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BOSTON (CBS) — A Week 4 game can’t really be a must-win affair, but when you’re a team with sky-high expectations like the Patriots, well, it can.
The Patriots head to Buffalo this weekend with a 1-2 record, and a win would at best put them in a tie for first place in the AFC East, while a loss would send them to last place. Needless to say, not many folks’ preseason predictions considered that to be a real possibility, but that’s where the Patriots find themselves heading into Buffalo, with the Broncos, Seahawks and Jets awaiting in the following three weeks.
Kind of seems like must-win this weekend, no?
Here’s what to watch for as the Patriots try to get back to .500.
Watch Out For Wes
Everyone remembers the loss last season, when the Patriots jumped out to a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter but let the Bills come all the way back to win 34-31, but lost and forgotten in the middle of that was the performance of Wes Welker.
The receiver had a career day that afternoon in Orchard Park, catching 16 passes for 217 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That is legitimately an entire season’s worth of stats for many players, and Welker did it all in a tidy 200-minute window in late September.
Clearly, the Bills made Welker more of a focus in the second matchup of the season, but he still managed to catch six passes for 51 yards. With Buffalo in the lower half of passing yards allowed per game this season (248.3), expect Welker to stay hot after his 142-yard performance last week.
The Bills rank third in the NFL with 178 rushing yards per game, thanks largely to the superhuman efforts of C.J. Spiller. He’s rushed for 308 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries, and he’s chipped in with seven catches for 114 yards and another touchdown.
Spiller was not expected to be able to play this week, though, with a shoulder injury. However, he surprisingly practiced on Friday, making his availability a possible. If he is able to play, there’s no doubt he’ll be greatly limited with injury.
Spiller’s absence will open the door for Fred Jackson to return, but he won’t be 100 percent either. He’s expected to play, but should likewise be slowed as he sees his first game action since spraining his knee in Week 1.
The injuries should take away the Bills’ biggest strength — the third-ranked rushing attack (by comparison, Buffalo ranks 26th in passing yards per game). And if the Bills are unable to get either of their injured running backs or Tashard Choice going, they’ll have a lot of trouble trying to sustain offense with a one-sided attack.
Block Super Mario
Last winter, when Mario Williams signed his $100 million contract with the Bills, one of his first orders of business was changing his Twitter avatar to an animation of him as “Super Mario” throwing a fireball at a goomba wearing a Tom Brady jersey.
That was sort of odd, but he at least made his message clear: Brady better watch out.
So far this year, Williams has been kept in check. He registered just three total tackles in his first two games combined, but he broke out a bit last week against Cleveland, finishing with 1.5 sacks and four total tackles.
The Patriots have their problems on the offensive line, and the uncertainty of Logan Mankins’ availability could thrust Donald Thomas into a bigger role on Sunday. For the Patriots, that’s bad news, and it will mean running backs Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead will work double duty in the backfield as they try to keep Brady clean.
Limiting Williams won’t single-handedly win the game for the Patriots, but if they can’t contain him, it just might lose it for them.
Pressure’s On Fitzpatrick
We’ve seen Ryan Fitzpatrick for more than four years now, and still, we don’t really know what he is. On any given Sunday, he can throw for 280 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and on the next Sunday, he can go 13-for-34 with two interceptions.
The Patriots saw both sides of Fitzpatrick last year, he had the good (65.1 percent completion percentage, 338 yards per game, four TDs) and the bad (six interceptions) in his two games against the Patriots. With the aforementioned running game situation, the pressure’s on Fitzpatrick even more, so another four-interception performance like he had in Week 17, and the Bills will find themselves on the wrong end of a blowout.