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Chargers vs. Bills preview

9/17/2014

Few teams in the NFL are as hot as the Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers, who will meet Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Bills are off to a surprising 2-0 start and sit alone atop the AFC East. They've turned the ball over just once and have limited opposing offenses to less than 16 points per game. Add in strong special-teams contributions -- Buffalo players won AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors after both games this season -- and the Bills have found a recipe for winning.

Meanwhile, the Chargers (1-1) are hanging tough in the AFC West. With their 30-21 victory last week, they became one of just four teams to take down the Seattle Seahawks since the start of last season. Quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates are still the centerpiece of a dangerous offensive attack.

ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak and ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams preview the game:

Rodak: The Chargers seem to be riding high after knocking off the defending Super Bowl champions. What was the key to their victory and how do you see their performance carrying forward?

Williams:Ccoach Mike McCoy devised an excellent game plan for defeating Seattle. Rivers used the short passing game to control the tempo, and in the red zone, the Chargers got one-on-one matchups with Gates against linebackers or strong safety Kam Chancellor. And for the most part, Gates won. Defensively, the Chargers did a nice job of swarm-tackling Marshawn Lynch and Percy Harvin in the run game, and they forced Russell Wilson to make plays from inside the pocket. Lastly, San Diego won the turnover battle. It’s a good recipe for winning games on a weekly basis in the NFL, but in order to win on the road, the Chargers will need to run the ball more consistently.

The Bills are 2-0 at the start of the season for the first time since 2011. Can this team break the NFL’s longest playoff drought by making the postseason for the first time since 1999?

Rodak: They have the potential to do it. The Bills might have the AFC East's most talented roster. There are 12 first-round picks and five second-round picks, part of an overall mixture of homegrown talent and pieces added from the outside. The Bills have arguably the NFL's best defensive line -- three players went to the Pro Bowl last season -- and a strong group of offensive weapons surrounding EJ Manuel.

The question has always been about the quarterback, and through two weeks, I'm not sure the concerns about Manuel have been alleviated. The Bills have limited Manuel's pass attempts; he has 48 through two games, the second-fewest in the NFL. They're also 29th in red zone touchdown efficiency, a problem that has been masked by strong defense and special-teams play. The Bills have proven they can win games with that approach, but I still think we'll need to see more out of Manuel before the Bills are considered a strong playoff contender.

The Chargers have no shortage of weapons on offense, yet they often don't get the same attention as some of the NFL's better offenses. Where would you place Rivers among his peers at quarterback and how would you rate his receivers?

Williams: Rivers is a top-five quarterback in the NFL, in my opinion. He is accurate, smart and still possesses plenty of zip in his arm to make every throw on the field. And at 32 years old, he's in his prime. Last season, Rivers led the league in completion percentage (69.5 percent) and finished fourth in passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (105.5). However, he does not get as much attention as some of the other elite quarterbacks because he doesn't have a Super Bowl ring, and that's how we judge the best quarterbacks in the game.

I also believe San Diego has an above-average group of receivers, led by Keenan Allen, and perhaps the best tight end tandem in the NFL in Gates and Ladarius Green. Add Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown at running back, and Rivers has plenty of playmakers at his disposal to take advantage of specific matchups each week.

Manuel struggled during exhibition play but has been a steady performer during the first two games of the regular season. Manuel has completed 67 percent of his passes, has been sacked only once and has a 95.4 passer rating in helping lead the Bills to two victories. What has been the difference?

Rodak: There is a marked difference at wide receiver that has helped boost Manuel's play this season. Last season, Manuel and top wideout Stevie Johnson never seemed to be on the same page, plus Johnson had some lingering injury problems. Second-round pick Robert Woods was a rookie and third receiver T.J. Graham had a limited skill set that didn't do Manuel many favors. Manuel's leading receiver was tight end Scott Chandler (53 catches, 655 yards), but Chandler has just two catches in two games this season.

Instead, Manuel has fired away at top pick Sammy Watkins. Watkins has 15 targets, the most on the team. In addition, Woods came up with a pair of impressive catches in Week 1 that bailed out Manuel on some less-than-accurate throws. Manuel certainly deserves credit for better decision-making in his second season, but the Bills wanted to improve his group of receivers, and the difference has been noticeable.

The Chargers' defense ranks 30th in yards allowed per play (6.58) and opponent yards per rush (5.56) but has allowed only 19.5 points per game, which is 12th-best in the NFL. Is run defense a problem for San Diego and if so, how have they covered it up?

Williams: The Chargers struggled against the run last season but did a better job against a pretty good running offense (Seattle) Sunday. The key for San Diego's defense is actually how much the offense controls tempo. The Chargers are No. 2 on offense in the NFL in time of possession (35:13), so the defense isn't on the field for long periods of time. San Diego also forced three turnovers in two games -- along with a blocked punt -- and only has one turnover on offense. So the Chargers do a good job of stealing a few possessions each game. Those things help hide other deficiencies San Diego has on defense.

Watkins had a breakout performance against Miami, finishing with eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. We know that Buffalo leans on the run game with C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson and Anthony Dixon, but how has Watkins added another dimension to the offense?

Rodak: We didn't see too much of Watkins in the season opener; he had three catches in the first half and Manuel overthrew Watkins on his only target in the second half. Things changed in Week 2. He brings a clear advantage over most other receivers: Watkins has speed that allows him to be a deep threat, sure hands and a large catch radius that allows him to haul in off-target passes, and some shiftiness that makes him dangerous after the catch. The Bills had speed at receiver last season but lacked the route-running and pass-catching ability that Watkins brings to the table.