1. Stay on the field. The Bills’ plan to run an up-tempo, no-huddle attack is risky against New England. The Patriots ran an average of nearly 75 plays per game last season. If the Bills can’t stay on the field that means more chances for Tom Brady and Co. That’s a recipe for the Patriots to put up 40 points. Buffalo last season ranked 13th in the NFL in third-down conversions, at 38.9 percent. A similar number would be acceptable today, but the Bills’ goal should be 50 percent. New England ranked just 22nd in the league defensively on third downs.
2. Make the early downs count. Success on third down obviously comes easier when the plays are run from manageable distances. The best way to set those up is to get running back C.J. Spiller going. The Patriots’ rush defense is stout, particularly up the middle with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. The Patriots’ linebackers are big - Jerod Mayo is 250 pounds, Brandon Spikes is 255 and Dont’a Hightower (right) is 270. The best way for Spiller to challenge them will be sideline to sideline, where he can use his elite speed. Another way to do that is to get Spiller going in the screen game. He’s a good receiver who had 43 catches last season.
3. Tighten up the run ‘D.’ Brady’s greatness masks an underrated rushing attack for the Patriots. New England ranked second in the NFL in rush attempts (523) and seventh in rushing yards last season, with 2,184. The Pats piled up 247 yards on the ground last season in the win in Buffalo, getting the Bills’ defense spread out in a nickel package and then running it right at them. If New England tries the same thing today, it will be dependent on the front four of Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Alex Carrington to clog up running lanes. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bills play three safeties at a time – even without Jairus Byrd.
4. Hang on in the secondary. Entering today’s game without Byrd and second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore (wrist) is the worst-case scenario for the Bills’ secondary. There is simply no way to replace those two players. However, the Bills will catch a break with Amherst native Rob Gronkowski (back) likely out at tight end for New England. One of the more intriguing matchups today will be New England slot receiver Danny Amendola against Bills cornerback Ron Brooks. Amendola is the most accomplished player among the Patriots’ new receivers.
5. Come out swinging. There is something special about opening day. It’s full of hope, and that’s accentuated this year by the presence of a new coach and quarterback. The Ralph should be rocking. If the Bills can hit a big play early the momentum will squarely be in their favor. The Patriots did give up 37 plays last season of 25 yards or more. The last time the Bills hosted New England in a season opener was in 2003 – a memorable 31-0 blowout victory that remains one of the best moments in Orchard Park in the past 15 years. That was also the last time New England lost its opener.
Outlook: Brady is 20-2 in his career against the Bills. Even with a new cast of pass catchers, there is no reason to believe he can’t carve up a depleted Buffalo secondary.
Prediction:Patriots 37, Bills 20