After enjoying a lengthy thirteen-day off period thanks to the team's mid-season bye week, the New England Patriots will be back in action this Sunday at Gillette Stadium. For the final time in 2012, the Pats will take on the AFC East Division rival Buffalo Bills. When these two squads met back in Week 4, the Patriots used a dominating fourth quarter to pave the way to a 52-28 victory.
Here are five things to watch during Sunday's divisional showdown.
Will Devin McCourty see time at safety?
The trade deadline acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib looks to have sealed struggling youngster Devin McCourty's fate. When Talib returns from suspension next week against the Indianapolis Colts, he will likely take over one of the team's two starting jobs on the corner of the New England defense. Surprising rookie Alfonzo Dennard seems to be playing too well to take off the field, and Kyle Arrington has shown glimpses of greatness while playing the role of the nickelback. This leaves no room at the cornerback position for McCourty, who hasn't displayed the necessary ball skills to continuously start at the NFL level. However, the former first round draft choice does have a role on the Patriots' defense, and that is at safety. While playing safety, he will have the chance to see the ball better and watch the play develop in front of him. He will also have more of a chance to display his tremendous tackling ability. It will be interesting to see if Bill Belichick begins this transition against the Bills.
Will it be a big afternoon for Stevan Ridley?
For as poor as the Patriots have played against the pass this season, the Buffalo Bills have been equally as bad against the run. The recently revamped Bills' defense has allowed 1,356 yards on the ground, the second highest total in the entire NFL. They have also allowed more rushing touchdowns than any team in the league with 14 through eight games of play. In the first meeting with the Bills, Ridley posted 106 yards and two scores on 22 rushing attempts. With rookie Brandon Bolden serving a four-game suspension, Ridley should see the bulk of the work load out of New England's backfield. If Ridley can exploit Buffalo's biggest weakness, it will help the Patriots to control the clock and go a long way towards a New England victory.
Will Ryan Fitzpatrick have another monster game against Pats' secondary?
Back in Week 4, Bills' quarterback and Harvard University product Ryan Fitzpatrick had a field day against the Patriots' defense. Though he did throw an inexplicable total of four interceptions, he also connected on four touchdown passes and accumulated 350 yards through the air. It will be an awfully rough go of it for the Patriots this Sunday if the defense allows another 300-plus yard passing performance from Buffalo's less-than-stellar signal caller. Backing up their solid effort against Sam Bradford and the Rams with another strong outing against Buffalo would be a huge step forward for the Patriots' secondary as the season inches closer and closer to crunch time.
Repeat performance for Rob Gronkowski?
It was shades of the 2011 MVP-type season from Rob Gronkowski two weeks ago in London against the St. Louis Rams. The New England fan favorite caught eight of Tom Brady's thirteen passes thrown his way for a total of 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns. "Gronk" has been quite impressive this season, but not quite at the level of excellence that he enjoyed one year ago. The former Arizona Wildcat has done well historically against Buffalo, his hometown team, over the course of his career. In Week 4, he racked up 104 receiving yards on five catches and one touchdown.
With full health, can Buffalo's tailback tandem succeed against New England?
When these two teams met earlier in the season, both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller were recovering from injuries. Jackson was dealing with an early season leg ailment while Spiller had suffered a shoulder injury in Week 3. The Patriots held both in check during that game, keeping them under 60 yards on the ground on 21 attempts from scrimmage. This season, the run defense has been one of the Patriots' biggest strengths. However, with both Jackson and Spiller back at full strength, the Bills will likely focus most of their game plan on the running attack. How the New England defense will perform against it will be a huge factor in determining the outcome of this contest.
Prediction: It'll be much closer than you think, but the Pats should prevail, 34-27.
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