The Buffalo Bills were able to do the unexpected in Week Three, defeating the Arizona Cardinals and all the same, saving certain panic about where the season was inevitably heading. The Bills now hold a record of 1-2 on the season, with a great chance on Sunday to even up their record through one quarter of the season.
The Bills are up against the undefeated New England Patriots, who have been playing without Tom Brady for all three of their games, and will continue to do so against the Bills. It’s Brady’s last week of his DeflateGate suspension, and the Bills stand to benefit from his absence.
However, can they take advantage of a huge question at quarterback in what many will look at as a much needed victory? Five things to watch when the Bills take on the Patriots
1) The great QB debate
- Without Tom Brady, the Patriots are at a clear disadvantage. However, with both of their remaining options dealing with injuries of their own, it makes the quarterback position an outright uncertainty for New England. Jimmy Garoppolo, who started the first two games and played relatively well, suffered a right shoulder injury that sidelined him in Week Three of the season, and when Sunday comes around, he’ll have had a full two weeks of rest. If that isn’t enough, the Patriots could turn to rookie Jacoby Brissett, the man that started Week Three’s win over Houston, and is dealing with a right thumb injury of his own. Both players practiced during the week, and both are listed as questionable. If I had to guess, I think Garoppolo will be the guy in a pretty run-happy approach — it seems like he’s had enough time, and he poses the biggest threat in the backfield. Plus, there was a report on Saturday afternoon out of Boston that Jimmy Garoppolo would be the one starting for the Patriots. However, whoever does end up playing in the game, it provides a big advantage for the Bills defensively — as long as the guys from Week One and Week Three show up. After all, in 2016, the Bills have given up the fourth-lowest yards per carry average in the league through three games. LeGarrette Blount might have a tough time with linebackers Preston Brown, Zach Brown, and the rest of the defensive front.
2) Patriots defense versus Tyrod
- Really for the first time in the 2016 season, the Buffalo Bills offense had a certain degree of success against Arizona. The rushing game led the way to the Bills setting a season high for their team in offensive plays run during a game. Sure, 64 isn’t a ton, but when you consider the previous two week totals were 49 and 53, it shows that the offense was able to sustain a bit more. However, the passing offense failed to get going in a rather big way against the Cardinals. Tyrod Taylor once again failed to take advantage of the middle of the field past the first nine yards — even though there were numerous examples of players running open. Sammy Watkins was surely missed, too, and that will continue to be the case as the Bills will be without him for the next eight weeks at least. Taylor was able to put the Cardinals on their heels by his running ability, and with a few designed calls to take advantage of that skill set. The trouble is, the Patriots were watching that exact facet become a factor, and that will likely be their top priority to help curb the rushing attack. How, you might ask? Well, the first two weeks both the Ravens and Jets made comments about making Taylor into a quarterback, and to do that, teams will likely want to pin him in the pocket — maybe even forgoing an outright four-man rush to do so. I would expect to see the Patriots ends to play a lot of contain on the edge and line up as wide as possible to take away that from Taylor. If he proves that he can beat them over the middle of the field, so be it… they’ll adjust, but he has to show he can do it, first. If the Patriots can take that away, it causes the Bills rushing game to be a lot more one-dimensional. Tyrod Taylor can single-handedly take control of this game if he steps it up as a passer.
3) Surprise, surprise: another good matchup for Hughes
- I doubt that the Bills will be seeing a ton of throwing against their defense… especially given the state of the Patriots top two quarterbacks from a health perspective. However, when they do, Jerry Hughes can continue his outright dominance against another winnable matchup. This time around, the Bills top edge rusher will be up against right tackle Marcus Cannon for the majority of the matchup. Cannon is questionable to play, but all indications are pointing in the direction of him being on the field Sunday. Hughes has been tormenting every right tackle he’s gone up against to this point, and there’s no reason to expect that to change against Cannon, who has struggled to start the season. As long as he stays healthy, Hughes should wind up with a double digit sack total in 2016 — that just speaks to how good he is, and how well he’s performed this season.
