By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots hope to earn a first-round playoff bye when they face the Buffalo Bills Sunday at Gillette Stadium. This game was originally scheduled to be played at 1 p.m. EST, but the kickoff time was moved to 4:25 p.m. EST under the NFL’s flex scheduling procedures. A Patriots victory combined with a loss by the Denver Broncos will give New England home field advantage throughout the entire playoffs.
The Bills come into Foxboro with a 6-9 record, putting them in last place in the AFC East. New England’s rivalry with Buffalo dates back to 1960, when the two franchises were born as original members of the American Football League. The Bills trail the all-time regular season series 41-64-1. They have met only once in the playoffs, when the Patriots defeated the Bills 26-8 on December 28, 1963 in an AFL East Division tiebreaker game at Buffalo. The most recent meeting was in Week 1 of 2013 season at Buffalo, when the Patriots pulled out a 23-21 comeback victory.
Bills On Offense
There is some doubt as to who will start at quarterback for the Bills. Rookie QB E.J. Manuel, who missed four games earlier in the season with a knee injury, did not play in last week’s 19-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins due to a different knee injury. Given that Buffalo has long since been eliminated from the playoffs, it’s possible that head coach Doug Marrone may keep his young passer on the sidelines even if Manuel is capable of playing in the game. Backup quarterback Thad Lewis will get the start if Manuel doesn’t play. Lewis threw for 193 yards with no touchdowns and one interception against the Dolphins.
Due to the recent death of his mother, leading receiver Stevie Johnson also missed the game against the Dolphins, and his status for the Patriots game is unknown. The Buffalo offense may end up relying on running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to get most of their yards. Jackson gained 111 yards against the Dolphins despite playing with broken ribs.
Bills On Defense
The Buffalo defense has three players with more than 10 sacks this season: Linebacker Mario Williams (13), defensive end Kyle Williams (10.5) and linebacker Jerry Hughes (10). Thanks to this strong and versatile pass rush, the Bills are ranked fifth in the NFL in pass defense. They also have four players with four interceptions apiece: Linebacker Kiko Alonso and defensive backs Jairus Byrd, Jim Leonhard and Aaron Williams. Williams missed the Dolphins game thanks to a rib injury he suffered the previous week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, so his status for next Sunday is uncertain.
Against the run, Buffalo isn’t nearly as strong. The Bills are 23rd in the league in rushing defense, giving up 119.7 yards per game. Buffalo has given up 16 runs of 20-plus yards; only the Chicago Bears have given up more.
The Bills don’t have much going for them offensively, so if the New England defense plays as well as it did in last week’s 41-7 win over the Baltimore Ravens, this game could be a shutout. The only reason New England squeaked out a mere two-point victory in their previous meeting is because the Patriots turned over the ball three times. One of those turnovers was returned 74 yards for a touchdown while another happened at the Buffalo one-yard line, preventing a New England touchdown. If the Patriots hang on to the ball Sunday, expect them to win this game easily and to finish the regular season 8-0 at Gillette Stadium.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on Examiner.com.