AFC East: New England Patriots

McDaniels says Gray will get more chances

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
When New England Patriots running back Jonas Gray was promoted from the practice squad prior to Thursday night's 27-25 win against the Jets, it was a move to find answers after Stevan Ridley's season-ending knee injury. Gray earned the opportunity with his hard work and consistent presence on the scout teams during practice.

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels attested to Gray's work ethic and desire to be a team contributor.

[+] EnlargeJonas Gray
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsPatriots rookie Jonas Gray (No. 35) saw his first NFL action of the season in Week 7 against the Jets, rushing for 12 yards on three attempts.
"Jonas works really hard," McDaniels said. "He's been well prepared and done a great job for us on the scout teams here. And certainly made the most of his opportunities in the preseason and just continues to prepare like he is playing each week."

Gray said earlier in the week, when asked about the potential of being called up from the practice squad, that he prepares every week like he is playing and that the Patriots' coaching staff doesn't treat practice squad players any differently from roster players.

In his first career NFL game, Gray had three carries for 12 yards -- a modest performance. But, he made his impact in blitz pickups and proved he could be a consistent back within the limited work he had.

"He had an opportunity to come up last week and help and I thought he did a good job in his role," McDaniels said. "Didn't play -- I think he played a total of 11 plays, if I am correct on it -- but, again, did a great job of running hard, runs behind his pads, stays low, not the easiest guy in the world to bring down because he's a thick guy with the ball."

At 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, Gray packs a lot of power into his running and has the confidence to land blocks on safeties, linebackers and defensive linemen because he has the size to do so.

Based on Gray receiving the second-most snaps among Patriots running backs on Thursday night with 12 of 60 -- behind Shane Vereen's 48 snaps and trumping Brandon Bolden's one offensive snap -- Gray could see more action and become the secondary back in the Patriots' offense.

McDaniels liked Gray's performance throughout the offseason and in his first NFL game and is looking forward to working with his hard-working running back.

"He stepped in there and picked up the blitz a couple of times the other night," McDaniels said. "So just a young guy that is eager to do whatever is asked of him and we will continue to work with him and see if we can't continue to build on what we did the other night with him."
Each week during the season, the positional groupings the New England Patriots utilize on offense are charted. Sometimes these groupings can take us deeper inside the game to get a feel for how coaches view personnel and favorable matchups -- both with their own team and the opposition.

With the Patriots not playing this weekend, it provides a chance to step back and look at the seven-game snapshot (split in two categories between three-receiver groupings or fewer):

3-WR/1-TE/1-RB -- 188 of 494 (38.0 percent)
3-WR/2-RB -- 12 of 494 (2.4 percent)
3-WR/1-FB/1-RB -- 12 of 494 (2.4 percent)
Total: 212 of 494 (42.9 percent)

2-WR/2-TE/1-RB -- 171 of 494 (34.6 percent)
2-WR/1-TE/1-FB/1-RB -- 62 of 494 (12.5 percent)
1-WR/2-TE/1-FB/1-RB -- 30 of 494 (6.1 percent)
1-WR/3-TE/1-RB -- 9 of 494 (1.8 percent)
3-TE/1-FB/1-RB -- 6 of 494 (1.2 percent)
2-WR/1-TE/2-RB -- 4 of 494 (0.8 percent)
Total: 282 of 494 (57.0 percent)

Some thoughts on these groupings that stand out when looking at how they've evolved over the course of the season:

1. As Rob Gronkowski's playing time has increased upon his return from a torn right ACL, the Patriots have trended more toward multiple-tight-end groupings, which makes sense. Specifically, the Patriots seem to have found something that works for them -- going empty with the 2-WR/2-TE/1-RB grouping with Gronkowski and Tim Wright at tight end, which in a lot of ways could be viewed as a 3-WR package of sorts because of Wright's presence as more of a pass-catching tight end.

2. The 1-WR/3-TE/1-RB run-based package was introduced for the first time against the Bengals (three snaps) Oct. 5 and then used again against the Bills the following week (six snaps), with the Patriots having nice success throwing out of it despite being a run-based look. Again, another example of how the usage of tight ends has changed a bit in recent weeks, which is probably tied to Gronkowski's graduation to nearly full-time action and the acclimation process of Wright (acquired from Tampa Bay Aug. 26) gaining momentum with more time.

