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NFL Preview - Buffalo at New England
NFL Preview - Buffalo at New England
Dick Jauron will have an immediate opportunity to announce his presence as leader of the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, as the team's first- year head coach and his team travel into Gillette Stadium to face the New England Patriots.
Jauron's debut with the Bills will come against the opponent that has owned not only the AFC East for the better part of the last half-decade, but has also dominated Jauron's newest employer. The three-time defending division champ Patriots are 10-1 against Buffalo over the last 11 head-to-head meetings, with seven of those wins coming by double digits. The streak of negative results for the Bills is indicative of the entire breadth of the franchise's fortunes over that stretch. Buffalo last made a postseason appearance in 1999, and has just one winning season since that year. Jauron, who fashioned a 35-45 record and made one playoff appearance in five seasons with the Bears (1999-2003) before a stint as the Detroit Lions' defensive coordinator and interim head coach, is charged with restoring glory to the once-proud franchise.
With its three Super Bowl titles in the current decade, New England knows a great deal about glory, and is trying to prove that the team's standing as one of the NFL's elite franchises remains intact. The Patriots lost their first postseason game in six seasons under head coach Bill Belichick this past January, dropping a 27-13 decision to the Broncos in an AFC Divisional Playoff. Several league pundits have predicted that the resurgent Miami Dolphins will win the AFC East this season, and the fractious contract situation concerning Patriots receiver Deion Branch has not diminished the skepticism about Belichick's squad.
For both teams, Sunday will mark an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong.
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The Patriots hold a 50-40-1 edge over the Bills in a series that dates back to 1960, and as mentioned, have claimed 10 of the last 11 overall. Buffalo's only victory over that stretch was a 31-0 home win to begin the 2003 season, and the Bills have lost five straight in New England since a 16-13 overtime victory in 2000. The Patriots swept last year's home-and-home, scoring a 21-16 win at Gillette Stadium in Week 8, and a 35-7 road triumph in Week 14.
The clubs have also met once in the postseason, a 26-8 New England road victory in a 1963 AFL Division Playoff.
Belichick holds a 10-3 record against the Bills in his career, including a 9-2 mark while with New England. Buffalo's Jauron is 1-1 against both the Patriots and Belichick as a head coach, with both games dating back to his tenure with the Bears.
BILLS OFFENSE VS. PATRIOTS DEFENSE
Back in charge of the Buffalo offense is third-year quarterback J.P. Losman (1340 passing yards, 8 TD, 8 INT in 2005), who the team is hoping has turned the corner after a shaky performance last season. The 2004 first-round pick out of Tulane posted a 1-7 record as a starter a year ago, compiling a weak 64.9 passer rating in the process, but emerged with a solid 2006 preseason that helped him beat out competitors Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall for the No. 1 job. Losman will have at least one new target this season, as Peerless Price, who is expected to fill the third receiver role behind holdovers Lee Evans (48 receptions, 7 TD) and Josh Reed (32 receptions, 2 TD), returns to Buffalo after a three-year hiatus. Price caught 94 passes for 1,252 yards and nine touchdowns in 2002, his last season with the Bills, numbers the wideout failed to duplicate in three years with the Falcons and Cowboys. Price's presence is expected to help the team overcome the loss of longtime receiving staple Eric Moulds, who was traded to Houston in the offseason. Another newcomer, Robert Royal (18 receptions, 1 TD with Washington), is penciled in as the team's No. 1 tight end. The Buffalo line, which allowed 43 sacks last season, will include new starters in ex-Viking Melvin Fowler at center and ex-Panther Tutan Reyes at guard.
Seeking to put heat on Losman will be a new-look Patriots pass rush, one that won't include two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Willie McGinest for the first time since 1994. McGinest, who had 75 sacks in 12 years with New England, was released in March and picked up by the Browns, leaving Roosevelt Colvin (7 sacks) and Mike Vrabel (4.5 sacks) to serve as the team's primary pass rushers off the edge. Vrabel moves back outside after leading the team in tackles from his inside position last season. The Pats, who were 31st in the NFL against the pass last season, will also be looking for some consistency out of a secondary that has seen almost constant change over the past two seasons. Back in the fold is strong safety Rodney Harrison (15 tackles), who missed the final 13 games of 2005 with a torn ACL, and his presence is expected to help things immensely. Eugene Wilson (68 tackles, 1 INT) is back at free safety after starting 16 games there a year ago, and Ellis Hobbs (3 INT) and Asante Samuel (3 INT) are penciled in at the corners. Hobbs and Samuel were tied for the team lead in picks a year ago.
