While it was no secret that during a horrific off-season New England lost some key offensive weapons, most of the Tom Brady faithful are grateful he is healthy enough to start the season opener amid several postseason injury scares. Winners of 9 AFC East tiles over the last 10 seasons, the Patriots open the 2013 season with a divisional matchup against the Buffalo Bills at Orchard Park.
New England finished the 2012 campaign 12-4 but lost in the AFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens 28-13 fueled by a speedy pass rush that simply didn't give Brady enough time to execute while simultaneously shutting down the running game. Brady may have to depend on a less experienced new look receiving core. Wes Welker is now catching passes in Denver from Peyton Manning, Brandon Lloyd just announced his imminent retirement, and Danny Woodhead is a San Diego Charger. Aaron Hernandez was released following his stunning arrest on a murder charge, and Rob Gronkowski underwent forearm and back surgeries in the offseason that will likely keep him sidelined for the opener. Brady and company have owned the Bills in the past winning 23 of the last 25 regular season appearances.
That's not to say the current roster core couldn't potentially match up with last year's vets. Danny Amendola, who caught 85 passes with St. Louis last season is battling a groin injury but is listed as probable. Julian Edelman who suffered a broken foot last December also hopes to return getting the bulk of the opportunities. Three rookies - free agent Kenbrell Thompkins and draft choices Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce - may also help fill the void at wideout, while free agent rookie Zach Sudfeld and veterans Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan could step in at tight end. While it may seem the lack of reliable options could result in a big drop-off from Brady's averages, the Patriots get a big boost in the running game thanks to Stevan Ridley who ran for over 1,200 yards last season along with 12 TD's.
Unfortunately for Buffalo their secondary was victimized repeatedly against higher ranked passing offenses and their run defense did no better giving up 146 yards per game which ranked next to last in the league. The good news is that their approach in 2013 is focused more towards a hybrid 3-4 look adopted by former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. However Stephon Gilmore (broken wrist) and most likely two-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd (foot) will miss Sunday's opener. The Bills were 6-10 in 2012 but have faith in rookie EJ Manuel although recovering from knee surgery could limit his ability throughout the first few weeks. CJ Spiller who also ran for more than 1,200 yards last season with a 6.0 average, may be asked to keep the offense methodical while becoming a short wideout in setting up screens for Manuel. Buffalo has Stevie Johnson who caught 79 passes during his third straight 1,000-yard season, and second-year player T.J. Graham, along withrookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin will only benefit the receiving core.
New England's defense is especially vulnerable giving up the big play where a slower secondary especially towards the corners resulted in multiple big gainers by the opposition. The addition of Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay in November alloed Devin McCourty to move to safety on a more permanent basis. he only real question on this defense is who the second starting safety will be. Although Steve Gregory is listed to start, he was mediocre at best last year. Behind him, Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon do not seem to be much better options. The second safety position will be interesting to monitor as the season progresses.
This Buffalo team has gotten younger in the offseason and while questions remain about the ability and direction headed by Manuel, the passing game and defense will only get better with experience. Brady will have to control and establish tempo with a new receiving core letting Ridley take advantage along with Shane Vereen who are capable of balancing out the running game. The Patriots still have the edge in personnel and weapons, and while we expect another shootout New England should be able to pull away convincingly in the second half.