3. With a lower percentage of three-receiver packages, it has reduced the playing-time totals for pure slot receiver Danny Amendola. But as we saw Thursday, he's still contributing in that niche role (as well as a kickoff returner).

4. One could also draw the conclusion that inconsistent play along the offensive line has contributed to fewer three-receiver packages. By playing with a second or third tight end instead of a second or third receiver, the Patriots are devoting more resources to the line of scrimmage. Everything starts up front.

5. Tom Brady said a big part of early-season action is finding out what an offense can hang its hat on, and after the Sept. 29 game against the Chiefs, the idea of an offensive "identity crisis" was detailed at this address. What has stood out since that time is that the Patriots are using their tight ends more, but at the same time opening things up a bit and giving Brady a chance to attack down the field. It has been an interesting contrast, aided by some improvement in pass protection and, of course, Gronkowski's return to close to top form.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Former New York Jets coach Bill Parcells shot down a report that said a Jets scout implored him to pick Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft.

"I have no, absolutely no recollection of that," Parcells said Thursday during an appearance on "The Michael Kay Show" on ESPN New York 98.7 FM. "You know, some of these scouts ... now that Brady has been a monumental success, they kind of re-visit their opinion. Don't forget, 198 teams passed him."

Brady was drafted 199th by the New England Patriots, and you know the rest. The New York Daily News, citing an unnamed source, said Jets area scout Jesse Kaye lobbied Parcells in the draft room to select Brady with the 179th pick.

The Jets, who had picked quarterback Chad Pennington in the first round, ended up choosing defensive back Tony Scott at No. 179. He never amounted to anything in the NFL.

Parcells said he had a "high regard" for Kaye, a longtime scout, but he emphatically denied the Brady scenario.

"I don't ever remember hearing his name from anyone in the Jets organization," he said. "I don't know who that was that said it, but I can tell you no one ever told me to draft Tom Brady."

Here's what I think happened:

It's commonplace in the draft room for area scouts to push players from their region. Kaye scouted the Midwest and had seen Brady at Michigan, so he probably gave a positive scouting report. But to say he made a passionate plea for Brady ... I'm not sure. I have to think Parcells would've remembered that. Then again, it doesn't help his legacy to admit he passed on Brady.

The Jets already had Pennington, Vinny Testaverde and Ray Lucas, so they weren't looking for another quarterback.

There was one heated draft-room debate that year, and it involved the decision to pick wide receiver Laveranues Coles in the third round. Parcells was skeptical because of Coles' off-the-field troubles, but he was talked into it -- and it turned out to be a good selection.

Tom Brady on injuries: 'Our job to carry on'

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With a short week of preparations for Thursday night’s game against the New York Jets, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said he hasn’t had much time to think about the loss of linebacker Jerod Mayo and running back Stevan Ridley to season-ending injuries.

“Yesterday just flies by and you are trying to get so much done and caught up,” Brady said. “We love those guys that have worked so hard to be selfless and great teammates -- Jerod and Stevan are. It’s unfortunate to see them go down because they do so much.

“But it’s our job to carry on, and certainly we’ve done it in the past, we are going to need to do it again. There are definitely challenges every year, injuries are always one of them. You hate to see guys that mean so much to your team go down. We have to keep fighting.”

Brady acknowledged that Mayo and Ridley are invaluable players who had major roles on the team not just as players but as leaders.

“It’s hard to replace. There’s no swaps,” Brady said. “There’s no, let’s just move that guy into that role because he plays like Jerod. Guys like Jerod and Stevan play such a big role, so I think the rest of the group has to pick it up and understand the things that they brought to the table that they continue to bring and everyone just has to do more.”

With Ridley out, the Patriots have Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, rookie James White and practice squad member Jonas Gray as potential backs to fill the void.

“Well, [Bolden and Gray] are big, physical runners,” Brady said. “Some explosiveness to them. I would say I’m confident in all those guys that are out there. Those guys are working hard. That’s why they are here, because coach feels like they can contribute. All those guys, whether they have been on the practice squad at some point, there is going to be an opportunity. That’s just the way football is.

“You start with a certain number of players at the beginning of the year, and as the year goes on every week teams are hurt with injuries and another guy gets called up, but all the work done in practice has hopefully prepared you. You sit in all the same meetings that the other guys sit in, getting not quite as many reps, but you are being coached the same way.”

Brady offered a line about making the most of opportunities when a player goes down with an injury -- a move that jump-started his own pro career.

