By: Bob George/BosSports.net
November 13, 2004

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Oh, great. Now Buffalo has a Ben Roethlisberger.

Patriots/Bills
Close-Up
Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Sunday 11/14/04
5:30 PM EST
TV National:
TV Local:
ESPN
WCVB-TV 5
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 206, 931
2004 Team
Records:
Patriots 7-1
Bills 3-5
Latest Line: Patriots by 7
Most of you remember this guy as the talented Miami running back who blew his leg out in a big game against Ohio State a few years back. Or, you may remember him as the most head scratching first round draft pick in recent memory. Whatever road he took to get here today, Willis McGahee has finally arrived as the featured back in a Buffalo Bills backfield which already had one.

While Travis Henry sits and wishes he could be traded, McGahee has become a lucky charm for the rejuvenated Bills. The once-downtrodden 0-4 Bills are now 3-5. Going further, the Bills are 3-0 with McGahee as the starting back.

Granted, McGahee has a little ways to go to match Roethlisberger's start in Pittsburgh. But it does bear some scrutiny from Bill Belichick and his staff. The Patriots, 31-17 winners at Orchard Park six weeks ago, will get their first look at the former Hurricane back this Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. One has to wonder how Belichick will approach McGahee, all the while preparing to befuddle the former Patriot franchise quarterback at the same time.

McGahee has gone from an old (figuratively speaking) paint to a workhorse. He started three of the last four Bills games, all home games against Miami, Arizona and the Jets. McGahee rushed for 111 yards on 26 carries in a 20-13 win against Miami. In a 38-14 win over Arizona, McGahee garnered 102 yards on 30 carries. Then against the Jets, he amassed 132 yards on a whopping 37 carries as the Bills prevailed, 22-17. His carries increased in every start, and it is remarkable that someone as injured as McGahee was two years ago has risen to the level of being able to withstand 37 carries in last week's contest.

His yards per carry aren't real special, which may be a key this Sunday. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry against Miami, but in each of the subsequent two wins he averaged below four yards. By contrast, Corey Dillon is averaging 4.9 yards per carry for the entire season, and on three occasions he averaged over five yards per carry. Dillon is gouging defenses, whereas McGahee is going the short route on lots of carries.

These raw numbers don't tell the whole story in this little 3-1 Bills run over the last four weeks. McGahee may be working his tail off carrying the ball, but a more noble duty he is performing is something not seen since Curtis Martin was a Patriot: Forcing defenses to respect the run and not overplay Drew Bledsoe and the passing game.

When you look at Bledsoe over the same period as McGahee, the numbers are incredibly telling. In the three aforementioned wins, Bledsoe has had passer ratings of 90.2, 100.4 and 88.8, three of his four highest passer-rating totals of the season. In these three wins, Bledsoe has thrown four touchdown passes and zero interceptions, and has been sacked only once.

It was always assumed that, during his days as a Patriot, Bledsoe was a victim of no running game and lousy blocking. He had Martin for three years (1995-1997), and during that period played in five playoff games, winning three and losing two. But during that same period, Martin set a Patriot record for rushing yardage in a season (1,487 yards) in a season (1995) where the Patriots went 6-10. Martin would exceed that yardage total only once afterwards, in 2001 with the Jets. The conclusion here is that Martin, the best running back Bledsoe has ever had behind him in his career, helped the Patriots more than he helped Bledsoe, as his passer rating was abysmal in 1995 (63.7) and good but not fantastic in the Super Bowl season of 1996 (83.7).

Three games aren't really anything to shout about, but it does reveal what Bledsoe is capable of if he has a primo running back. What it may also reveal is the possibility that Belichick may not be able to bamboozle Bledsoe like he often times has done over his career. Then again, if McGahee is only a three-something per carry back, that may not be something that will make Belichick quiver with fear.

Buffalo has a stout defense, but the rap on them is their supposed inability to put points on the board. In these three wins, they have outscored their opponents 80-41. If Buffalo manages to put the clamps on the Patriots and, say, hold them under 20 points, the Bills have a better-than-average chance to win the game. The Patriots will not get anywhere near the get-on-the-bus goof-offs they faced in the season finale last year at Foxborough. Being at home will give the Patriots the edge, but assuming that the Bills will come out and play popgun football is foolish. This game turning into a tight defensive struggle is not at all out of the question.

The best way to induce a few picks out of Bledsoe is to rush him hard up the middle. A few end runs by McGahee could retard an attack like this quick. Any disguised secondary package will mean nothing if McGahee cannot be stopped inside. This is not to condemn the great work of Henry, a solid and dependable soldier for the Bills over the last few years, and one of the most unsung backs in the NFL. But if McGahee is so threatening that he disrupts Belichick's usual game planning against Bledsoe, he has finally justified his high selection in last year's draft.

Now, for something outlandish. What would you think if we told you that the key to a Patriot victory lies in their depleted cornerback situation?

Think for a second. Despite the threat of McGahee in the backfield, what if Bledsoe instead decides to attack Randall Gay, Earthwind Moreland, and his former go-to guy, Troy Brown? What if Bledsoe and/or offensive coordinator Tom Clements look at no Ty Law and no Tyrone Poole and start salivating? One can only hope that this happens, and that Clements or Mike Mularkey didn't watch too much game tape from last week at St. Louis.

Assuming that Mularkey and Clements aren't total idiots, the Patriot cornerbacks are decidedly easy marks. But after the great shutdown job the Patriots did against the Rams last week, Mularkey and Clements would be ill advised to get away from using McGahee to set up the pass in favor of trying to torch Gay and Moreland. It should be mentioned that Asante Samuel, who started last week against the Rams but was injured early in the game, is listed as probable for Sunday's game against the Bills and will likely reclaim a starting position in favor of Moreland.

If Belichick senses this happening, he and Romeo Crennel will consider it an early Thanksgiving in Foxborough. In reality, the Patriots likely have enough material to keep McGahee in check and merely not allow Bledsoe to beat them through the air. It may not be a total embarrassment, but the Patriots don't really have anything they cannot deal with. But Buffalo's renaissance with McGahee cannot be ignored, along with the benefits Bledsoe has seen along the way.

McGahee and Bledsoe. Drew may wish he were ten years younger.


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