The New England Patriots have an inviting pass defense that's ranked 31st in the NFL.
Whether the Buffalo Bills can take advantage of it without their No. 1 receiver will be one of the main subplots of Sunday's AFC East game in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Sam Aiken will make the second start of his three-year career in place of Eric Moulds, who will serve a one-game suspension. Moulds accounts for 25 percent of a Bills pass offense that has struggled much of the year. The Bills are 29th in passing yards.
Aiken, a former fourth-round draft choice, has just three catches on the season and 17 for his career. At 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds, he has used his good size to be one of the standouts on the Bills' special teams units the past two years.
"I always have had the mentality that patience is a virtue," said Aiken, whose only other start came in October when the Bills opened the Miami game with five receivers. "I play my role on this team on special teams, and that's something I take great pride in. Whatever opportunity I get, I'm going to take advantage of it."
"This is a great chance for him," coach Mike Mularkey said. "His work ethic is tremendous, and it's been showing up on special teams. He has showed up every week as one of the dominant special teams players, and now he gets to show his value on offense. I'm looking forward to seeing what he could do."
The Bills had their best passing day of the season in the 21-16 loss at New England on Oct. 30. Kelly Holcomb threw for 263 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown pass to Moulds. Holcomb was especially good on third downs.
The Bills converted 7 of 14 third-down situations, and Holcomb was 6 of 9 passing for 58 yards on those plays.
The Bills controlled the time of possession by 20 minutes and had four drives of 10 plays or longer, keeping Pats quarterback Tom Brady on the sidelines.
Third-down defense was an issue Pats coach Bill Belichick emphasized this week.
"They did everything. Everything," Belichick said of the Bills' offense in general. "They killed us.
"It was third-and-10 and they ran a draw. They hit the receivers on vertical routes. The first one was something like third-and-15. They hit (Roscoe) Parrish up the seam. They hit Moulds on an angle. You could go right down the line."
New England's defense ranks 29th on third downs.
The Pats have lost six defensive backs for the season due to injury, and that has hurt their effectiveness in mixing their coverages in some games.
"A year ago, they would have guys play in different positions but doing the same thing, meaning a linebacker would take the place of a strong safety, for instance," said tight end Mark Campbell. "At times it might screw up your calls or could make blocking schemes tougher. You don't see as much of that."
Last week, however, the Pats were not afraid to be aggressive in attacking Jets quarterback Brooks Bollinger.
"They blitzed the Jets a whole lot -- just all-out blitzed," said Bills backup quarterback Shane Matthews. "But maybe that's because they didn't respect the passing game of the Jets."
Mularkey said he was pleased the Moulds suspension was resolved but would not discuss the details after after practice Friday.
"I'm not going to elaborate on the reasons why," Mularkey said. "I know it's of interest to the fans. But on behalf of Eric and our team, I don't think it benefits anybody to talk about this thing anymore. The issue has been settled. We're focusing on the Patriots. Eric will be back in here on Monday, and we're going to go nowhere but forward after that."
Mularkey said Campbell and guard Chris Villarrial practiced Friday. They are listed as questionable, but it's likely both will play Sunday. Guard Mike Williams (back) did not practice. Willis McGahee did not practice because he was sick. But he was not added to the injury list, and Mularkey said he expected him to start Sunday.