The NFL landscape changed dramatically just 7:33 into New England’s season opener, when onrushing Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard wiped out the knee of All-Everything quarterback Tom Brady. Despite dire predictions of their imminent demise (and the schadenfreude expressed by a significant contingent of other teams’ fans), however, the defending AFC champs have refused to go away quietly.
OFFENSE (#18 total yardage, #7 rushing, #23 passing, #22 scoring):
For 128 consecutive games, a streak that encompassed four Super Bowl appearances and three championships, the Patriots could count on Brady’s presence at the helm of the offense. His injury sent shock waves throughout New England, and thrust untested backup Matt Cassel into the spotlight. Based on the fourth-year pro’s underwhelming preseason performance, many observers predicted total meltdown. While he won’t make anyone forget No. 12 any time soon, Cassel has exceeded the doomsayers’ expectations to the point that some local writers are even suggesting that he could cash in as a free agent next offseason. Scott Mitchell, anyone?
Of course, having Randy Moss and Wes Welker at wide receiver makes Cassel’s life a little easier. While the edgy Moss is nowhere near repeating his record-smashing 2007 performance, and for a stretch it looked like the “bad” Randy might reappear, he’s still one of the most dangerous targets in the league. A good game on Sunday could move Moss past Irving Fryar for 11th on the career receiving yardage list, with Hall of Famer Steve Largent next in his sights. Meanwhile, Welker just keeps catching passes – he’s on pace to match the franchise-record 112 receptions he hauled in last season. Jabar Gaffney is back as the third wideout, but Cassel hasn’t looked his way often. Special-teamers Sam Aiken and Kelley Washington round out the WR corps. Tight ends Ben Watson and David Thomas aren’t contributing much in the passing game, combining for just 19 catches so far, and have yet to score.
While the top receivers will play, the situation is different at running back, where Laurence Maroney is on IR and LaMont Jordan (calf) and Sammy Morris (knee) both appear likely to miss another game. That leaves Kevin Faulk and undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Ole Miss) to carry the rushing attack. Expect to see Green-Ellis get his third consecutive start and play in short-yardage situations. Faulk, always there when the Pats need him, is averaging just shy of six yards per carry and trails only the two starting wideouts in receptions. Heath Evans is the fullback of record, but will also see some plays in the single-back sets the team uses most of the time.
With Cassel at the controls, the team’s sacks-allowed stat has skyrocketed. He’s already been dropped 28 times in the first eight games, more than Brady – renowned for his quick release – took in any of his last four full seasons. The young quarterback isn’t totally to blame, though, as the offensive line hasn’t performed at their usual level. They finally had their projected starting five together for the first time last week, with right guard Stephen Neal returning from the PUP list after offseason shoulder surgery and tackle Nick Kaczur back after missing two games with an ankle injury, but the left side has no such excuse. Jamal Williams abused center Dan Koppen in San Diego’s blowout win, and Matt Light and Logan Mankins – both Pro Bowl players last year, as was Koppen – have also struggled at times.
DEFENSE (#14 total yardage, #15 rushing, #17 passing, #9 scoring):
A full calendar year after returning from a knee injury, Richard Seymour appears to be back on track for another Pro Bowl season. He, tackle Vince Wilfork, and left end Ty Warren comprise one of the best 3-4 fronts in the league. Wilfork has been limited with a toe injury this week; the Bills offense probably wouldn’t mind seeing undersized reserve Mike Wright on the field for a significant number of plays.
The Patriots released Rosevelt Colvin in the offseason, making room for Adalius Thomas to return to his more natural outside linebacker spot. The former Ravens star has benefited from the change, pacing the team with five sacks. Mike Vrabel starts on the other side, with fellow captain Tedy Bruschi and top draft pick Jerod Mayo (Tennessee) manning the inside. Mayo, the Pats’ leading tackler, has grasped the complex scheme quicker than expected. Undrafted rookie Gary Guyton (Georgia Tech) has been a pleasant surprise, taking some passing-down snaps in Bruschi’s stead.
Asante Samuel (Philadephia) and Randall Gay (New Orleans) are plying their trade elsewhere this season, leaving newly-acquired Lewis Sanders and Deltha O’Neal to battle for the starting job at left cornerback. Neither has inspired flashbacks to Ty Law’s best seasons. Both Sanders and 2008 second-round pick Terrence Wheatley will probably miss this game, so it looks like O’Neal, who was benched for the rookie last week, is back in the lineup. After slot corners Jonathan Wilhite and Mike Richardson were repeatedly burned by Colts wideout Anthony Gonzalez, the Pats brought back Jason Webster in an attempt to shore up the secondary. At strong safety, Rodney Harrison’s season – and likely his career – ended against the Broncos two weeks ago. Brandon Meriweather starts in his stead, with James Sanders remaining at free safety.
The Pats have called on Stephen Gostkowski for more than extra points this season, and the third-year kicker has more than justified the faith the team showed in him by letting Adam Vinatieri leave. Gostkowski has missed just one of his 20 attempts this season, a 48-yarder in San Diego, and is currently tied for fourth in the league scoring race.
Punter Chris Hanson is average at best, and that’s being polite. He’s in the middle of the pack in gross average, but ranks 29th in net and has almost as many touchbacks as punts inside the 20. The coverage team isn’t helping, allowing almost 13 yards per return.
The return teams have yet to score, but consistently provide the offense with great field position. Ellis Hobbs averages 29.3 yards per kickoff return, and Welker and Faulk are both dangerous when they drop deep on punts.
You’ve seen the numbers. The Patriots have won nine in a row and 14 of the last 15 in the series, an ugly stretch of football that recalls the Dolphins’ dominance in the 1970s. The Bills have yet to win a game in Gillette Stadium, now in its seventh year of operation. And recent games haven’t even been competitive, as New England has won four of the last five by 22 points or more.
Bills fans had reason to believe that record of futility might change after Brady crumpled to the turf in September. Without their leader, the Pats got pasted by Miami – at home, no less – and drilled by the same Chargers team that left Buffalo with a loss. The secondary is in disarray, they’re down to their fourth-string running back, and even though Cassel isn’t as bad as their fans feared he might be, he’s a long, long way from making anyone forget about the league MVP he replaced.
But Buffalo’s list of injured starters is beginning to rival last season’s – and, as discussed in Lot 1 following the Jets game, these are starters they actually miss. The two teams are closer in overall talent than they have been in several years, but the Bills running game and pass rush will have to be significantly better than they have been lately to earn a road win this week.
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