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This is it. Week one of the NFL season has finally arrived. It’s a bittersweet time since it also means the end of summer. But I have been anxiously awaiting this week all summer, the time when all the fantasy drafts and projections turn into results that no one saw coming.
This year, the Patriots get to open up their season with the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo has been the AFC East cellar dweller (last place finisher) for the last five seasons. New England has won the division nine of the last ten seasons. But will those previous statistics play out this time around? In the past five seasons, New England has lost to Buffalo just once in ten contests. The last time the two teams played each other in the season opener was in 2009, when the Pats won an ugly one 25-24.
As I’m sure every Patriots fan is aware, this team does not have the offensive weapons they have had in the past. Tom Brady’s top five pass catchers from last season will not be suiting up on Sunday. Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead are no longer with the team. Rob Gronkowski will not be ready for this week’s contest, but he wasn’t placed on the physically unable to perform list, meaning the Pats expect him back before Week 6. Based on practice reports, it could be sooner rather than later.
In the mean time, Bill Belichick has attempted to reload by getting younger, which I must admit was a curious offseason approach. He replaced Welker with the younger, but often injured Danny Amendola. Belichick is relying on rookies Kembrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Zach Sudfeld and Josh Boyce to step in and become the top targets. This isn’t an easy task, but they have all had solid preseasons and if anyone can make these rookies into stars, it’s Tom Brady. Running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen should also help make the transition easier by running wild and keeping defenses honest.
Buffalo is undergoing an even bigger transformation. After throwing a ton of money at quarterback and Harvard product Ryan Fitzpatrick less than two years ago, the Bills decided to cut him and start over at the position. They also have a new head coach in former Syracuse University Coach Doug Marrone. The team used their first round pick on the big and explosive EJ Manuel and signed underachieving journeyman Kevin Kolb to compete for the spot. However, Kolb is out for the year with yet another concussion problem and Manuel is recovering from minor knee surgery. However, Coach Marrone finally decided on Wednesday that Manuel was healthy enough to get the nod.
Manuel has some nice weapons to play with. Running back CJ Spiller looks like he’s about to become a star after averaging a whopping 6 yards per carry last season. He topped 1,200 yards despite getting just over 200 carries and he’ll get more as the unquestioned feature back this year. Consistent 1,000-yard receiver Stevie Johnson is back and he now has a weapon opposite of him in USC rookie Robert Woods.
This game will come down to which team can adjust to their new look the quickest. I think the combination of Manuel’s dual threat and Spiller’s big play speed could pose a problem for the New England defense in the beginning. However, I don’t think they will run wild because the Patriots’ defense usually contains the run well. And despite Stevie Johnson’s claim that the Pats’ defense has no one who can cover him, I don’t see Aqib Talib allowing him to top 100 yards in this one although I wouldn’t be surprised if he reached the endzone.
I also expect the Pats’ offense to come out of the gate a bit slow. If the rookies play like rookies then it won’t be easy for Brady to march up and down the field, but I expect Thompkins and Sudfeld to play major roles along with Amendola. I think what will ultimately put New England over the edge in this one is the running game. I expect both Ridley and Vereen to have monster days, in particular the first half. This should give Brady plenty of room to operate once the game progresses.
Ultimately, look for a frustrating first half where the score is low and within seven points. In the second half, look for the Pats to pick things up and take control while cruising down the stretch to a double digit win. My guess on the score is 24-13 in favor of New England assuming Manuel is indeed healthy and able to play at full strength.
Tags: Aaron Dobson, Aaron Hernandez, Bill Belichick, Brandon Lloyd, Buffalo Bills, CJ Spiller, Danny Amendola, Danny Woodhead, Doug Marrone, EJ Manuel, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins, Kevin Kolb, New England Patriots, Rob Gronkowski, Robert Woods, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Steve Johnson, Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Zach Sudfeld