Pats Preview: Patriots Vs. Bills
As the New England Patriots prepare to welcome the Buffalo Bills to town for a Week 16 divisional game, on Christmas Eve, here are some pregame story lines to keep in mind:
Protecting Gronk- Coming off of the debacle at the end of their first meeting, a 23-3 win for New England in which Rob Gronkowski lost his cool and took a cheap shot on Buffalo's Tre'Davious White, there is some concern that Gronkowski might be targeted by the Bills on Sunday. White and his teammates were extremely upset by the hit, directly following the game, and seemed to be looking for revenge. White even went as far as to text former player and now-ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, saying that "the whole hood want him," in reference to Gronkowski. In recent days, White has backtracked, saying that he has moved past the situation. With Buffalo playing for a shot in the playoffs, it's unlikely that they will try to settle any scores with Gronk early on in the action. If the game gets out of hand, however, and New England gets a sizable lead late, it might be smart to get the All-Pro tight end out of the game. With a loss staring them in the face, the Bills might be liable to go low on Gronk and try to repay the cheap shot.
Looking For 12, Again- As has become the theme, over Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's reign in New England, the Pats will be looking to notch their 12th win on the season, Sunday. The team has reached at least 12 wins 11 times overall and has hit the impressive plateau for each of the past seven seasons. They still have two chances, but they'll definitely be looking to secure their eighth straight 12-win season on Christmas Eve.
Building On A Record- The game will provide an opportunity for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to build on a record he officially set when these two teams met earlier this season. New England's 23-3 win over Buffalo back in early December was Brady's 27th such victory over the Bills. That 27th win moved the 40-year-old ahead of Brett Favre for most wins against a single opponent in a career. Brady can push that record up to 28 with a win on Sunday.
Missing Some B's- The Pats enter Sunday, having already ruled both running back Rex Burkhead (Knee) and Alan Branch (Knee) out for the game. Burkhead, who was injured in last week's win over Pittsburgh, originally had people fearing he would be out for the rest of the season with an ACL injury. Fortunately enough for the power back, an MRI revealed that there was no tear of any ligaments in his knee and he should be back for the postseason. Branch originally got banged up against the Miami Dolphins and has missed time since the middle of December. It's important for the team to get him right for the playoff push, as he can be a key cog in the middle of their defensive front when healthy.
Getting An Opportunity- After a bit of an underwhelming start to his Patriot career, former Bill Mike Gillislee had been a healthy scratch for New England's last six games. Gillislee will likely get another chance to show he can help this Patriot offense on Sunday, as he will almost certainly be suited up in place of the injured Rex Burkhead. Since Gillislee moved to the bench, Burkhead had taken over the power back and goal line roles many had envisioned Gillislee fulfilling, prior to the season. Over that time, Burkhead scored five times, with many of those touchdowns coming from within the 5-yard line. Against the Bills in early December, Burkhead put the ball in the end zone twice. Gillislee will likely be given the same opportunities Sunday, against his former team. This game, and next week's season finale, could go a long way to helping Gillislee prove that he needs to be in uniform for the playoffs as well.
Likely Back- The Patriot defense is likely to get a boost this week, as starting linebacker Kyle Van Noy is expected to return to the lineup. Van Noy, who has been dealing with a calf injury, has looked better this week in practice and appears to be ready to get on the field. His return will help get the defense back on track, as the postseason approaches.
Carrying The Load- While Burkhead scored the team's only two touchdowns in the first meeting, running back Dion Lewis did most of the heavy lifting in the running game. On the day, Lewis carried the ball a team-high 15 times for 92 yards and helped pace the offense all day long. The diminutive back will likely be asked to do even more this time around, as Burkhead has already been ruled out and third-down back James White was hobbled in last week's game and has been battling an ankle injury all week.
Prediction- In a game that the Bills will have to win, for their postseason hopes to stay bright, the Pats will likely control things and spoil Bills Mafia's day. Playing at Gillette Stadium, the Pats will have the home crowd and home cooking working in their favor. The only real worry for New England is what will happen with Gronkowski. Expect the Pats to take the lead early, get Gronk out of harm's way and coast to victory in Week 16.
Pats 33, Bills 9