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Poise, Discipline Put To Test In Buffalo

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
December 15, 2001 at 8:05 am ET

🕑 Read Time: 5 minutes

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – 11-5 is still but a dream.

So is 10-6, for that matter.

Bill Belichick was never more right when, during a recent press conference, he stepped up to the mike and proclaimed that his team “hasn’t done anything yet”. Patriot Nation is all ga-ga over a playoff berth that hasn’t even been clinched yet, far from it. Some really optimistic Patriot fans think the team can win the division, which can be done, but which is in the all-important “future tense” versus the “present tense”.

Give the team, its coach, and its fan base credit. Nobody we’ve heard who claims a sound mind is taking the 2-10 Buffalo Bills lightly. The Patriots head into western New York State this weekend for their penultimate division game. You look at how the Bills have struggled all year long, their record, who they don’t have playing, and are tempted to think, “easy win”. Fortunately, the temptation doesn’t last long if you have a goodly amount of common sense.

Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium
Orchard Park, N.Y.
When: Sunday 12/16/01
1:00 PM EST
Television: WBZ Channel 4 in Boston
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 711, 940
Team Records: Patriots 8-5
Bills 2-10
Latest Line: Patriots by 4

In 1996, Bill Parcells made a big deal out of his future team. He made everyone believe that the eventual 1-15 Jets were a tough team. Belichick is doing much the same with these lowly Bills, and good for him.

If the Patriots take these Bills lightly, their promising season will go up in flames.

The Patriots right now are on target for an 11-5 season if they win out. They are faced with three winnable games left on their schedule. They have Buffalo this weekend, then they come home to face off against Miami, and after a bye week, head to Carolina to finish the season against a pitiful Panther squad who came up one point short here in Buffalo last weekend. Everyone out there hopes that the Miami game will decide the division.

For that to happen, the Patriots need a huge assist from the San Francisco 49ers. They host Miami this weekend at 3Com Park. If the Dolphins win, they likely finish the season at 12-4 and win the AFC East. But if San Francisco wins, the Dolphins would likely finish at 11-5. And if the Patriots can come home with that record too, the Patriots win the tiebreaker over Miami based on a better division record.

But for that to happen, it has to begin with a win here at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

And though on paper it is a clear mismatch in favor of the Patriots, this is by no means a cupcake game for the visitors. The teams have played each other very tight over the last few years, and their earlier meeting this year in Foxborough was a ten-point Patriot win that wasn’t assured until the very end.

Alex Van Pelt will get the nod at quarterback. Rob Johnson is out thanks to Terrell Buckley. With their talented trio of receivers (Eric Moulds, Peerless Price, Jay Riemersma), the Patriot secondary and linebackers figure to have a busy afternoon. Every one of these receivers is a legitimate threat and a quality player. Add the threat of Larry Centers, the best receiving back in NFL history, and the Patriots will have their passing defense put to a real test.

With both starting Bills tackles out with injuries, look for the Patriots to blitz like crazy from the ends. The key players to keep your eye on here would be Roman Phifer, Mike Vrabel (you might add Tedi Bruschi to this mix if Ted Johnson sees a good deal of action at MLB), Anthony Pleasant and Bobby Hamilton (Willie McGinest will be inactive on Sunday). Lawyer Milloy may be more needed in pass coverage, especially with the double threat of Price and Moulds. But the Patriots should be able to get good pressure on Van Pelt from the outsides. They should do it, and often.

If the Patriots can contain the Bills’ running attack (Travis Henry, Shawn Bryson, Sammy Morris), Belichick might want to go to more of a nickel package for a longer period of time for more help in downfield coverage unless it curtails blitz packages. Without Antowain Smith, the Bills’ running threat is lessened, but not totally dead. This is an area that the Patriots can at least consider if Van Pelt is finding receivers but running backs aren’t doing much.

Smith bears no grudge against his old team, and early weather reports do not foretell of frigid weather for Sunday. Nevertheless, the Patriots should absolutely try and get Smith at least 25 carries. Defensive ends Aaron Schobel and Phil Hansen will be gunning for Tom Brady (Schobel had two sacks in the previous meeting, albeit against Grant Williams and not Matt Light), so running Smith up the middle is a good plan.

Terry Glenn looks like he is a go for Sunday. Free from home fans who intend on booing him every time he touches the ball, Glenn will help the big picture out greatly if he can stretch the field and get receiving room for Troy Brown and David Patten. It can also force the Bills to ease up on run defense, thereby allowing Smith to have a huge day. If Smith can get 100-plus yards, the Patriots likely win unless the defense cannot deal with all those great Bills receivers.

Simply put, the Patriots can win, period, if they concentrate solely on who they are playing at that moment on Sunday. They cannot think about their next opponent, or how their next opponent will fare later that afternoon out at the former ‘Stick.

Belichick is sparing no expense at getting this point across to the players. But unlike the Pete Carroll Era, the Patriots aren’t likely to take Buffalo lightly. They could actually come out and play a flat “C” game if they tighten up and get nervous.

And everyone is still waiting for that game where Brady totally falls apart and shows his true rookie colors (he really isn’t a “rookie”, but he might as well be). If Brady cannot shake off an early mistake like he did against Cleveland, or a lousy first half like he did against the Jets, the Patriots have little chance to win. Thus far, Brady has shown a slight propensity for rookie boo-boos, but has yet to display any less poise that you might expect from the most seasoned veterans.

This is the proverbial “trap game”. The Bills know the Patriots and they play them tough. Open your cliché book to page 275 and repeat after me: Against a division rival, throw the record books out the window. The Bills might just as well be 10-2.

This is great. The more everyone respects and fears the Buffalo Bills, the better off the Patriots will be. Talk to the Patriot players, and nobody looks or feels smug. Heck, if they did, let Bryan Cox handle it.

So, keep Miami in the back of your mind. They come on after the Patriots. Go Niners. Rehearse those two words.

But the Patriots had better take care of business before you go out and invest in a Jeff Garcia jersey. What Miami does won’t matter if the Patriots don’t take care of business in Orchard Park on Sunday.

Brady’s Numbers Good, But Pro Bowl Worthy?

About Bob George

Covering Boston Sports since 1997. Native of Worcester, Mass. Attended UMass and Univ of Michigan. Lives in California. Just recently retired after 40 years of public school teaching. Podcasts on YouTube at @thepic4139

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