Believe it or don’t: missing All-World quarterback Tom Brady (for all but eight minutes of the season), running back Laurence Maroney, and multiple starters from last year’s defense, New England still has a chance to win the division. Some pundits suggest this may be Bill Belichick’s best coaching job ever ... and they just might be right.
OFFENSE (#4 total yardage, #7 rushing, #10 passing, #3 scoring):
At one point during the preseason, Matt Cassel was so bad that some of the local beat writers were predicting he wouldn’t make the final roster. But since taking over for the injured Tom Brady, the perennial backup has put up numbers that rival some of “Tom Terrific’s” better seasons, and ensured himself a starting job somewhere – and a rich payday – when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.
How incredible has Cassel’s rise been? Check a few of these stats from this week’s game release:
The running game has picked up some of the slack, as well. Despite Laurence Maroney going on IR early in the season and backups Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan missing significant time, the Pats have already rushed for 2,110 yards and 20 touchdowns. Morris, the former Bill, leads the team with a career-high 642 yards and seven rushing TDs.
A year after the team only allowed 21 sacks all season, Cassel was taken down 28 times in the first seven games. That’s not entirely the young quarterback’s fault, though, as linemen Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur missed some time during that stretch. The normal starting line has been back in place for the last eight weeks, and the improvement has been easy to see; they allowed five sacks to the Steelers, but just 13 in the other seven games.
DEFENSE (#10 total yardage, #12 rushing, #15 passing, #12 scoring):
After a full week of will-he-or-won’t-he-play intrigue, team sack leader Richard Seymour has been officially downgraded to out, which means left tackle Kirk Chambers should sleep a little better Saturday night. However, the rest of the Bills’ offensive line isn’t quite as fortunate, as Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren are ready to go. Expect to see Jarvis Green fill in for Seymour, with Mike Wright also getting a few more plays.
The linebacking corps has been devastated by multiple injuries; there are almost as many ‘backers on IR (five, including Adalius Thomas) as on the active roster (eight including Tedy Bruschi, who is sidelined with a knee injury). Fortunately for New England, the cupboard wasn’t entirely bare: Mike Vrabel is still there, they brought old friends Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin back into the fold, and first-round pick Jerod Mayo (Tennessee) is the odds-on choice to win the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
“Jerod has done a lot for us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We have asked a lot of him. From day one he has been a well-prepared, very mature player who can do a lot of things: play in the running game, play in the passing game, blitz, helps us in the kicking game. He’s a good football player that has good versatility. He’s smart, makes a lot of defensive adjustments and calls for us. He runs well. He is tough. He is a good all around football player. He is very mature. He is very professional. For a rookie, he is probably as professional as anybody I’ve coached.”
At corner, rookie Jonathan Wilhite has moved into the starting lineup ahead of veteran Deltha O’Neal, who continues his slide toward irrelevance. Ellis Hobbs starts on the other side. Former first-round pick Brandon Meriweather has played well since taking over for the injured Rodney Harrison at strong safety, leading the team with four interceptions, but it’s anyone’s guess who will line up next to him – Lewis Sanders, who started the last two games in place of James Sanders (abdomen), is out for this one. If James isn’t ready to return, special-teamer Antwain Spann looks like the only other option at the position.
Despite the best efforts of Dolphins fans to stuff the Pro Bowl ballot box in favor of their kicker, rookie Dan Carpenter, Stephen Gostkowski will be making his first visit to the game next February. He’s a remarkable 34-for-37 this season (91.9 percent), and leads the league with 141 points.
As usual, Chris Hanson spends most of his time trying to keep busy on the sideline; among punters who have been on a team’s roster for the entire season, only Denver’s Brett Kern has fewer attempts than Hanson’s 46. He’s still mediocre, but since he’s a good holder – and they don’t need him that often – New England can afford to get away with keeping him.
Ellis Hobbs is a dangerous kickoff returner who currently ranks third in the league with 28.5 yards per runback. Welker and Faulk split time on punts, combining to average over 10 yards/return. The coverage teams remain a problem, though, giving up almost 13 yards on punts and allowing two touchdowns on kickoffs.They’ll catch a break if Roscoe Parrish can’t play; Leodis McKelvin could do some damage if they let him, but odds are they won’t kick to him very often.
This was the year, right? With Tom Brady out of the picture, the Bills were finally going to end the Pats’ recent dominance in the series. Well, so much for that plan, because the gap appeared to be as wide as ever when Buffalo lost yet again in Foxboro.
The Patriots have scored at least 47 points in three of their past five games, including last week’s 47-7 beatdown of a Cardinals team that looked like they wanted to be anywhere other than a snowy football field in Massachusetts. Can the Bills slow down Cassel and his high-flying attack, perhaps with a little help from Mother Nature in the form of a 30mph crosswind? We’ll see.
I was pleasantly surprised at how Buffalo fought back to beat the Broncos instead of taking an early 13-0 deficit as a signal to run for the bus, and I do think they’ll try to win this game for Dick Jauron. But against a Patriots team fighting for their playoff lives, I’m not sure that will be good enough.
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