When the Buffalo Bills open their 2013 season today against the New England Patriots (1 p.m., CBS, WGR 550 AM radio), they'll be fighting history as well as the man who might be the franchise's biggest nemesis ever.
Tom Brady is 22-2 against the Bills in his 12 seasons as New England's starter. The Pats have not been held to 17 points by Buffalo since 2009, although one of those games was a 34-31 Bills win in 2011.
The Bills' chances of reversing that trend don't appear to be high, at least by Las Vegas oddsmakers, who maintain Buffalo as a 9 1/2 point underdog. Here is a look at what both teams will try to do Sunday to begin the year with a win.
Bills on offense
All eyes will be on rookie quarterback EJ Manuel as he makes his debut. He look OK in two preseason games, but there will be some apprehension as he sees his first game action since he hurt his knee and missed the final two preseason games.
He hadn't really tried out his arm with any deep attempts in his two appearances, but he has potential weapons – potential young weapons – who could make this offense explosive if everything goes to plan. T.J. Graham was drafted in 2012 to be at the receiving end of deep balls. Robert Woods was drafted this past spring to complement Stevie Johnson in the midrange game, while Marquise Goodwin adds an extra dimension of speed.
Ya know, if any of them are any good. And if the quarterback is any good.
Amid the unknowns in the passing game, a sure thing is that the ground game will be relied upon. C.J. Spiller is coming off a 1,200-yard season despite limited action. New coach Doug Marrone has promised plenty of carries for his stud. Just in case he needs a break, there's another 1,000-yard rusher backing him up in Fred Jackson. Slowing the run game last season proved almost impossible, even as teams knew Ryan Fitzpatrick would not hurt them behind center. If that can continue, the Buffalo should be able to stay in any game.
The Patriots brought in Tommy Kelly to help Vince Wolfork get pressure on quarterbacks from the inside. They also acquired cornerback Aqib Talib to help plug a secondary that allowed 37 passing plays of 25 or more yards last season. That let Devin McCourty move to his more natural position at safety. That secondary figures to get its fair share of work – especially if the Bills get down – as indications are Marrone won't be afraid to cut Manuel loose in must-pass situations, unlike his ultra-conservative, dink-and-dunk predecessor.
Bills on defense
Gone from the Pats' receiving corps are Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead, Aaron hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. In are Danny Amendola and three rookies – Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce.
That would seem to put the Bills at a heavy advantage. Except two things.
- Brady has a way of making anyone look like a star. He's won Super Bowls with defensive backs as receivers, so integrating a few new faces should not be an issue for him.
- The Bills' secondary is largely a second unit. Safety Jairus Byrd is doubtful, and corner Stephon Gilmore is out. Any defensive backfield missing half its starters is going to take its share of hits.
That's where the front seven will come in. If Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams can apply the pressure up front they were supposed to in 2012, then Brady will have fits getting the ball out. The linebacking corps is young, but rookie Kiko Alonso has gotten heaping praise for his preseason play and second-year man Nigel Bradham has been solid. But last year's more experienced unit still allowed both Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden to each top 100 yards against the Bills in Week four last season. If that happens against the Bills' new 3-4 hybrid defense, then it will be another long, painful day at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Until and unless Manuel proves he's an NFL-caliber quarterback, you have to assume he's just another rookie. The running game will get its share of yardage, but the Pats will surely try to make Manuel win the game for Buffalo, so he will have to quickly prove he's ready to step in.
The Patriots will get their points, so it's up to Buffalo's offense to probably top 28 to have a chance. Help from the Bills' vastly superior special teams would help. The kick return team features Goodwin, and Leodis McKelvin returns from a season in which he led the NFL in yards per punt return. So a touchdown from either of those units would be huge.
Even that probably won't be enough, though. Bill Belichick the Bills' number – new regime for Buffalo or not - and only a fool would bet against Brady. Look for him to open things up for his running game, which will carry the Pats to an early 1-0 record.
New England 31, Buffalo 20
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