The now 1-2-0 New England Patriots head to Orchard Park, New York, this weekend to take on the 2-1-0 Bills in an AFC East match-up. What should you be looking for in New England's first divisional game of the season? Take a look below for analysis of three things you should be watching for when the game kicks off at 1 pm on Sunday.
1. Who's Brady throwing to?
Two of the top three receiving yards leaders for the Patriots last season were tight ends. Wes Welker led the team in yards receiving with 1569, but Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez rounded out the top three with 1327 and 910 yards respectively (stats from pro-football-reference.com).
And in Week 1 against the Titans, the trend of New England throwing to tight ends seemed poised to continue. A little more than 50 percent of Brady's passing yards went to Gronkowski and Hernandez as the Patriots beat Tennessee 34-13.
But everything changed in Week 2, probably because of an ankle injury to Hernandez. Of the 310 yards Brady threw for after Hernandez went down, a little less than 25 percent went to tight ends (with Gronkowski picking up all 75 of the tight ends' receiving yards). Week 3 against Baltimore saw more of the same, with just over 11 percent of Brady's passing yards going to Gronkowski, Kellen Winslow, and Michael Hoomanwanui combined.
With Hernandez out again this week, Welker and Brandon Lloyd each going over 100 yards receiving against Baltimore, and Winslow being released yesterday afternoon, expect Brady to keep targeting his wideouts.
2. Can the Pats stop C.J. Spiller?
So far this season, the Patriots defense has fared well against running backs with the initials CJ, holding Tennessee's Chris Johnson to just four yards on 11 carries in Week 1. They also kept Arizona to 102 rushing yards as a team, although Ray Rice went for 101 yards on the ground last weekend.
So how will they fare against Buffalo's C.J.? Spiller, a third-year back out of Clemson University, has 308 yards on just 33 carries so far this season for a whopping 9.3 yards per rush (that leads the NFL by a full two yards per carry; stats from espn.go.com). Spiller was listed as questionable on the Buffalo injury report according to an article by WEEI.com's Christopher Price published at 4:09 pm this afternoon. But Buffalo's head coach Chan Gailey was quoted by both an Associated Press article and an NFL.com article by Dan Hanzus as saying that both Spiller's and Fred Jackson's odds of playing are "'legitimate.'"
Hanzus does concede it's possible neither back will play, and also writes that it's more likely Jackson will play than Spiller. But assuming Spiller does play, the success the Patriots have in defending C.J. will be something to watch for.
3. How will the defensive backs play?
In the Week 1, the Patriots gave up 272 passing yards to the Titans, then held all-universe wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to just one catch for four yards in Week 2. But Joe Flacco threw for 382 yards last week, and the defensive backs dropped three interceptions. The Bills aren't anything special in terms of passing offense, but the defensive backs can't go missing tackles and dropping interceptions again either. See if they can correct their mistakes, at least some of which were errors in basic football fundamentals, this week.
**Note: All statistics used in this blog came from nfl.com, except where other sources are noted.
**Note 2: Aaron Hernandez is listed as being out for the week on weei.com's article "Gronk, Mankins questionable for Sunday" by Christopher Price. I did not double-check this information prior to publishing this post at 5 pm, but it does appear, at about midnight Friday, that it is indeed accurate.