“When you get your opportunity, that’s what you have to take advantage of,” Brady said. “You don’t know how many opportunities you are going to get in the NFL, and when you get your one, you better be ready to take advantage of it.”

Pats recognize heavier load without Mayo

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The consensus from players in the New England Patriots locker room on Monday echoed their head coach's words from that morning -- there is no replacing linebacker Jerod Mayo with one player.

However, the show will still go on Thursday night as the Patriots get ready to host the New York Jets on a shortened schedule without their defensive signal-caller, as Mayo was officially ruled out in Monday's practice report and is expected to miss significant time moving forward.

To put it simply, the entire team will be counted upon to fill the void.

"Everyone has to step up if Mayo can't go," safety Devin McCourty said. "That just is what it is. One guy is not going to do what Mayo's done the last seven years. ... You just can't pick one guy to go out there and do that."

Mayo was carted off the field with a right knee injury in the second quarter of Sunday's win against the Bills and was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Monday. The results have not yet been released.

Playing without Mayo is familiar territory for the Patriots, seeing as they lost him for the season to a torn pectoral muscle in Week 6 last year.

"I think we're like every other team," said McCourty. "Each year you come in and, in this sport, you're most likely going to deal with injuries. You just can't prevent it."

Special-teams captain Matthew Slater particularly took the loss of Mayo hard. The two broke into the league together as rookies with the Patriots in 2008.

"It was a blow. You can't try to pretend like it's just one of those things that you can move on from because you feel for a guy like Jerod," Slater said. "To see him go down, I know it took a toll on me. But we will do the best we can to bounce back.

"A lot of guys have to step up because a guy like that is hard to replace," Slater added. "Hopefully we can play well for him the rest of the year. There is no replacing that guy with one guy, it's going to take a lot of guys to step up."

The Patriots will also be without the services of running back Stevan Ridley on Thursday, as he too was ruled out of the game on Monday's practice report with a knee injury. While most of the focus Monday was on Mayo, Slater made sure to mention that losing Ridley will also be a big blow to the team.

"Stevan put a lot of work in this offseason preparing himself and making himself better. He was doing a good job for us. We asked a lot of him and he gave us a lot," Slater said. "That's another situation you just hate to see. Sometimes the cruel effects of this game -- injuries -- it's definitely heartbreaking to see these guys go down. Again, we have to do as good a job as we can just trying to move on and continue to play well."
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- In April, Buffalo Bills linebacker Brandon Spikes took to Twitter saying it would be "like Christmas" to beat the New England Patriots, his former team, twice this season.

Spikes and the Bills lost their first tilt with the Patriots, 37-22, on Sunday, leading to Spikes lamenting his offseason prediction in the locker room Monday.

"I think I talked a lot of trash in the offseason and we weren't able to back it up. That's what hurts me the most," Spikes said. "I pride myself on being a man of my word and it just let the city down. It's just unfortunate."

Spikes was noticeably hobbled Monday as he continues to deal with a rib injury. He played 44 snaps in Sunday's loss to the Patriots, tallying eight tackles.

"We worked so hard in OTAs, the offseason, training camp, just for this game. It was disappointing. Just come out and trip it off like that. They played well. I'll give my hats off to them," he said. "[Tom] Brady came out and -- it don't surprise me. He's a competitor. He's always looking to get better.

"With that guy being in this conference, he's the guy you gotta beat. It's that simple. We all know that."
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- New England Patriots wide receiver Brian Tyms played only eight snaps in Sunday's 37-22 victory against the Buffalo Bills, but all it took was one to make his presence felt.

Tyms' 43-yard touchdown catch on a long bomb from quarterback Tom Brady early in the third quarter was one of the plays of the game. The Patriots' deep passing game had basically been non-existent this season up to that point.

"Brian found a way to kind of slither his way through there and get behind him, and I threw it up and gave him a chance to make the play," Brady recalled. "Like he has continued to do, he goes up and makes them. That was a big play for our team."

Tyms was matched up against cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

"Gilmore is really good. I knew regardless if I ran past him, he had make-up speed so I have to attack the ball," he said. "That's just my M.O. I always try to attack the ball. I don't like to let the ball come to me. There are a lot of good players in this league that can make a play. I wanted the ball more."

Tyms made his mark in the preseason, showing a knack for coming down with the deep ball while playing mostly with backup Jimmy Garoppolo.

"I've seen him do that several times this year in the preseason and it was good to see it today," coach Bill Belichick said. "Nice job by Tom creating the coverage -- low safety there -- and put it up there and give Tyms the chance for the ball and he made the play."

Jerod Mayo injury dampens Patriots' spirits

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
The New England Patriots are sitting atop the AFC East after their 37-22 win over the Buffalo Bills, but there was a somber feeling after the game as the team saw one of its leaders, linebacker Jerod Mayo, carted off the field with a knee injury.

“I’m still a bit bittersweet with Jerod going down,” coach Bill Belichick told reporters in Buffalo. “So we hope he’s OK.

“We will just go forward this week and see what we think the best thing to do is.”

Mayo appeared to twist his knee on a tackle in the second quarter. He was seen after the game using crutches and had a compression sleeve over his right knee. Mayo suffered a season-ending torn pectoral injury in 2013 during Week 6.

Team captain and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who also suffered a season-ending injury in 2013, knows what it’s like to lose a key player.

“It’s always tough when you lose a guy like that,” Wilfork said. “Don’t know exactly what it is, I just talked with him for a little bit at halftime and got back to making adjustments. Haven’t really spoken to him. But anybody of that caliber means so much to this team on and off the field, their character and all. That’s what it’s all about -- who he is as a person first and foremost.

“And being a great leader and contributor to the team, you lose some value there. I’m pretty sure I’ll talk to him on the way home and see how he is feeling and stuff like that. But we are going to have to rally around one another.”

Wilfork and Mayo have a close relationship, and Wilfork had a somber tone when discussing Mayo’s injury.

“It does [cut a little deeper] because we are so close; it’s almost like we are brothers,” Wilfork said. “Our wives, our kids, we both spend a lot of time together off the field. So it kind of means something a little different to me just because of the personal relationship I have with him and him being a leader of the defense.

“It’s tough to lose somebody like that, but I’m pretty sure this team will rally around him. One thing he said going off the field was ‘finish the job for us,’ and I think we did a good job of rallying around one another. [We] played this game for him in the second half. It means a lot to us, what he brings to this team not only on the field, but off the field also.”

Quarterback Tom Brady added to Wilfork’s mantra that it’s time for teammates to rally around each other when a player such as Mayo goes down.

“I think you have to rely on all of the guys that you have in the locker room you have confidence in,” Brady said. “You build your trust in each other by going to practice and when you lose someone -- like I said, every team loses certain players every year -- it’s hard to do. But guys have to rally around the guy who steps in there and try to do a great job.”

Brady choked up a little when asked about Mayo’s injury as he took a long pause before saying, “It’s unfortunate.”

“Guys like that -- Jerod, we lost Vince last year, we lost a lot of really key, important players -- you just have to keep fighting on and there’s a lot of football to play. Those guys have played great football for us and they give everything they can to our team, so it’s tough when you lose them.”

Ups and downs for the Patriots

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- At an initial glance, and without the benefit of film review, a look at which New England Patriots players are "up" and "down" from Sunday's 37-22 win over the Buffalo Bills:

Tom Brady -- Quarterback was on his game, making some of the best deep-ball throws he's delivered in recent memory.

Jamie Collins -- Linebacker had an interception and then took over the play-calling duties for the defense after Jerod Mayo was lost to a knee injury.

Julian Edelman -- Receiver always comes to play, as he made some big plays early to get the offense going.

Chandler Jones -- When the Patriots could have been down after Mayo's knee injury, he delivered a strip sack that helped the Patriots stay in control.

Stephen Gostkowski -- While the kicker missed his first attempt of the season, which could have been the result of a low snap that affected the overall operation, he hit from 53 yards at the end of the second quarter and continues to be a steadying presence as the Patriots played tight on special teams.

Rob Ninkovich -- Defensive end played every snap and collected three sacks. He's the definition of a pure football player.

Darrelle Revis -- Mostly covering rookie receiver Sammy Watkins, he gave the rookie an introduction to Revis Island.

Brian Tyms -- Receiver delivered with a highlight catch on his 43-yard third-quarter touchdown.

Danny Aiken -- Snapper delivered low on a missed field goal attempt in the first half.

Alfonzo Dennard -- Cornerback was closest in coverage on a Bills touchdown, was beaten deep and also picked up a penalty.

Jordan Devey -- Stepping in for injured left guard Dan Connolly, he was penalized for holding to negate a Rob Gronkowski touchdown.

