When the Patriots run
This is a deep stable of running backs. Stevan Ridley is the lead horse, and the 5-foot-11-inch, 225-pounder keeps improving. Ridley runs square and hard and always keeps his legs churning. He has good vision and will sift his way through traffic before bursting through creases. Ridley is not a classic speed demon but shows good acceleration at the second level. He will make tacklers miss but he also has absorbed his share of big hits, but usually bounces right back up. Shane Vereen continues to tease with flashes of brilliance. This could be his breakout season. The 5-10, 205-pounder is a versatile player (he can catch, too) with good vision and burst. He runs low and can spin out of hits. He’s fluid and has great balance. Brandon Bolden is a hard, upright runner who does a great job following his blockers. Bolden (5-11, 220) will finish his runs with a flourish. LeGarrette Blount (6 feet, 250) has excellent size and instincts. He’s lighter on his feet than you might expect but he does have the power to push the pile. This group gets to run behind a punishing interior trio of center Ryan Wendell (he’s smart) and guards Logan Mankins (he’s vicious) and Dan Connolly (he’s underrated). Nose tackle Marcell Dareus (6-3, 319) has the size and strength to toss aside blockers and pursue the ball. He moves well laterally. He’ll work to create room for rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso, who has a nifty blend of speed, power, and intensity.
Rushing yards per game
New England offense: 136.5 (Seventh)
Buffalo defense: 145.8 (31st)
When the Patriots pass
A lot of the names have changed, but the one that matters most — Tom Brady — remains. With the possible exception of Rob Gronkowski, none of New England’s top five pass catchers from a season ago will be in the lineup. Brady, one of the smartest, sharpest, and most-prepared players in league history will now build a rapport with a new set of partners. Set to take the lead role is Danny Amendola, who is being counted on to replace some of Wes Welker’s production. Amendola (5 feet 10 inches, 186 pounds) has a lot of Welker-like qualities: He has exceptionally quick feet, runs precise routes, and has strong hands. He’s a tad bigger and faster and though he excels in the slot, he can work the outside, too. A trio of rookies will get their opportunities, led by Kenbrell Thompkins, who was a beast in the preseason. Thompkins (6-1, 190) is quick, athletic, and strong. He runs good routes and has the athleticism and toughness to fight for balls. Josh Boyce (5-11, 206) has excellent body control and strong hands. Can be special after the catch. Aaron Dobson (6-3, 210) has exceptional size and speed. He should be able to stretch the field but needs to get a little more competitive. Tight end Zach Sudfeld (also a rookie) is a 6-6, 225-pounder with reliable hands and excellent speed after the catch. The Bills’ secondary is missing its leader in safety Jairus Byrd. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin is a good one.
Passing yards per game
New England offense: 291.4 (Fourth)
Buffalo defense: 217.1 (10th)
When the Bills run
Bruising back Fred Jackson (6 feet 1 inch, 216 pounds) has logged a lot of yards and a lot of hits over his six seasons in upstate New York. Father Time might be catching up to Jackson, who has ended up on injured reserve with leg injuries after 10 games the last two seasons. Jackson is an upright runner who keeps his shoulders square. He hits creases quickly and welcomes contact. Playing the role of lightning opposite Jackson’s thunder is C.J. Spiller. The 5-11, 196-pounder has a great first step, good vision, and will find cutback lanes. He’s not particularly powerful but has become a more physical player and is now more willing to dip his shoulder into a defender and fight for a few extra yards. He still prefers to turn the corner and turn on the jets, but he will attack the middle at times. Spiller is a touchdown threat every time he touches the ball. Eric Wood (6-4, 315) is a widebody center who is smart and aggressive. He works hard to shed his initial blocker (hello, fellow widebody Vince Wilfork) before trying to chop down linebackers. Massive guards Colin Brown (6-7, 335) and Kraig Urbik (6-5, 323) are scrappers, but they lack athleticism and will get caught lunging. Lane cloggers Wilfork (6-1, 325) and Tommy Kelly (6-6, 300) are a pretty good first line of defense. Wilfork is extraordinarily strong, and for man his size, nimble. Kelly is very smooth and strong and always is on a beeline to the ball.
Rushing yards per game
Buffalo offense: 138.6 (Sixth)
New England defense: 101.9 (9th)
When the Bills pass
E.J. Manuel is not starting his career in an ideal manner. The 6-foot-5-inch, 237-pound quarterback missed most of the preseason because of knee surgery, and now gets his first start against a Bill Belichick defense. Film work and conditioning are beneficial, but what Manuel needs to be successful is game-speed reps, and he’ll be getting his first real ones on Sunday. Manuel has all the physical tools to be successful. He’s big, strong, athletic, and has a cannon of an arm. He is more of a traditional dropback passer but he’s not against tucking the ball and using his quick feet to move the chains. Manuel throws nice, tight spirals and can be extremely accurate on short and medium routes. His accuracy suffers on deeper passes as the ball tends to sail. Stevie Johnson is a gifted receiver with nice hands and acceleration. Johnson is tough and will fight for the ball. He will lose focus at times (particularly if the Bills get down early). He likes to yap. T.J. Graham is a slippery receiver with good burst and strong hands. He has potential to be a game-breaker. Rookie Robert Woods is a speed burner — he will be able to run down Manuel’s bombs. Tight end Scott Chandler (6-7, 260) is an old and reliable target. New England’s secondary is solid with three better-than-average corners in Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington, who excels covering the slot man. Devin McCourty is a versatile and athletic safety, while running mate Steve Gregory will make plays.
Passing yards per game
Buffalo offense: 204.3 (25th)
New England defense: 271.4 (29th)
BILLS’ KEY PLAYER: KYLE WILLIAMS
A 6-foot-1-inch, 306-pound menace, Williams is strong and agile. He moves well laterally and goes full speed till the whistle on every single snap.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With quickness and ferocity. Williams explodes at the snap, often leaving blockers grabbing for air. He has a nose for the ball — and he can play tackle or end — and when he gets ahold of your quarterback, he will leave marks.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By double-teaming him and matching his intensity. Williams is tough to handle one on one. Help the tackles out by chip blocking. And get rid of the ball fast.
BILLS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Easy does it: Rookie E.J. Manuel has a lot on his plate. So give him some quick dumpoffs to C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and slowly build his confidence.
2. Super Mario: Defensive end Mario Williams, a 6-foot-7-inch, 295-pound force of nature, has to get off the blocks and pressure the pocket and Tom Brady.
3. Daily special: It’s imperative to get something out of return men Leodis McKelvin and T.J. Graham. If they can keep the field short, it gives Manuel a fighting chance.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Buffalo stampede: The Bills’ run defense has been abysmal. Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden combined for 243 yards in one game last season. If that happens again, good night.
2. Rush hour: Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have to get E.J. Manuel on the run. The more the rookie feels comfortable, the more he’ll think he can win this one.
3. Shadow dancing: C.J. Spiller is the Bills’ most dangerous player. So he must be accounted for on every snap, and textbook tackling is the key because he is one slippery dude.
Patriots 31, Bills 7