' success is they rarely play from behind. They have scored first in 16 consecutive games and have won 33 straight when entering fourth quarter with lead. Close games also favor Patriots, who are 18-1 (7-0 in overtime) since 2001 in games decided by six points or less.
Game will be closer than some people think, but Patriots find a way to pull out 20-16 victory.