Tomorrow's Week 3 showdown between the undefeated Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots features the league's most prolific offense (New England) and the league's most prolific scoring offense (Buffalo). Those units are headlined by quarterbacks Tom Brady and Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the passing games get most of the publicity.
How those offenses do running the football, however, may be the bigger key to victory.
Brady has been terrific against Buffalo over the years - in 13 games played during "the streak," he's thrown for 3,190 yards, 34 touchdowns and six interceptions. New England's rushing offense has been nearly as impressive during their 15-game winning streak, however, averaging 145.5 yards on the ground per game and eclipsing 200 yards three times (including twice last season). Buffalo has held the Patriots under 100 rushing yards just four times during the streak.
This season, despite Brady's aerial prowess (940 passing yards in two games), the Pats are still averaging 100 yards on the ground as a team, placing them directly in the middle of the league. Their offense has been Brady's ship for the last decade, but since 2003, they've only ranked outside of the top dozen rushing teams in the league twice, and have cracked the Top 10 three times.
Last year, New England's top two runners, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, ran for 337 yards - at 6.6 yards per carry - and scored three touchdowns in two Patriots wins. Stopping Brady is difficult enough, but the Bills have rarely had success stopping New England's running game this decade, either - and stopping a balanced Brady offense is the most difficult thing to do in the NFL.
On the other side of the field, the Bills currently have the NFL's No. 1-ranked rushing offense, cranking out an absurd 193 rushing yards per game. Those efforts have been paced by NFL rushing leader Fred Jackson, who has rushed for 229 yards and two scores at 6.5 yards per carry this season.
Bill Belichick has long been described in league circles as the type of coach that likes to analyze an opponent, find out what they do best, and take that player away on game days. He's also long had a healthy respect for Jackson's abilities on the field. Right now, the Bills are literally the best - and Jackson is too - at running the football. Ergo, expect Belichick to try to take that away from the Bills tomorrow afternoon.
Ryan Fitzpatrick has been at his best in Buffalo when the running game is clicking and there's balance. That's true of any quarterback, but it's exacerbated a bit for Fitzpatrick, who is largely excellent when the offense is in balance, and largely pedestrian when it isn't. Buffalo will need to score a lot of points in this game, and that will require balance offensively. It's imperative that they continue to run the football effectively in Week 3.