- Mike Rodak, ESPN Staff Writer
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No matter the optimism that resulted from the close loss, a sense of urgency has begun to creep in at One Bills Drive. The Bills join only the Colts and Bears -- who both won their openers -- as teams that open the season with back-to-back home games. Dropping to 0-2 at home would mean the Bills must play catch-up on the road, beginning in Week 3 against the Jets.
Outside of the schedule implication for the Bills, Sunday's game offers an intriguing quarterback matchup between Bills rookie EJ Manuel and the Panthers' Cam Newton, who is looking to lead Carolina to their first win after being edged out by the Seahawks in the home opener.
Here's what to watch for:
1. Will Panthers use Patriots' blueprint with Spiller? Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett wasn't kidding last month when he said running back C.J. Spiller would be the focal point of the Bills' offense. The Bills force-fed Spiller the ball both as a runner and receiver early in Sunday's game, with Spiller getting eight touches in the first 13 plays of the game. Yet the results were sub-par; the Patriots made stopping Spiller a priority and he averaged less than 3 yards per touch in the game. Undoubtedly the Panthers will look at how the Patriots were able to contain Spiller, and if he's not able to overcome the defense's attention, Buffalo will have to find another way to move the ball on offense.
2. Will Bills open it up on offense? Manuel hinted earlier this week that the Bills will try to take more deep shots against Carolina, but the concept is hardly new: The Bills have talked about doing that since early in the preseason. Manuel, who is now fully healthy, must venture outside of his comfort zone. He relied heavily on Spiller and Fred Jackson as check-down options last Sunday, targeting his top three wide receivers, who were on the field nearly the entire game, just five times total. The weakness of the Panthers defense is their secondary, and if Manuel is going to be the Bills' long-term option at quarterback, this is the sort of game where he needs to do more than just protect the ball and prevent turnovers. It's time for him to start making plays.
3. Run defense: Anomaly or same old problem? The Bills had the NFL's second-worst run defense last season, and fixing that is the top priority for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Yet the Bills gave up the third-most rushing yards of any team in Week 1, and when the statistics are narrowed to just the Patriots' top two rushers -- Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley -- the Bills allowed more than six yards per carry. Carolina poses an even greater challenge with their ground game, which torched the Seahawks' defense last week for more than five yards per carry. If Pettine's unit can't figure out a way to slow down DeAngelo Williams, the Bills will be in for another long day.
4. Pesky penalties: In what is beginning to sound like a broken record, the Bills must find a way to avoid critical penalties. The Bills were penalized 13 times in Week (10 were accepted), second to only the Buccaneers, who were flagged 15 times. It's worth noting that the Bills have a young team and preach aggressiveness to their defense, but regardless, their inability to correct one of their biggest problems of the preseason is not a great reflection on head coach Doug Marrone. Being flagged twice in one game for having 12 men on the field gives the impression to the rest of the league that the coaching staff, while new, isn't on their A-game.