What to watch for: Bills-Patriots


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Excitement will be high at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, when the Buffalo Bills host the New England Patriots in their regular season opener.

The Bills have put the pressure on their division rivals in New England's last two visits to Western New York. Two seasons ago, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw four interceptions and the Bills came away with a 34-31 victory. And last season, the Bills opened a 21-7 lead before the flood gates opened and the Patriots came away with a 52-28 win.

This season, the Bills have started new, with a rookie quarterback (EJ Manuel) and first-year head coach (Doug Marrone) both making their debuts on Sunday.

Here's what to watch for:

1. Do Bills take deep shots early? The Bills aired it out on their first plays of their final two preseason games, which is something they could try again on Sunday. Manuel has a strong arm, the Bills have speed at receiver, and the secondary isn't the strength of the Patriots' defense. Connecting early on a deep ball might make the home crowd a factor early. Conversely, the Bills could try to stay conservative in the early going, trying to develop a rhythm in their running game with C.J. Spiller to control the ball. The early read on offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is that he isn't afraid to take risks, and the best bet is he'll throw everything he has at the Patriots.

2. Can Mario Williams be a factor? After a foot injury caused the defensive end to be limited this preseason, he has his first shot at getting back on track. Like the play on offense, getting sacks and causing turnovers on defense will keep the crowd in the game, and Williams is the Bills' man for that job. The Patriots have a solid left tackle in Nate Solder, but he will face a challenge if one-on-one against Williams.

3. How does the secondary hold up? The Bills will be without cornerback Stephon Gilmore and likely safety Jairus Byrd, the best two players in their secondary. It's undoubtedly something the Patriots will target, but New England has question marks of their own at receiver and tight end. With Rob Gronkowski unlikely to play, their top three passing options will be veteran Danny Amendola and undrafted rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld. It's a match-up of unknown vs. unknown, and who has the upper hand could go a long way to deciding the game's outcome.

4. Can the Bills stop the run? The Patriots put up historic rushing numbers in their Week 4 visit last season, with Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden combining for 243 yards on the ground. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine hopes to shore up the Bills' run defense, but in the last outing for his defensive starters on Aug. 24, Redskins runners combined for over 200 yards. If the Patriots decide to target the Bills in the passing game, their run defense will have less importance, but either way, they will need to find a way to slow down what can still be a potent Patriots offense.