By Matt Citak
The Patriots escaped Pittsburgh with a much-needed win last week, defeating the Steelers, 27-24, to regain the AFC’s No. 1 seed. MVP candidate Tom Brady had his third consecutive mediocre outing, completing 62.9 percent of his passes for 298 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The 40-year-old quarterback has failed to reach 300 passing yards in four straight games, and has just two passing touchdowns, to go along with four interceptions, over his last three contests.
If Brady is going to rebound in this Week 16 AFC East battle against the Buffalo Bills, he will have to do so without one of his favorite red zone weapons. Running back Rex Burkhead was injured during Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh, and has since been diagnosed with a sprained knee. The Patriots are optimistic Burkhead will return in time for the playoffs, but they will have to finish out the regular season without their touchdown leader (eight TDs in 10 games). Dion Lewis is poised to receive the lion’s share of New England’s carries against the Bills, and is most likely to get any Patriots’ touches inside the 10-yard line.
Despite an up-and-down season, Buffalo currently finds itself as the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff picture, tied with Tennessee and Baltimore at 8-6. Bills QB Tyrod Taylor put together a solid overall performance against the Dolphins in Week 15. The dual-threat quarterback threw for 224 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions, while adding six rushes for 42 yards (7.0 yards per carry) and a rushing touchdown in Buffalo’s 24-16 victory. New England did a great job of shutting Taylor down during their Week 14 matchup, so don’t be surprised to see the mobile quarterback rely on his rushing abilities more in this week’s contest.
One of the biggest storylines heading into this week’s game will be the matchup between Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski and Bills CB Tre’Davious White. In their last meeting, Gronkowski, frustrated after not receiving a pass interference call, jumped on White while he was on the ground, delivering a forearm to the back of White’s helmet. The dirty play caused White to be placed in the NFL’s concussion protocol, and also led to a one-game suspension for Gronkowski. Although tempers flared in the days following that game, with numerous Bills players calling for revenge on Gronkowski in their next meeting, Buffalo understands how important this game is for their playoff hopes. The best payback for the Bills would be a victory over their AFC East rivals.
THE NFL TODAY analyst Phil Simms weighed in on this week’s Bills-Patriots matchup, which will be called by CBS’s lead broadcast team, featuring play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz, analyst Tony Romo, and sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson, as well as other upcoming NFL ON CBS action in Week 16.
Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots – 1:00 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: Tom Brady just lost one of his favorite red zone weapons in Rex Burkhead for at least the remainder of the regular season. How will the Patriots make up for the veteran’s absence in these last two games?
Phil Simms: The one thing they are not short of in New England is running backs. Having both James White and Dion Lewis will help them overcome the injury to Burkhead. Who knows what the story is with Mike Gillislee? They got him during the offseason, and we haven’t seen him active for a while. Maybe he’ll find a role in the offense, too. But the one thing about the Patriots is that they are not really reliant on a superstar. If they were, it would be Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. They’ll be able to make up [for Burkhead’s absence]. For all the plays they have designed for everyone on the team, they should be fine.
CBS Local Sports: Buffalo currently sits as the sixth seed in the AFC. What will they have to do to beat the Patriots and boost their playoff chances?
Phil Simms: The game is in New England. The Patriots have come off of a very tough road trip, going down to Miami and then playing Pittsburgh. They had two physical, emotional games. The Miami game maybe wasn’t emotional, but it was certainly physical. For Buffalo, if you’re going to go into New England [and get a win], this is the time to catch them. How can the Bills win? If LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor can make plays to score or put the Bills in good position. The Bills’ defense is sound. Maybe one of their better strengths is the fact that they can cover people pretty well. Those are the factors that give Buffalo a chance. One thing about Buffalo is they have a little Patriots in them. They play hard for 60 minutes. There are very few teams that have the mental and physical capabilities to play all-out from start to finish, and two of them are Buffalo and New England.
CBS Local Sports: Do you expect any sort of retaliation on Rob Gronkowski after his late hit on Tre’Davious White in their last meeting, and more importantly, how will the Bills slow Gronkowski down after he shredded them for nine receptions and 147 yards in Week 13?
Phil Simms: If you’re going to stop Rob Gronkowski, you really have to have a special defense. I watch the Patriots every week, and I don’t know what his numbers were against Buffalo or Pittsburgh, but he was the difference in those games. I used to talk to all of the defenders that used to guard Gronkowski in the years I called games, and everyone would say the same thing: ‘When you see him on film, it’s one thing. But when you see him in person, he’s bigger than you think. He’s more agile and limber than you think. And, he’s absolutely faster than everyone thinks.’ You either double team him or beat him up with somebody big at the line of scrimmage. It sounds great, but it’s hard to do because he’s split out everywhere and moving. It’s an issue [opposing defenses] have to deal with.
I’m not going to say there’s going to be payback [on Gronkowski], but I’d be shocked if there isn’t some chippiness and some “extra business” on the field as tackles are made. The game will definitely have a little chippiness on the Buffalo side.
Los Angeles Chargers vs. New York Jets – 1:00 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: After last week’s loss to the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs, will the Chargers be able to rebound and make the playoffs?
Phil Simms: The Chargers, when you look at their season, they’ve lost some games in tough ways. We know all about the missed field goals from earlier in the season. But, taking nothing away from Kansas City, last week’s contest was maybe the Chargers’ worst-played football game of the year. They didn’t lack effort, but when you’re in a heavyweight fight, you can’t come out and be defensive. You have to come out throwing some punches. They looked a little apprehensive on both sides of the ball early, and they let Kansas City get the jump on them. That’s why they lost the game. Now, things will have to fall perfectly into place for them to reach the postseason.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.