The New England Patriots hope to wrap up their regular season the same way it began – with a win over the Buffalo Bills.
After escaping Ralph Wilson Stadium with a 23-21 victory on a last-second field goal, the Pats aren’t likely to overlook the 6-9 Bills, particularly with a first-round bye in the playoffs on the line. It’s too complicated to explore the playoff implications of every scenario here, but suffice to say that the Pats can guarantee themselves a first-round bye with a win on Sunday.
That, along with a Broncos’ loss would give them the number one seed in the AFC. If both teams win, New England would remain the two seed. Jeff Pini of Boston.com has a nice breakdown of the myriad scenarios here.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for in Sunday’s season finale.
Keeping Brady upright
This is the biggest key to the game. The Bills lead the league with 56 sacks thanks in large part to an excellent defensive front that includes Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes on the edges and Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus on the inside.
The Pats’ meanwhile, have already given up 39 sacks in 15 games this year, compared to just 27 in all of 2012. Keeping Brady upright will be a tough task, made even tougher if left tackle Nate Solder sits out again with a concussion.
Scoring on the ground
In last week’s blowout win over the Ravens, LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley received 16 and 15 carries respectively. In all, the Pats rushed the ball 34 times (out of 62 plays) and averaged a solid 4.2 yards per play. Perhaps most importantly, no one put the ball on the ground, and Blount’s ability to force his way into the end zone helped the Pats’ go 3-for-3 in the red zone.
Being able to turn to the running game when they get close to the end zone would be an important development for the Pats, given the loss of passing weapons like Rob Gronkowski and possibly Shane Vereen, who is questionable with a groin injury.
Limiting big plays
A year after giving up the most big plays (20+ yards) in the passing game with a whopping 74, New England enters Sunday ranked 16th in the category, having allowed just 50. The Pats are also in the middle of the pack in terms of big running plays allowed, having given up nine on the year.
Their ability to limit the big plays – both on the ground and through the air – should be tested Sunday against C.J. Spiller. The fourth-year back out of Clemson is a highlight waiting to happen and is as dangerous in space as anyone in the league. It’s been a disappointing year for Spiller who has just two touchdowns on the season but he’s been looking better of late with 171 total yards in his last two games, and remains a threat to break off a big play any time he touches the ball.