On New Year’s Day, the New England Patriots (12-3) will play their final game of the 2011 regular season against the Buffalo Bills (6-9). With all the news around Tom Brady’s shoulder this week, this game has some meaning to it for the Pats. Not only would the Patriots end the year on a eight game winning streak, but a win would seal home-field advantage for the team throughout the AFC playoffs. After coming from 17-0 down last week, Bill Belichick has to be telling his guys to play sixty minutes of their best football both on offense and defense to get some momentum going forward.
The Buffalo Bills were the surprise team in the AFC for the 1st part of the season. They stunned the Patriots up at Ralph Wilson Stadium by scoring 17 points in the 4th quarter. They finally conquered the team that dominated them for 15 straight meetings, but they have lost seven of their last eight. Injuries and turnovers have ruined the team’s progression, particularly to their pass rush (Kyle Williams) and their running game (Fred Jackson). However, don’t discount a division rival with momentum. On Christmas Eve, Buffalo was back to their old turnover forcing ways with their 40-14 beat down of Tim Tebow and the Broncos. If the Bills can pull another upset in Foxboro, they could go into the offseason on a positive note.
Here are my keys to the game for Sunday:
- Do you Dare-Us To Pass: With the injury to Kyle Williams back in November, the Bills were looking to someone on that defensive line to get pressure. Although the team ranks as one of the worst teams in sacking the quarterback, they have a first round pick who is showing some great progress. His name is Marcell Dareus. The third pick out of Alabama is playing some of his best football the last month of the year. He has two sacks in the last three games. I was watching him mic’d up against the Broncos and it seems like he is also taking a vocal leadership role on the defensive line. He leads the team as well with 5.5 sacks on the year. The Patriots’ offensive line that is without Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer this week has to make sure that Brady’s shoulder does not hit the ground too many times. For that to not take place, New England has to focus on #99.
- Don’t Let Him Spill Over: New England’s defense has had a problem stopping the run in the last three games. Even though they are 17th against the run, guys like Roy Helu Jr., Reggie Bush, and Lance Ball have torched the front seven. It has to be a relief for Bill Belichick that Fred Jackson is not active for this game because he is a guy who can extend the play and get those tough yards. The guy I am watching for on Buffalo’s side is C.J Spiller. Spiller has at least eighty yards and a touchdown in three of his last four games. However, his main strength is catching out of the backfield, including nine catches against the Dolphins two weeks ago. Plus, the Pats know about his kick return abilities all too much from last season.
- Turn Over the Finale: If the Patriots want to turn the final game into a win, they have to win the turnover battle. It seems simple enough, but Tom Brady probably wants to avenge his four interception performance in the loss to the Bills earlier this season. The Patriots now have become the team that forces turnovers, particularly in the last two games. They now lead the AFC with a +14 turnover rmargin. Even though Ryan Fitzpatrick has the ability to torch this defense, he has five interceptions in the last five games. Against the Broncos last week, he did not throw one. So, if the Patriots want to win this game, they need to avoid those mental mistakes and force Buffalo into turnovers via maybe some Kyle Arrington interceptions to change field position. Remember, Arrington had two interceptions against Fitzpatrick back in Week 3!
PREDICTION: I know that a lot of people who read these predictions each week notice a pattern in my picks. Whenever I pick the Patriots to blowout an opponent, the game usually ends up close. So, for you Patriots’ fans to breathe easy on your New Year’s Day, I am going to pick a close game again. Seriously though, Ryan Fitzpatrick will be able to put up some yards against the defense, but the Patriots are going to force a late turnover to change the game around similar to what they have done the last two weeks. Hopefully, the Pats get linebacker Brandon Spikes and safety Patrick Chung back this time. Tom Brady will pass for over 5,000 yards for the season and I think he puts up 300 yards again against the Bills. Look for Welker and Gronkowski to have big days in this divisional shootout.
PATRIOTS 31 BILLS 24
HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY