Game Preview: Patriots vs Bills
Rob Ninkovich rushes Ryan Fitzpatrick (Getty)
Rob Ninkovich rushes Ryan Fitzpatrick (Getty)
PatriotsInsider.com
Posted Dec 30, 2011


WEEK 17: Buffalo Bills (6-9) at New England Patriots (12-3). Game preview, news, notes scouting reports and more

Buffalo Bills (6-9) at New England Patriots (13-3)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/1/12
VENUE: GIllette Stadium
SURFACE: Field Turf
LOCATION: Foxboro, Mass  (map)
WEATHER: current forecast (45', mostly sunny, 11mph wind, 10% chance of rain)

TV: CBS, Don Criqui, Randy Cross

PREDICTION: Patriots 32-28

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bills rallied from a 21-0 deficit to shock the Patriots, 34-31, at home in Week 3. But Buffalo's offense lacks that level of firepower with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing 13 touchdowns vs. 16 interceptions since that day. RB C.J. Spiller is starting to come into his own, and is a versatile threat as a runner and receiver that coach Chan Gailey needs to utilize to help the Bills sustain drives. The defense isn't likely to pick Tom Brady off four times again, and he still threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting. WR Wes Welker also caught 16 passes and the Bills will struggle to get off the field on third down.

FAST FACTS: Buffalo hasn't swept the season series since 1999. ... The Patriots have won the past 10 meetings at home.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Bills
   Wide receiver Steve Johnson, the club's No. 1 receiver with 72 catches for 964 yards and six touchdowns, could play his last game in a Bills uniform Sunday when the team finishes its season at New England.
   Johnson, a seventh-round draft pick in 2008, is a free agent. He had been in contract talks with the front office but those ended weeks ago. Johnson, however, has a gut feeling he'll be back in Buffalo.
   "Walking off the field, looking around and looking at the crowd was kind of crazy because it seemed like four years went by pretty fast for me, playing really only two years of it," said Johnson of what raced through his mind as he walked off the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium after Buffalo's 40-14 victory over Denver. "But ... I don't think I'll be somewhere else next year. I'm still pretty sure that I'll be here next year."
   Johnson had no definitive news that he would in fact re-sign with the Bills. He is just speculating that coach Chan Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix would want him back to keep some continuity intact. As a No. 1 receiver, Johnson's market value is in the $8 million-a-year range.
   "I just feel like being here four years and with the coaches that I have here and with the players, with Fitz (quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick) signing his deal you would think you would like to have the one-two punch. When Fitz came on, I came on so you would think they would keep us together."
   As for Sunday's game against New England, Johnson is looking for a big finish that would boost his leverage as a free agent. The Bills, who defeated the Patriots and Tom Brady 34-31 back on Sept. 25, can sweep the season series for the first time since 1999.
   "It's something to play for besides us being professionals and going out to win either way. The way the season has gone and whether it's good or it's bad it's still another opportunity to show the world that you're NFL players," Johnson said.

Patriots
   Sticking to the company line they've toed throughout Bill Belichick's tenure in New England, the Patriots refuse to acknowledge the upcoming playoffs, including where they stand among their conference rivals and who they might play two weeks from now in their postseason opener.
   "I (couldn't) care less who we play," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "The only thing for sure now is that we have one game in the regular season left and one playoff game right now. Where it is, who knows?
   "One, two seed -- who knows? (I) really don't care. Our main goal is playing good football, (and) being able to play good football. You can't compare any other season to this, because each one is different. You have different players, you have different coaches, and you have different teams in the playoffs, so you really can't compare."
   To some extent, Wilfork is right; you can't compare 2011 to any other season in Patriots' history, not even last year when they entered the postseason as the No. 1 seed in the AFC despite question marks on defense and promptly got bounced at home by the Jets in the divisional playoffs.
   The point is, despite losing their last two playoff games at home (including two years ago against Baltimore), the Patriots still want every advantage they can get, including home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which they can wrap up Sunday with a win over Buffalo.
   Being the No. 1 seed doesn't guarantee a particular opponent, but it does mean that for at least one round they can avoid whoever finishes with the No. 2 seed, which will either be Baltimore or Pittsburgh.
   The Ravens have already proven they can win a playoff game in Foxboro, as evidenced by their 33-14 wild-card victory in 2009, and the Steelers have already beaten New England this season, albeit in Pittsburgh. The only way that scenario could repeat itself in the playoffs is if the Patriots lose Sunday, Pittsburgh beats Cleveland to earn the No. 1 seed via tiebreaker, and both the Patriots and Steelers advance to the AFC title game, which, under that scenario, would be held at Heinz Field.
   The Patriots would never admit this publicly, but there's no doubt they'd rather host a potential playoff showdown against the Steelers rather than go back to Pittsburgh, where they were dominated on both sides of the ball in a 25-17 loss on Oct. 30.
   The team spokesmen, such as Wilfork, will say all the right things leading up to Sunday, but there's no denying the importance of obtaining the No. 1 seed, if for nothing else than to avoid the teams New England doesn't match up well against for at least one round.
   "The one thing we can do is play better, coach better, (and) just do the little things right," Wilfork said. "That's what we can control."

PERSONNEL NEWS

Bills
   --LB Nick Barnett will wrap up a very productive season on Sunday at New England. The Green Bay free agent, who replaced Paul Posluszny (Jacksonville) in Buffalo's lineup, has a team-leading 119 tackles, 3.0 sacks, two interceptions, three pass breakups and one forced fumble.
   --CB Justin Rogers has seized the team's kickoff return job heading into 2012. The rookie has averaged 30.1 yards on 11 attempts, nearly 12 more yards per return than Brad Smith, who last year averaged 28.6 for the New York Jets.
   --RB Johnny White, the team's backup ball carrier, is practicing fully after a concussion. He has five special teams hits.
   --WR/QB Brad Smith is nursing a hamstring injury. He's questionable for Sunday's game at New England. Smith has 23 catches.
   --C Colin Brown will be the Bills' third starting center this season Sunday at New England. He replaces Kraig Urbik (knee), who had replaced Eric Wood (knee).

Patriots
   --QB Tom Brady participated in a limited portion of Thursday's practice due to a left shoulder injury, but should be ready for Sunday's game. Brady underwent X-rays Wednesday, but everything appears to be fine heading into this weekend.
   --WR Wes Welker has been practicing on a limited basis this week due to a lingering knee injury, but he hasn't missed any game time in recent weeks and will likely be ready for Sunday.
   --OT Matt Light, who was a late scratch last weekend due to an ankle injury, has practiced on a limited basis this week and could be ready to return to the lineup Sunday.
   --OG Logan Mankins did not practice Thursday due to a knee injury sustained last weekend and will likely miss Sunday's regular-season finale.
   --OT Sebastian Vollmer sat out practice Thursday due to knee and back injuries and will likely miss Sunday's game with the hope that he can be ready for the playoffs in two weeks.

MORE:


OTHER GAMES:

Sunday
Detroit Lions (10-5) at Green Bay Packers (14-1)
Indianapolis Colts (2-13) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) at Atlanta Falcons (9-6)
New York Jets (8-7) at Miami Dolphins (5-10)
Chicago Bears (7-8) at Minnesota Vikings (3-12)
Washington Redskins (5-10) at Philadelphia Eagles (7-8)
Carolina Panthers (6-9) at New Orleans Saints (12-3)
San Francisco 49ers (12-3) at St. Louis Rams (2-13)
Tennessee Titans (8-7) at Houston Texans (10-5)
Buffalo Bills (6-9) at New England Patriots (13-3)
Baltimore Ravens (11-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)
Seattle Seahawks (7-8) at Arizona Cardinals (7-8)
Kansas City Chiefs (6-9) at Denver Broncos (8-7)
San Diego Chargers (7-8) at Oakland Raiders (8-7)
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) at Cleveland Browns (4-11)
Dallas Cowboys (8-7) at New York Giants (8-7)


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