Following a tumultuous offseason that resulted in the loss of several offensive weapons, Tom Brady provides the New England Patriots with some stability heading into the season opener.
The Buffalo Bills hope they’ve found their mainstay at quarterback in top draft pick EJ Manuel.
Brady and the Patriots look to begin a march to their 10th AFC East title in 11 years Sunday when they visit first-year coach Doug Marrone and the Bills, who are aiming to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought.
After finishing 12-4 and falling 28-13 to Baltimore in the 2012 AFC championship game, New England could be without its top five pass-catchers from that squad.
Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who combined for 192 catches last year, and Danny Woodhead are gone, while Aaron Hernandez was released following his stunning June arrest on a murder charge.
Rob Gronkowski has been practicing with the team after forearm and back surgeries, but the tight end didn’t play in the preseason and isn’t likely to play Sunday.
“I’m preparing every single day to the max of my ability, preparing every day to (do) the best I can,” Gronkowski said. “And when my number’s called, that’s when I’ll play. I can’t tell you when that will be.”
Free agent acquisition Danny Amendola has been battling a groin injury but is expected to be ready for the opener. Amendola had a career-high 85 catches while with St. Louis in his last full season in 2010 and is one of the veterans the Patriots are counting on, along with Julian Edelman.
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.
A lack of reliable options, however, could make it difficult for Brady to put up another big year. The two-time NFL MVP completed 401 of 637 passes for 4,827 yards with 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2012, finishing just shy of back-to-back 5,000-yard seasons.
Brady has certainly had his share of success against the Bills, winning 20 of 22 starts while completing 65.0 percent of his passes and throwing 51 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Brady passed for 340 yards and three touchdowns and Stevan Ridley ran for 106 yards and two scores as the Patriots put up 45 second-half points en route to a 52-28 victory in their last trip to Buffalo on Sept. 30. Ridley finished with 98 yards and a touchdown in a 37-31 home win Nov. 11.
Ridley, who rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, will attempt to build on that breakout effort against a Buffalo defense that ranked 31st against the run in 2012 with 145.8 yards allowed per game.
The Bills, however, hope to be much improved after implementing a hybrid 3-4 scheme under former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. They’ll attempt to slow down the Patriots without starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore (broken wrist) and most likely two-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd (foot).
Marrone, who along with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett helped build Syracuse into a formidable offense before joining the Bills, will go with Manuel to lead the team in his debut.
The No. 16 overall pick’s status had been in question after undergoing what the team called a “minor procedure” on his left knee Aug. 18. He was injured two days earlier while scrambling in a 20-16 preseason win over Minnesota.
“I’d be lying if I’m sitting here saying, ‘I don’t expect him to do great things,’” said Marrone, who looks to guide the Bills to their first postseason appearance since 1999. “We expect not just EJ, but all of our players that are out there to perform at a very, very high level.”
That includes running back C.J. Spiller, one of the team’s bright spots during last year’s 6-10 season. Spiller rushed for a career-high 1,244 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry, matching MVP Adrian Peterson for tops in the NFL among running backs.
Leading receiver Stevie Johnson finished with 79 catches during his third straight 1,000-yard season. The Bills have second-year player T.J. Graham, and they added rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin to their receiving corps.
They’ll try to stretch a New England defense that allowed 37 passing plays of 25 yards or more last season - tied for the fourth-most in the NFL.
The Patriots, though, improved in that area when they acquired cornerback Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay in November, allowing Devin McCourty to move to safety on a more permanent basis.
“McCourty, he’s been a Pro Bowl player,” Johnson said. “But I still think we can take advantage of their defense.”
The Patriots have won 23 of 25 against the Bills.
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