After weeks of preseason games, regular season football is back! The New England Patriots will begin their quest to get to MetLife Stadium in February on Sunday afternoon against the Buffalo Bills. For New England, its the time to start figuring out how Tom Brady is going to get these new weapons involved in the offense as long as tight end Rob Gronkowski is out with the back injury. As for the defense, most of the 2012 unit is back, so the fans and coaching staff are expecting improvement from a defense that only gave up 20 points per game last season, but gave up a ton of yards through the air. The Patriots have defeated the Buffalo Bills 23 of the last 25 meetings, so you might say this is a good opponent for them to work out the kinks against.
That being said, the Bills have re-invented themselves over the offseason. They have a new CEO in Russ Brandon, a new GM in Doug Whaley, a new head coach in Doug Marrone, and a new starting quarterback in first round pick E.J Manuel out of Florida State. Marrone has stated that CJ Spiller will get most, if not all the carries this season as the running back looks to be a breakout player this season.
As for the defense, Buffalo was 22nd in the league last season and will likely be without cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd for this game due to injuries. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will look to try to confuse Brady in the pocket as he is very familiar with the Pats considering he was the Jets' defensive coordinator last season. With a new coach, can they prevent teams from running all over them like they couldn't last season?
With that being said, here are my keys to the game for Week 1:
1. Keeping It In Manuel Gear: We all know Bill Belichick has a great record when he goes up against rookie quarterbacks (13-4). Belichick did lose a game last season to a rookie quarterback in Russell Wilson, but that deviates from the trend. EJ Manuel should not be put into the class of Andrew Luck, RGIII, and Wilson, but he is no slouch either. Manuel had a strong preseason until he had knee surgery a few weeks ago.
Fortunately, for the Bills, Jeff Tuel does not have to make the start this game as an undrafted rookie. Manuel will challenge the Patriots' defense in maintaining their gaps, especially if they do not stop CJ Spiller on the ground in the new read option schemes. The difficult task will be that the Patriots don't have much tape on Manuel and Doug Marrone may throw some different things at the Pats that they haven't seen being it is his first game as a head coach in the NFL. I look for Manuel to add to the stat of rookies throwing 25 interceptions against the Pats under Belichick, but he will make some big plays as well during this game.
2. Not So Super Mario: With the two key injured players in the secondary for the Bills, Mike Pettine will look to bring a lot more pressure to Brady via more blitz packages. It is the same key as when any opponent tries to gameplan against the Pats: pressure Tom Brady. That is why the Bills gave Mario Williams that big contract in the 2012 offseason. If Mario and Kyle Williams (15.5 sacks combined last season) can bring pressure from the front four, then the Bills have a chance. Otherwise, Brady even with a limited arsenal at wide receiver, should still be able to pick them apart. One other defensive note to watch is Jim Leonhard. The former Jets' safety could play a factor against the Pats and knows Pettine's system well.
3. Stick on Scott, Not Stevie: All the trash talk leading up to this game has been done by WR Stevie Johnson. Johnson said this week, to paraphrase, that the Patriots' secondary could not cover him, not even Patrick Chung. Well, Chung can't cover him considering he doesn't play for the Pats anymore. Anyways, Johnson has 382 yards and three touchdowns in seven games vs. New England, but I am keeping my eye on tight end Scott Chandler. Chandler is coming off of ACL reconstruction surgery, was a thorn in the Pats' side last season with nine catches for 127 yards and three touchdowns in two games. Aqib Talib will be on Stevie Johnson, but the Pats have a hole at the no. 2 cornerback spot and it could be exploited by Robert Woods, the second round pick out of USC.
This game may seem to be lopsided out of paper, but the Bills early in the season (2002, 2009) seem to have a knack of causing some concern to the Patriots. With EJ Manuel at QB, I am interested to see how creative Doug Marrone will be in coaching the offense against the Pats' defense. I think Brady will struggle early with some of the rookie receivers.
However, even with a groin injury, I expect Danny Amendola to make a big play or two to help the Patriots pull away in the 4th quarter. Plus, considering Wes Welker's big game Thursday night, you just know Brady and Belichick will try to get Amendola involved early and often. Also, keep an eye on Shane Vereen out of the backfield with the Pats limited in terms of tight end options.
PATRIOTS 34 BILLS 20