Duron Harmon -- Two penalties -- one on defense, one on special teams, the latter of which had the Patriots pinned back after the Bills scored to close to 30-22.

Anyone covering Scott Chandler -- The Bills tight end had a big day.

Jonathan Kraft explains cross-flex of Patriots-Bills

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
Some have asked why a New England Patriots-Buffalo Bills game would be on Fox, not CBS. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft explained on 98.5 The Sports Hub the new television programming policy called cross-flex.

"We started this season with something called cross-flex. We've always had that Sunday night flex where you could flex a game in or out in the back half of the season. And starting this season after Week 5, we did something where on a weekend like this, where CBS decides a couple weeks ago what looks like the big games. And in this case you had Denver and the Jets, and you are deciding when the Jets are 1-1 and Denver is Denver, you have Pittsburgh and Cleveland which is always a marquee divisional matchup, so a Bills-Patriots game that didn't look that exciting for the network up against other stuff, we were only scheduled to go to like five or six percent of the country.

"Fox had a much lighter slate at 1 o'clock today -- it's their doubleheader weekend, they have a bunch of games late. So they were willing, if they could take this game to clear it to something like 20 percent of the country, that way two teams that are 3-2 and battling for first place don't get stuck just basically going to Buffalo and the New England markets. Now it will go to a larger portion of the country. Hopefully NFL fans in general will get to choose from the most interesting games possible. And that was the idea behind flexing across networks. And so we have the honor of being the first one."

Bryan Stork's absence doesn't bode well for Patriots on Sunday

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rookie center Bryan Stork (head) was absent from the start of the New England Patriots' practice on Friday.

Stork, who has assumed his role the team’s starting center, was listed as a limited participant on Wednesday’s injury report with a head injury.

Stork has held his own on the Patriots’ offensive line and his absence on Friday is not a good sign for his availability on Sunday against the Bills. If Stork cannot play, the Patriots could go with an interior offensive line of Ryan Wendell at left guard, Dan Connolly at center and either Jordan Devey or Josh Kline at right guard. Another potential configuration could be Connolly at left guard, Wendell at center and Marcus Cannon at right guard.

Stork’s injury could force the Patriots to shuffle around the offensive line just one week after a strong performance against Cincinnati in which it appeared continuity was finally established.

Other players absent from practice include rookie offensive lineman Cameron Fleming (finger), core special-teamer Nate Ebner (finger), cornerback Brandon Browner (ankle) and rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley (shoulder/knee).

Browner’s ankle injury puts his status for his debut with the Patriots in question.

The Patriots were in sweats and shells for practice.

Gronk 'pumped' to play in hometown

October, 9, 2014
Oct 9
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who grew up in Williamsville, New York (a town outside of Buffalo), Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills is more than just another homecoming. It will be an intense battle between two AFC East teams seeking sole possession of first place in the division.

Gronkowski knows the stakes are high.

 “Divisional games are huge. Very big. It’s the division,” Gronkowski said. “You want to get that win whenever you play a division team. It’s going to be a great atmosphere going into Buffalo. Both 3-2. Both playing for our division to be in front. So it’s going to be a really big game.”

Six days after an embarrassing loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night football, the Patriots displayed a heightened level of intensity in Sunday night’s 43-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on national television. Gronkowski wants the team to carry that intensity into Bufffalo.

“Every game is intense,” Gronkowski said. “We’ve been in many intense situations, too, on the road with the fans and everything. So just have to go out there, stick together as a team and play together, have some chemistry and execute together.”

While Gronkowski is focused on the team and picking up a win to give the Patriots some separation at the top of the division standings, he is excited to take a trip back to his hometown.

“It’s always good going back to your hometown in front of your friends and family,” Gronkowski said. “So definitely exciting. I’m pumped up for the game on Sunday.

“I know a lot people in Buffalo growing up that go to the games, so I’m sure there will be plenty of them there,” he added.

Another homecoming for Gronkowski and the Patriots will be the reunion with former Patriots linebacker and current Bills captain Brandon Spikes. Spikes is a force when it comes to stopping the run, and Gronkowski is aware of his tendency to land big hits.

“[Spikes] is a good player,” Gronkowski said. “You have to be aware of him. He’s a hitter, so you have to be prepared, and mentally and physically ready.”

