Opportunities like this don't come around very often. The Buffalo Bills, winners of four straight, will be placed next to the ultimate measuring stick tomorrow night when they take on the undefeated, division-dwelling, and historically dominating New England Patriots. Despite a bleak outlook for the young Bills, especially given the probable loss of RB Marshawn Lynch, this steadfastly remains an opportunity for Buffalo. They're getting the Patriots exactly where they want them - prime time in front what is sure to be a raucous Ralph Wilson Stadium crowd.
In this case, the Bills are playing the "wounded animal" role, in which they're not close to full strength but still scary as hell in terms of their scrappiness and home-field advantage. This team has what it takes to, at a very minimum, lay the lumber the Pats and keep this game entertaining. Here's how the wounded animal can do more and win the game:
Offense: It's On You, J.P.
Make no mistake about it: with Lynch out, the only way the Bills are going to be able to score enough to stay with the Patriots is to make plays through the air. Oh, the Bills will run, to be sure - but Anthony Thomas' involvement (as well as Dwayne Wright's and possibly Fred Jackson's) will purely be a function of eating clock and keeping New England's defense honest. But the potential outcome of this game rests largely on the right shoulder of starting quarterback J.P. Losman.
Losman's list of musts in this game is tri-fold: don't turn the ball over, avoid three-and-outs, and score touchdowns down close. Sounds simple, but it's not going to be. Buffalo's offense must avoid giving Tom Brady any freebies, and that includes three-and-outs, which are essentially equivalent to turnovers for the Patriots. Sustaining drives will be important, as well - and when the Bills get a drive that takes them deep into Pats territory, they have to put it in the paint. If that doesn't happen, the game will get out of control quickly.
Players to Watch: QB J.P. Losman, WR Josh Reed, TE Robert Royal
Defense: Hang On Tight
That isn't a plea to hang in there as the Pats score at will - I literally mean hang on tight, as in tackle. The Pats' skill position players are guys who thrive on making plays after they get the ball in their hands - and they do it well, which is why Brady is having such a successful year. Players of particular importance to tackle: WR Wes Welker and RB Laurence Maroney. We could talk about Randy Moss, but he's going to do what he's going to do. If Welker and Maroney both have big days, however, it means the Pats are controlling the flow of the game and thus the scoreboard. If Buffalo can wrap them up early, however, they have a chance to get off the field early on a few possessions.
We can spout off normal things like "pressure Brady", "double Moss", etc., but it's not going to help the team win this game. They just, plain and simple, have to make plays. "Plays" can range from touchdowns to tipped passes, but they need to be there. You can't just wrap up and hope for the best - in order to allow Buffalo to control the game, the defense needs to be a catalyst. Perry Fewell will have his unit ready, but will it be enough?
Players to Watch: DT John McCargo, LB Angelo Crowell, CB Jabari Greer
Special Teams: Swing the Momentum
When the Bills nearly upset the Dallas Cowboys on a fateful Monday Night in October, it was Buffalo's special teams that played a large part in keeping the Bills alive during that contest. Terrence McGee's kick return was the obvious big play, but Brian Moorman also had a solid night punting the ball, and Buffalo's coverage was superb. Yet it was a recovered onside kick by the Cowboys that ultimately led to the Bills' downfall. The Bills need to play as well on special teams as they did against Dallas - just for a full 60 minutes this time.
For what it's worth, I don't expect to see a lot of Terrence McGee and especially Roscoe Parrish in this one. Bill Belichick is far from an idiot - he's going to make Buffalo's offense beat him without the help of the league's elite return tandem. Look for the Pats to pooch their kickoffs to Buffalo's up men, and for any (few and far between) Patriots punts to sail safely out of bounds. If (and it's a likely if) that happens, the Bills will need to find alternate means to making plays on this unit.
Players to Watch: CB Ashton Youboty, S John Wendling, LB Coy Wire