4) Can Glenn play? They need him more than ever
- The Bills offensive line, for the most part, have played extremely well through the first three weeks of the season. John Miller has made a major improvement in his second season at right guard, left guard Richie Incognito and center Eric Wood continue to be successful, and even right tackle Jordan Mills has played above expectations this season. The lone question is at left tackle, after normal starter Cordy Glenn went down with an ankle injury, third-year player Cyrus Kouandjio started the last two weeks (but struggled quite a bit against Arizona’s Chandler Jones), and now Kouandjio is out of this week’s game with an ankle injury of his own. Glenn was able to practice all three days this week, and even worked with the first-team offense while doing so. The Bills need him out on the field, because without Kouandjio and the suspended Seantrel Henderson available to them, the would actually have to turn to a player they signed in the middle of the week to start at left tackle opposite Chris Long, who has had a tremendous start to his season. Michael Ola is his name, and even though he’s got familiarity with offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, this is a tall order to step in without even a week of knowing the playbook and being able to play effectively against Long, or to even know all the plays as well as everyone else does. Point blank, the Bills need Glenn to play… but with his ankle allow him to? I think they’ll test it out ahead of the game just to make the final call hours ahead of time.
5) How much Gronk?
- The New England Patriots have seen their fair share of adversity to start the season, being without quarterback Tom Brady (suspended), top running back Dion Lewis (PUP list), and tight end Rob Gronkowski (hamstring) for the first two games of the season. Even though Gronkowski played against Houston, you might as well call that a ‘did not participate’ for how little he was used. The tight end played only 14 snaps (23-percent) against Houston and was targeted only once in the passing game on a way overthrown ball in the red zone. However, that was also 10 days ago, and now that he’s had another 10 days to rest his hamstring (in addition to the almost three weeks he had to start the year), we could be seeing a full Gronkowski for the first time in 2016 — and it comes against the Bills. His usage will obviously be dictated by who ends up playing quarterback. For instance, if Brissett plays, the Patriots would be much less inclined to throw the ball into the deep areas that Gronkowski routinely takes advantage of with Tom Brady at the helm. However, without having taken on a true big-time threat at tight end yet this season, the Bills have their work cut out for them if Gronkowski can get back to normal this week.
OUT: WR Sammy Watkins (IR, foot), T Cyrus Kouandjio (ankle), WR Greg Salas (groin), C Patrick Lewis (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: S Colt Anderson (foot), TE Charles Clay (knee), CB Ronald Darby (hamstring), T Cordy Glenn (ankle), QB Cardale Jones (right shoulder), S Jonathan Meeks (foot), S Aaron Williams (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: QB Jacoby Brissett (right thumb), QB Jimmy Garoppolo (right shoulder), TE Rob Gronkowski (hamstring), T Marcus Cannon (calf), G Jonathan Cooper (foot), LB Jonathan Freeny (shoulder), LB Dont’a Hightower (knee), CB Eric Rowe (ankle)
- This is really the first time we’ve gone into a game where the starting quarterback isn’t officially known for the opposite team… and it makes a legitimate difference for the Bills. So for that, here’s my prediction contingency:
If Garoppolo starts: Patriots over Bills
If Brissett starts: Bills over Patriots
Really, it all boils down to how much of a threat the Patriots are in the passing game. Garoppolo represents timing, a deeper knowledge and understanding of the playbook, and to be frank, more ability as a passer than Brissett. If Brissett is at quarterback, the Patriots become quite a bit easier to defend because you can take more chances with the secondary, without the overwhelming fear that the defense will get picked apart by him. With either player, I’m expecting the Patriots to come out and try to establish the ground game with LeGarrette Blount… but with a solid defensive line and starting linebacker duo, the Bills will be up to the challenge against a weaker offensive line. That’s where the Garoppolo/Brissett distinction comes into play. However, the Bills offense might have a tough time against this New England, specifically if Tyrod Taylor can’t get the passing game going. Look for them to pin him in the pocket and attempt to make him beat them from there. If both defenses play as well as they’re capable of, this could be a pretty low-scoring, ball control type of game — regardless of who is playing quarterback for New England.
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