Though the play of Losman will receive much of the attention from Bills fans in 2006, the focus for opposing defenses will likely be on Buffalo running back Willis McGahee (1247 rushing yards, 5 TD, 28 receptions). McGahee was Buffalo's top offensive weapon last season, when he tallied his second 1,000- yard campaign in as many years. The Miami (FL) product struggled in the second half of the season, however, averaging just 3.3 yards per rush and scoring only one touchdown after Week 8. McGahee carried 31 times for 136 yards against New England last Oct. 30th, but was held to three yards on eight totes in the second engagement on Dec. 11. Spelling McGahee will be ex-Bear Anthony Thomas, who will be making his debut as a Bill.
The Patriots' run-stopping unit became stifling when inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi (62 tackles, 2 sacks) returned at midseason after recovering from a stroke, but New England is once again dealing with the possible absence of the defense's emotional leader. Bruschi suffered a broken wrist early in training camp, and might not be available against the Bills. Certain to be in the lineup is linebacker Junior Seau, who signed with New England midway through the preseason. Either Eric Alexander or Don Davis (21 tackles) will start alongside Seau if Bruschi's can't go. Up front, the three-man group of nose tackle Vince Wilfork (54 tackles) and ends Richard Seymour (46 tackles, 4 sacks) and Ty Warren (67 tackles) is one of the best in football.
PATRIOTS OFFENSE VS. BILLS DEFENSE
Four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady (4110 passing yards, 26 TD, 14 INT) could have the biggest challenge of his career ahead of him, as New England's corps of receivers looks as weak as it has in recent memory. With Deion Branch (78 receptions, 5 TD) still embroiled in a contract dispute with the team, Brady's starting receivers on Sunday will likely be ex-Charger Reche Caldwell (28 receptions, 1 TD with San Diego) and veteran Troy Brown (39 receptions, 2 TD), with second-round draft pick Chad Jackson (Florida) and recent pickup Doug Gabriel (37 receptions, 3 TD with Oakland) coming off the bench. Jackson is listed as questionable due to a hamstring injury that limited him throughout the preseason. Brady also figures to rely heavily on tight ends Ben Watson (29 receptions, 4 TD) and Daniel Graham (16 receptions, 3 TD). The New England line allowed just 28 sacks last season, and rookie right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan (5th Round, Cal) is the only brand new face up front.
Seeking to rein in Brady and the New England passing game will be a fine Buffalo secondary, one that seemingly got stronger in the offseason. The Bills used three of their first four draft picks on strong safety Donte Whitner (Ohio State), cornerback Ashton Youboty (Ohio State), and free safety Ko Simpson (South Carolina), all of whom are expected to be active on Sunday. Of that group, the only potential starter is Whitner, who should open in place of the injured Matt Bowen (lower leg). Bowen, an offseason free agent pickup from the Redskins, is considered questionable. Definite secondary starters for Buffalo are cornerbacks Terrence McGee (4 INT) and Nate Clements (2 INT) along with free safety Troy Vincent (4 INT). The Bills pass rush is anchored by ends Aaron Schobel (12 sacks) and Chris Kelsay (2.5 sacks), with Ryan Denney (4 sacks) replacing Kelsay on a situational basis.
New England is rich in backfield depth as 2006 begins, which given the state of the receiving corps, is a most welcome situation. Holdovers Corey Dillon (733 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 13 TD) and Kevin Faulk (145 rushing yards, 29 receptions) both appear fully healthy after injury-plagued '05 seasons, and first-round draft pick Laurence Maroney has been added to their ranks. Maroney, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Minnesota, is expected to make his formal NFL debut on Sunday despite battling a knee problem late in the preseason. The starter will once again be the 31-year-old Dillon, who opened just 10 games due to various injuries last season but still managed to tie his career single-season high for touchdowns.
The Bills ranked 31st out of 32 NFL teams against the run in 2006, a situation Jauron sought to rectify as one of his first orders of business. Two newcomers are expected to start on the interior line, with ex-Colt Larry Tripplett (30 tackles, 4 sacks with Indianapolis) and fifth-round draft choice Kyle Williams (LSU) listed as first-teamers on Buffalo's depth chart. Also expected to help is the return of linebacker Takeo Spikes (17 tackles, 1 sack), who will occupy the strong side after missing the final 13 games of 2005 with a torn Achilles. Veteran London Fletcher-Baker (157 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) will again occupy the middle, with the blossoming Angelo Crowell (119 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) on the weak side. Fletcher-Baker and Crowell were 1-2 on the Bills in tackles last season.
New England is desperate to prove that it still belongs in the Super Bowl discussion, and a sizeable win against the Bills on Sunday would certainly help to reinforce that belief. The Branch situation is concerning, but Brady has proven capable of working with a number of different receivers in the past and should have enough talent around him to move the offense at a reasonable clip, even against an improved Bills defense. Buffalo's attack, meanwhile, remains a one-trick pony. If New England can take McGahee away, the passing game lacks the punch to compensate. Losman won't be able to keep up with his quarterbacking counterpart, and Jauron will leave town with an 0-1 record at the helm of the Bills.
-> Predicted Outcome: Patriots 20, Bills 9, bet now
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