Pats leave turmoil behind, visit Manuel, Bills

The actual arrival of the regular season could be the perfect therapy for the New England Patriots, which could be the worst of all possible signs for the rest of the NFL.

Representing the rest of the NFL in Week 1 are the Buffalo Bills.

Buffalo, while unveiling a new coach (Doug Marrone) and a new quarterback (first-rounder EJ Manuel) of its own; will host New England in the curtain- raiser for both teams on Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Patriots found themselves amid familiar company when last we left them, following a 15-point loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game. Since then, however, it'd be just a slight understatement to things have changed a bit.

Last year's top wide receivers, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, exited Foxborough after falling just short of 200 combined catches last season, while versatile Danny Woodhead is gone as well. The tight end spot has changed for far grimmer reasons, after Aaron Hernandez was released after being arrest on a murder charge in June.

New England's other stud tight end, Buffalo-area native Rob Gronkowski, is still under contract, but his status for the opener is doubtful after an offseason dotted with surgeries on his forearm and back. Gronk didn't play in the preseason and didn't sound remarkably confident when asked if Sunday was on the table.

"I'm preparing every single day to the max of my ability, preparing every day to (do) the best I can," he said. "When my number's called, that's when I'll play. I can't tell you when that will be."

Also dinged-up, but far more likely to play, is offseason free agent signee Danny Amendola, who's had groin issues in the late summer but is expected to be available against the Bills. He caught 85 passes with St. Louis last season and is forecast by many as a potential breakout player in 2013.

Also back in the fold is veteran wideout Julian Edelman, who's joined by newcomers Aaron Dobson (draft choice), Josh Boyce (draft choice) and Kenbrell Thompkins (free agent) at wide receiver, along with tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan and Zach Sudfeld.

Though he was briefly troubled by a preseason knee issue, Brady is expected to be Brady once the season begins. He completed nearly 63 percent of his passes, came within 173 yards of 5,000 and had more than four times as many TD passes as interceptions in 2012 -- and has won 20 of 22 career starts against the Bills.

If he turns to hand the ball off, the likeliest recipient is Stevan Ridley, who gashed Buffalo for 204 yards in two meetings last year while scoring three times.

That Bills defense was second-to-last in the league against the run, an immediate priority for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who instituted a 3-4 scheme upon arrival. He'll have to get by, though, without at least one starting cornerback -- Stephon Gilmore (wrist) -- and perhaps a top-flight safety, Jairus Byrd (foot).

On offense for the Bills, it's all about Manuel, whom Marrone grabbed with the 16 round when many expected him to wait and go after his own college starter, Ryan Nassib, who ultimately was plucked by the New York Giants.

"I'd be lying if I'm sitting here saying, 'I don't expect him to do great things,'" Marrone said. "We expect not just EJ, but all of our players that are out there to perform at a very, very high level."

Manuel will have some fellow offensive toys to play with, including premier running back C.J. Spiller, who ran for 1,244 yards last season and whose 6.0 yards per carry equaled 2,000-yard man Adrian Peterson. Through the air, the No. 1 man is outspoken Stevie Johnson, who reached four-digit yardage for the fourth straight season while catching 79 passes.

Behind Johnson are youngsters T.J. Graham, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin.

New England's newest stalwart face on defense is cornerback Aqib Talib, who arrived from Tampa Bay during the 2012 season. Also likely to meet up with Johnson and Co. is safety Devin McCourty.

"McCourty, he's been a Pro Bowl player," Johnson said. "But I still think we can take advantage of their defense."


Though the New England defense isn't typically thought of among the league's elite, it's still quite a chore for a rookie QB in his first NFL game -- which is precisely the scenario being lived by Buffalo starter Manuel.

Can the front line rattle the youngster? Will he let nerves force him into the mistakes that tended to come in bunches during adverse times at Florida State.

On the other side, New England's Brady faces a defensive unit choreographed by a familiar foe, Pettine, who held the same role under Rex Ryan in New York before the two parted ways after last season. Pettine figures to have more leeway to run his own ship than he did while under Ryan's thumb, so it'll be interesting to see if he has more success than Gang Green typically did with Brady.


Sure, it's a home opener. And sure, the crowd and the players will be especially revved up because it's the first game of the Marrone Era in Buffalo. But it's still New England against Buffalo, a matchup that hasn't spelled success for the Bills much in the last decade -- exactly twice to be exact, in a span of 20 games.

It may be close at halftime this time around, but by the time it's over expect the Patriots to have made it 19 of 21.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 31, Bills 21