Bill Belichick's Patriots finally hit regular season action this Sunday afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium just outside of Buffalo. New England heads on the road to take on its AFC East "rival," a team against which the Patriots have won 18 of the last 19 meetings and 23 of the last 25. New England will also be looking to extend its opening day winning streak to 10 in a row, dating back to a shocking 31-0 loss in Buffalo in 2003. The Bills counter with a totally new look thanks to first-year head coach Doug Marrone and rookie, first-round quarterback E.J. Manuel. Both teams have gone about very different turnovers this season, but with Tom Brady at the helm against a team in which he's won more games, thrown more touchdowns and had more 300-yard efforts than any other NFL squad, New England very much remains the heavy favorite in this early season matchup. So while you count down the final hours and minutes to the kickoff we've all been waiting to see for months, sit back and enjoy this thank-the-Lord-it's-finally-here edition of the Bills vs. Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
1. Rookie receivers report for duty – The story of the offseason in New England – at least in terms of on-field football issues -- has been the "re-do" that Bill Belichick has overseen at the receiver position. Clearly Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted) are going to get their chances to contribute to the passing game.
Thompkins has been the most consistent of the trio all summer, and will likely be given the most chances to have an impact on opening day. Dobson had his ups and downs, and actually battled some issues double-catching the ball later in the preseason. Boyce looks like he's going to be a big-play or shot-play type guy at this point with some deep chances and maybe a couple end-arounds. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the rookie reps unfold and which guy is ready for the increased competition and intensity of regular season action. The good news is that Buffalo is without top corner Stephon Gilmore and possibly without franchise safety Jairus Byrd (doubtful). The rookies are going to be in the spotlight to some degree. This is our first real chance to see if they are ready to shine bright.
2. Amendola debuts – Most of the football world was watching Thursday night as Wes Welker and the Broncos got off to a winning start by scoring 49 points in a victory over the Ravens. Welker looked like his usual self working with Peyton Manning to the tune of nine catches, a few third-down conversions and a couple scores. Now, the guy who's replacing him in New England will get his chance at a positive first impression. Danny Amendola was limited in practice during the week with a groin issue. Though likely not a huge deal, it's not a great first step for a guy trying to shake the label of being injury prone from his days in St. Louis. Amendola had a very good summer and seemed to have built an early rapport with Brady. He should find room to work against Buffalo's pass defense and is likely to be targeted by his new quarterback early and often. Fair or not, Amendola is going to be compared to Welker for a while. That means staying healthy, catching eight-plus passes a game and coming up big on third down. He can start building his on Patriots legend this Sunday in Buffalo.
3. Year 2 jumpers – We here at Patriots Football Weekly are always debating the so-called Year 2 jump. It's that major improvement that can come in a player's second season. This year the Patriots would seem to have at least two players who might be primed for major leaps – former first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Jones has had an impressive preseason
and has openly talked about the importance of improvement in an NFL player's second season. He got bigger and stronger this offseason. He's more aware of absolutely every aspect of what it takes to be an NFL player. He showed at times last year that he was capable of being the top Patriots defender. He needs to do that with more consistency in 2013. It's not crazy to think he could be a double-digit sack guy and a major playmaker off the edge for Matt Patricia's defense. Hightower is in a similar boat. He's talked about being much more comfortable and confident in what he's doing heading into his second year. He's able to play more than having to think about what he's supposed to be doing. Hightower has the potential to be a versatile weapon all across the defensive front thanks to his unique combination of size and athletic ability. The two young players should and can become key factors on what might be a much improved defense for New England. They'll get a chance to prove that against a Bills offense that's going through its own transition with a new quarterback and coaching staff.
4. Contain Spiller – C.J. Spiller had a great season a year ago averaging 6 yards a carry. That began with a 169-yard effort on opening day. Marrone clearly wants to run the ball and make Spiller the centerpiece of the offense. Spiller has made his plays in a variety of ways against the Patriots in the past. He's a dangerous runner both in space and when hitting a hole to make his own crease. New England's front should be the strength of the defense. Vince Wilfork now as a veteran ally next to him in Tommy Kelly. And the linebackers are a solid group with Brandon Spikes often setting the tone against the run. But tackling was an issue at times during the preseason, including for the starting linebackers. Jerod Mayo can't overrun Spiller like he did Reggie Bush in Detroit in August. Missed tackles against a guy like Spiller turn into long runs that could ignite the home team. The Patriots rarely let a running back kill them, but when it happens it's usually guys with speed who can make plays happen. Contain Spiller and the rest of the Bills offense will have an uphill battle in this contest.
5. Read the Manuel – Manuel is an intriguing athlete as a rookie quarterback. He has the athletic skills to be a playmaker and a talent. But at this point he's clearly far more about potential and athletic ability than being a proven passer. The first question is whether he has
fully recovered from his knee injury. If he can keep plays alive and move around, he has a chance to give the Patriots still questionable pass defense some issues. He's not really a read-option type guy looking to run, but more a Ben Roethlisberger type who can keep plays alive and then make things happen with his arm. The Patriots front will want to pressure Manuel at times, but that must be controlled pressure to keep him in the pocket. Manuel is an unknown, as is the Bills offense on some level. After stopping Spiller, getting a handle on Manuel is next in line for New England's defensive priorities. Of course in making his first NFL start, Manuel will have a lot to deal with in his own right.
6. Special teams improvement – Special teams issues, especially in blocking and coverage, are often given a bit of pass in the preseason with all the moving parts in terms of personnel. The New England special teams were not good this summer. There were long returns allowed, short returns produced and a general lack of consistency in any area of the kicking game. That needs to change on Sunday as Scott O'Brien now has a somewhat consistent group of players to get ready for action. Leon Washington is gone, so the perceived boost in the kick return game will have to come from elsewhere. It will be interesting to see if that's rookie Josh Boyce or one of the running backs or someone else. Julian Edelman didn't have a great summer on punt returns, but needs to get back to his usual productive self. Ryan Allen also gets to show the world why Belichick chose him over consistent, well-liked veteran Zoltan Mesko. Allen gets the good fortune of a September game in Buffalo with more palatable early season weather than some of wind issues we've seen in Western New York late in the season. He also needs to continue the process of holding for field goals and PATs for Stephen Gostkowski. Overall the kicking game needs to prove it's much better than what it showed more often than not this summer.
Prediction: Some may be surprised that Rob Gronkowski (doubtful) and his potential return wasn't one of the six points above. That's because I would be stunned to see No. 87 on the field back in the area of his hometown. I think Gronk is still a week or so away. Thankfully I don't
think the Patriots need him in this game, one which some have joked about as New England's fifth preseason contest. It's a really bad scenario for an opponent to prepare for the Patriots with a rookie quarterback and likely without its top two defensive backs. That's exactly what the Bills face. I think Brady will come out and move the ball well through the air against the banged up Buffalo defense, and New England should be able to run the ball against what was one of the worst run defenses in the league a year ago. On the other side look for the Patriots defense to give Manuel problems as the rookie has to prove he can make his reads under the pressure that should come from Jones, Kelly and others. New England will give up some plays, but there won't be enough big plays from Spiller, the talkative Stevie Johnson and others. In a game where both offenses are looking for a new identity and both defenses face some questions, it seems pretty simple to go with the proven quarterback in Brady. Look for No. 12 to spread the ball around with a balanced attack and lead New England to the 34-13 road victory for yet another successful start to a new season.