Gronkowski, who has been a full participant at practice since Oct. 3, is officially off of the Patriots’ injury report, which says something about the progress he has made with his knee.

When asked about coming off of the injury report, Gronkowski said, “always a great sign.”
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It’s often interesting to hear the perspective of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on key plays in a victory. In his weekly breakdown on, he pointed out something we missed on the 19-yard run by Shane Vereen on third-and-16.

In film review of Sunday's win over the Bengals, we highlighted the excellent pull by guard Dan Connolly, which was also noted by Belichick, but not to be overlooked was how Vereen played off Connolly’s block to stretch the defense before cutting back inside.

“If Shane cuts it back inside [too early], that linebacker is going to make the tackle,” Belichick said. “So he does a nice job of starting to the outside, widening the linebacker, Connolly kicks him out and then Shane makes the cutback in there for the extra yardage. That’s really good running, a well-executed play there between the running back and guard.”

Belichick also noted how quarterback Tom Brady did a nice job sticking with the play despite the initial blitz look.

Some other plays highlighted by Belichick (offense and defense):

10-play, 86-yard drive in third quarter: Belichick felt like the drive after the Bengals seized some momentum to close to 20-10 was critical. What worked on that drive? Play-action passing to tight end Rob Gronkowski (17-yard completion), which shows how linebackers were held up; pump-fake on bubble screen to Julian Edelman that drew the linebackers up and produced a 25-yard catch for Tim Wright; good blocking by the offensive line and receiver Danny Amendola on a 14-yard run by Vereen.

Coverage produces sack: On Chris Jones’ fourth-quarter sack, Belichick highlighted defensive end Rob Ninkovich’s solid work to take the running back out of the backfield, which freed linebacker Jerod Mayo up on the inside to provide more support in pass coverage. That forced quarterback Andy Dalton to hold the ball longer than desired, leading to the first sack the Bengals allowed all season.

Ball disruption: Belichick highlighted good ball-punching technique by cornerback Kyle Arrington on his forced fumble in the fourth quarter. “We work on this drill a lot in practice and it’s a perfectly executed play by Arrington,” Belichick said.

Don Jones on kickoff coverage: On the third-quarter play in which Brandon Bolden forced a fumble and Arrington scooped-and-scored, Belichick highlighted safety Don Jones as an unsung performer as he was “forcing the issue, sliding behind the wedge.”

Patriots vs. Bills preview

October, 9, 2014
Oct 9

It's always a big week in Western New York when the New England Patriots come to town.

But if squaring off with a division rival wasn't enough, the Buffalo Bills received an extra boost Wednesday when Terry and Kim Pegula were approved as the next owners of the franchise. Officially closing a summer-long sales process, the vote virtually ended any doubts about the team's future in the region.

With an amped-up crowd behind them, the Bills (3-2) will have a chance to pull ahead in the AFC East against the Patriots (3-2) in Buffalo's first game of the Pegula era.

It's a game that has the Patriots' attention as well.

"If you love football," Tom Brady said, "then one o’clock Sunday in Orchard Park is where you want to be."

ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break it all down:

Rodak: Mike, one of the big stories in Foxborough through the first four games was an offensive line that just couldn't seem to find its way. The Patriots used five different combinations against Kansas City in Week 4 but seemed to settle in well in Sunday night's win over the Bengals. What changed?

Reiss: Three things come to mind, Mike. Personnel-wise, the biggest change was inserting Ryan Wendell at right guard, which meant they went with a top five of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Second, they had a determined commitment to the run game, which helped that group settle in a bit. And finally, it helped that they weren’t facing Cameron Wake and Tamba Hali, two of the premier edge rushers in the NFL. The Bills have a very good front, so it’s another big challenge for the Patriots' offensive line.

Patriots followers know Brandon Spikes well from his time in New England (2010-13). What type of impact has he made in Buffalo?

Rodak: Spikes' teammates named him a captain -- one of six on the team -- at the beginning of the season, which speaks to an impact that he has made in the locker room. That's notable, as Spikes was not named a captain during his tenure in New England.

In general, I sense a more relaxed Spikes who seems to fit well in a locker room environment that differs from New England's. On the field, Spikes is the same player he was with the Patriots. The Bills use him on early downs and he has added a physical presence as a run-stopper. Spikes' usage on passing downs has been limited. The Bills shied away from him in sub packages through the first four games before using him extensively in that role last week against the Lions. Part of that simply could have been an injury to speedier linebacker Nigel Bradham.

