Saturday, October 1, 2016

Bills, Patriots Head Into The Unknown

Let's be honest here.

I've got no frigging idea what's going to happen when Buffalo takes the field in Foxborough on Sunday for what has become, for the most part, an annual humiliation by the New England Patriots.

That's no surprise to anyone familiar with the sort of speculation published by We Want Marangi and its predecessors over the years, or even just last week. But neither do you. And neither does anyone else, with the possible exception of Bill Belichick.

The Bills' offense and defense -- aided and abetted by the decision-making of Rex Ryan and other former and current coaches -- took turns handing over achievable wins against Baltimore and the New York Jets in the season's first two weeks, only to put together a close-to-complete game in mashing Arizona, an NFC finalist a season ago, in Week 3.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have run off three straight wins without Tom Brady, a development that's really only surprising if you haven't been paying much attention through Belichick's reign in New England.

On Friday, Sammy Watkins' absence for this Sunday -- and at least seven more after that -- was assured when the Bills placed him on injured reserve, meaning he has to sit out eight games before becoming eligible to return.

While Watkins' injury leaves Tyrod Taylor without his most threatening target, at least Buffalo knows for sure who will be throwing the ball.

The Patriots know Brady is out, serving the final game of the silliest suspension in NFL history. Backup Jimmy Garoppolo did a reasonable Brady imitation for six quarters before departing with a shoulder injury, while third-stringer Jacoby Brissett handed off and ran efficiently enough for the Patriots to slog the pathetic-when-it-matters Texans, despite breaking a thumb in the process.

Both substitute quarterbacks took snaps this week. Wide receiver Julian Edelman (pictured above), who hasn't played quarterback in a game since college, is the emergency option if one can't go, or keep going.

Under most circumstances, most teams facing an opponent with such disarray at the game's most important position would have to feel pretty good about their chances.

But these are the Bills. And those are the Patriots.

Would it really surprise anyone if Edelman started, if only so Belichick could prove his evil genius in yet another way, and threw for a couple of scores and ran for another in an offense that looks something like this?

Or Garappolo lit Buffalo up for 300 yards, popping his shoulder back into the socket between completions?

Or Brissett, operating with one hand, was still able to successfully transfer the ball about 40 times to LeGarrette Blount, who continued to gash the Bills even though they knew it was coming? Without Brady, these Patriots have simply decided to lead the league in rushing through the first thee games.

Then again, it's altogether possible, given the circumstances, that the Bills could produce that rarest of accomplishments by a Ryan-coached team -- a dominant performance with and without the ball.

A theoretically high-pressure defense like the one Ryan has promised since arriving in Buffalo, but only occasionally delivered, should swarm an inexperienced passer like  Garoppolo or Bissett, and quickly bury a non-quarterback such as Edelman.

New England's run defense ranks in the NFL's Top 10, as it did in 2015, but hasn't been so dominant that new offensive coordinator shouldn't be able to come up with a game plan at least nearly as effective as the one that tore up the Cardinals. A heavy dose of LeSean McCoy seems in order, with some relief from Mike Gillislee. Maybe Lynn can come up with a constructive use for Reggie Bush, who has not touched the ball from scrimmage since three carries in the opener moved the Bills back a total of four yards.

And you would think that, at some point, Taylor has to throw the ball over the middle, maybe even incorporating Charles Clay into the passing game, at long last.

Given the uncertainty for both teams, this one figures to come down to coaching. This does not benefit the Bills.

Oddsmakers seem to agree. Even without knowing who will quarterback the Patriots, or if they'll actually field a quarterback, New England was a consensus 7.5-point favorite at press time.

Playing at home is generally worth about three points, so the people setting the lines see Belichick being worth close to a touchdown, in comparison to Ryan. Which is probably pretty generous to Rex, given their histories. Belichick's Patriots are 11-4 all-time against Ryan-coached teams, with three of the losses coming in Rex's first two seasons with the Jets.

Reverse that trend, and Ryan and the Bills pump new life into a season that looked lost after getting shredded by Ryan Fitzpatrick -- who followed up the game of his life by Fitzing away six interceptions in Kansas City last Sunday -- just 16 days ago.

Lose to a team without a healthy professional quarterback, though, and the future of the team, and its coach, is as uncertain as Sunday's outcome.

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