Patriots focused on stopping Spiller, Bills ground game

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Patriots focused on stopping Spiller, Bills ground game

FOXBORO -- CJ Spiller was at the middle of it all when the Bills fell apart against the Patriots six weeks ago. Near the end of the first half, Buffalo was threatening to score when Spiller took a handoff and ran into Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes. The ball popped loose, New England recovered and came out for the second half with new life. They scored 45 points in the game's final 30 minutes to win, 52-28.

"That was the turning point of the game," Spiller told reporters afterward. "And thats totally on me. Nobody else. That was me. Ive just got to do a better job of securing the ball. Especially down at the goal line.

Spiller hasn't fumbled since. In fact, he's been arguably the Bills' most reliable offensive player in his team's last four games. He will carry a hefty 7.2 yards-per-carry average into Gillette Stadium on Sunday, as well as a reputation for breaking a big play at any moment.

The Patriots say they're expecting to see a different back than the one had just 33 yards on eight carries to go along with that crucial fumble in their last meeting.

"Oh man, this guy is a hell of a player," Vince Wilfork said Thursday. "He's running the ball very well, catching the ball for him. He's really showing the explosive plays that we were accustomed to seeing when he was in college, and that's what they drafted him for. So, he's coming into his own."

Together with Bills veteran running back Fred Jackson, Spiller makes up one half of one of the league's most dynamic rushing duos. Gaining 5.3 yards per rush this season, the Bills are owners of the NFL's second-most explosive running game.

"Obviously they're a two-headed monster," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "Really a three-headed monster. TashardChoice provides a spark off the bench as well."

But Spiller will likely require extra attention.

"Anytime a guy's averaging over seven yards a carry, you know they can always take one to the house," Mayo continued. "It'll take a group effort to stop him. The front seven has to do an excellent job staying on blocks and hopefully making plays."

Like Wilfork, Mayo said he's seen a different Spiller on film this week. No longer is his game all scat. He's rounding more and more into a complete running back, it appears.

"One thing he's doing a lot better since the last time we played him, he's running inside as well," Mayo said. "He's making a lot of guys miss inside and he's breaking those long runs."

The matchup promises to be the latest challenge for the Patriots defense, which has taken on all rushers and, in general, stuffed them. They've allowed just 3.5 yards per carry and the longest rush they've allowed all season is a fourth-quarter 20-yard run by the Rams' Daryl Richardson two weeks ago when the Patriots already had their 45-7 win well in hand.

"You're only as good as your last performance," Mayo replied when reminded how stout the Patriots have been against the run.

But they were pretty good in London. Mayo, Wilfork, Spikes and the rest allowed 107 yards rushing, and they held Rams back Steven Jackson -- now closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but still a talent -- to 23 yards on seven carries.

Since then, New England has had some time off with its bye week. The Bills are probably hoping that break will work in their favor since Patriots rustiness may be Spiller and Jackson's best chance to get anything going on the ground Sunday.

"We work pretty hard," Mayo said. "We worked hard all week this week and even during the bye week to get better. Hopefully there's no rust, but you never know."

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

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Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

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Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.