This is a Bills defense that ranks second in the NFL against the run. If the Patriots can't get their ground game going Sunday, how effective has their passing game been? What clicked for tight end Tim Wright (five catches, 85 yards, one touchdown) against the Bengals?

Reiss: The passing game has been inconsistent, and the ability to threaten the deep third of the field has been nearly nonexistent. A big part of that has been the up-and-down pass protection. The one thing we saw come to life a little bit was extensive usage of the tight ends. They ran 48 snaps with two or more tight ends on the field and when one of those tight ends was Wright, the Bengals matched as if he were a receiver by putting cornerback Leon Hall on him. Wright gave him a hard time; the Patriots had a few designed quick throws to him as well, and then they scored the touchdown to Wright out of the three-TE package (against base defense).

I’ve been reading you closely for the past year-and-a-half and it seems your analysis on EJ Manuel was ahead of the curve. For those who are just catching up, what happened with the Bills' quarterback of the future, who was benched in favor of Kyle Orton?

Rodak: It has never been about the work ethic or the personal makeup for Manuel. He is a high-character player in the locker room and although he wasn't known as a vocal, commanding presence when he was the starter, I got the sense that his teammates had respect for Manuel as a leader. The problem for Manuel was that he was often too timid and cautious as a quarterback on the field.

Some of his decisions to scramble, check down or tuck the ball were understandable; you don't want a young quarterback being reckless with the ball. But there were countless other times when the offensive line and receivers did their job and Manuel just wasn't willing or wasn't able to make the play happen. Even if he did try to uncork a riskier throw, he just didn't have the accuracy or timing to make it work. After being benched, Manuel talked about "letting it rip" when he next sees the field. If he can do that and still avoid mistakes, he stands a better chance of being successful.

The matchup between Sammy Watkins and Darrelle Revis should be a fun one to watch. How have the Patriots used Revis so far this season and has he performed up to your expectations?

Reiss: Revis' best two games came against Minnesota when he basically eliminated Greg Jennings and was in the slot quite a bit in that specific matchup, and then this past Sunday when he was very good against A.J. Green, mostly matching him in man coverage. Revis is an elite cornerback who sometimes is breaking on routes before receivers. Still, because we had heard so much about Revis Island, I think some maybe have been surprised that a few footballs have been caught against him. He's almost a victim of his own success.

The Patriots are the only team in the NFL to not have a former player on its coaching staff now that Pepper Johnson is with the Bills. What has stood out to you about Johnson's presence with the Bills?

Rodak: I'm not sure that Johnson could have found a better landing spot. He gets to work with an experienced defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, who could be in the mix for another head-coaching job as soon as this offseason. That could open doors in the future for Johnson, but for right now he couldn't have asked for a better personnel situation at his position. The Bills' defensive line sent three players to the Pro Bowl last season: end Mario Williams, as well as tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. I've gotten the sense that the defensive linemen have responded well to Johnson's energy and experience. As you mentioned, an added bonus is that he is a former player. For Dareus, a talented younger player who was arrested twice this offseason, having that mentor in his workplace is key.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Set to face his former team Sunday, Buffalo Bills linebacker Brandon Spikes did a double-take Wednesday when a reporter read him a quote from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

"Yeah, we know him. I don't think he's changed much," Belichick said earlier Wednesday. "Hair might be a little longer. He's about the same."

Spikes, whose tenure in New England ended after he was placed on injured reserve last season, was taken aback.

"Really? What a pleasant surprise," Spikes said. "I don't know ... I expected him ... you guys know how it all ended. I don't think he held a grudge. It is what it is. Players change teams every year, every week. So it just is what it is."

After signing with the Patriots as a free agent this past offseason, Spikes contested the Patriots' decision to place him on injured reserve in January.

"I heard they put me on IR and stuff like that. That was just a false report," Spikes said in a March radio interview. "That's just how things go there. Almost like what happened with [Aqib] Talib and his hip."

The NFL investigated and later cleared the Patriots of any wrongdoing with either Spikes' or Talib's injuries.

Spikes had high praise for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who will face Spikes as an opponent for the first time after four seasons of practicing against one another.

"Brady always has a chip on his shoulder. Me, I refer to him as 'Pharaoh,' because he's amazing," Spikes said. "I always respect him, because he comes out every year with that edge. That's what the great ones do."