FOXBOROUGH — Finally, after five grueling weeks of training camp and a handful of tough roster decisions, the Patriots can start preparing for the Bills, their Week 1 opponent.
“We’re full speed ahead on Buffalo,” coach Bill Belichick said after Monday’s practice. “As always, challenging to go on the road to open, especially in the division. They always do a good job.”
The Patriots have won 18 of the last 19 matchups against the Bills, but Sunday’s game at Ralph Wilson Stadium provides a few unique challenges. A Week 1 matchup is always tough — it’s hard to predict what new wrinkles a team will show in the first game — and it’s even tougher this year because the Bills have an entirely new coaching staff, headed by Doug Marrone.
Marrone coached the Jets’ offensive line for four years and was the Saints’ offensive coordinator for three before most recently serving as Syracuse’s head coach for the last four years.
“Coach Marrone is a coach I have a lot of respect for,” said Belichick. “He’s had a lot of experience in the league, some in this division.
“Nathaniel Hackett, his [offensive] coordinator, is from Syracuse, so I’m sure there will be an element of what they did there and what we’ll see. Of course, [defensive coordinator] Mike [Pettine] coming from the Jets and that background, Baltimore and the Jets, we’re pretty familiar with that style of defense. It’s a pretty experienced staff.”
But the Bills could be severely limited at quarterback. They currently have only two quarterbacks on the roster: First-round pick EJ Manuel is trying to play after undergoing minor knee surgery just two weeks ago, and if he can’t go, the Bills will go with undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel.
Belichick said he’s going to study the Bills’ preseason film as much as he can.
“I’m sure they have some wrinkles and things they haven’t shown, but I can’t imagine they’d go through four preseason games and show up at the first game with some completely different offense,” he said.
The Bills, meanwhile, appear to be showing a little bravado this week. Receiver Stevie Johnson was asked why the Bills can compete with the Patriots this year, and he answered, “Because I’m here.”
He told Buffalo reporters, “I don’t think they have anybody to stop me. For real. I think we have guys in the receiver room that are as good as I am, if not better. I just have that confidence in my teammates and in myself.”
Johnson then offered praise to the Patriots and several players — mistakenly including safety Patrick Chung, who left for Philadelphia this offseason — but said he’s confident in his teammates.
“I give a lot of credit to the Patriots. They play as one unit,” he said. “They’re aggressive. It’s going to be a test. It’s going to be a challenge.
“But I still think we can take advantage of their defense. I’ll still ride with my boys over their guys.”
Gronkowski in pads
Tight end Rob Gronkowski joined his teammates and wore shoulder pads at practice for the second straight day Monday, and Belichick said, “He’s definitely moving forward.”
Belichick called Gronkowski “day to day” and provided few details on when he expects him to return, although it’s unlikely that Gronkowski, coming off back surgery, will be ready for the first few weeks of the season.
“We take it day to day, I don’t know any other way to do it,” Belichick said. “We don’t know how he’s going to be feeling in two days, or any other player.
“It’s not about him. It’s about any player that’s coming back from an injury. That’s how we do it. Nobody has a crystal ball.”
Belichick addressed the media for the first time since making roster cuts over the weekend, and was asked why the team decided to cut third-string quarterback Tim Tebow.
“Because we thought it was the best decision to make for the team,” Belichick said. “There are a million things that go into every decision, personnel decision. There are a lot of things that play off one another. In the end, we did what we thought was best for the team, at every position.”
But Belichick didn’t close the door on bringing Tebow back, though that seems unlikely barring an injury to Tom Brady.
While the Patriots had 53 players at practice Monday, it’s doubtful that those will be the 53 players to travel to Buffalo.
“There are probably going to be roster moves over the next few days,” said Belichick. “I don’t even know what they are, but it’s just that time of year.”
The roster currently stands at 52 after the Patriots waived fullback James Develin and offensive lineman Josh Kline and re-signed cornerback Marquice Cole, who had been cut Sunday.
According to reports, the Patriots will sign former University of Maine tight end Matthew Mulligan. The Packers cut Mulligan last week and the Patriots worked him out Monday.
The Steelers signed punter Zoltan Mesko, who was let go by the Patriots over the weekend.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.