BOSTON (CBS) – Finally, it’s time for football.
It’s been eight months since the Patriots’ disappointing loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship, and after making the news for all the wrong reasons this off-season — from Wes Welker’s departure to Aaron Hernandez’s arrest for murder, not to mention all the hoopla that went with bringing in Tim Tebow — we can now just settle in to that comfortable throne reserved for each Sunday in the fall/winter.
There are high hopes for the Patriots, who are once again expected to run away with the AFC East and make another deep playoff run. But that is getting way ahead of ourselves. It all starts this afternoon in Buffallo, where the Patriots have enjoyed their fair share of success with Tom Brady under center. He’s 20-2 against the Bills in his career, and his 51 touchdowns against the Bills are the most he’s thrown against any opponent.
But this is a new day, a new season, and a whole new team. The expectations are high and the end-goal remains the same, but right now the focus is on this September afternoon in Buffalo. Here is what to watch for in Game 1 of 16:
Brady’s New Targets
For all the success Brady has had against the Bills in his career, his new crop of receivers own a total of zero touchdowns against Buffalo. Granted, Brady has seen them twice a year and none of the others have been to Ralph Wilson as a professional, so that makes a bit of a difference. But the point is Brady and the offense are entering a brave new world of the unknown. Three rookie receivers, a rookie tight end, an exciting but injury-prone Welker clone, and Julian Edelman is what Brady is working with right now, and for all the success Brady had with Amendola (for one game) and Kenbrell Thompkins in the preseason, it’s a whole new ball game in the regular season. That is especially true for the trio of rookies making their debuts; Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Zach Sudfeld.
But, the best thing going for them is the fact that Tom Brady is the one throwing to them. Looking at the bigger picture, if he could do enough on offense in 2006 as a 29-year-old with Reche Caldwell, Ben Watson and Kevin Faulk as his top three receivers, he should be OK with this year’s group. As far as it goes for Sunday, life will be a lot easier with the Bills secondary is missing a pair of key parts in safety Jarius Byrd (doubtful) and corner Stephon Gilmore (out) for Sunday’s opener.
Brady’s new targets will be a big story to follow throughout the season, and they will undoubtedly go through some growing pains along the way. But with the Bills as their first “test,” and a strong running game to back them up, Brady and his new targets should be fine on Sunday.
There is a good feeling around the Patriots defense entering the 2013 season, and a lot of that has to do with the addition of Tommy Kelly to the defensive line. Adding a solid veteran alongside the always-steady Vince Wilfork, sophomore pass-rusher extraordinaire Chandler Jones, and Mr. Right-Place-Right-Time Rob Ninkovich and the Patriots defensive line is as stout as ever.
And their first test is to stop CJ Spiller.
The Bills took Spiller ninth overall three years ago, and with Fred Jackson ruling the Buffalo backfield, the electric youngster had to wait his turn. Jackson is now 32 with 932 carries to his name, and the Bills are finally turning Spiller loose. After rushing for 1,244 yards last season, the Bills are expecting even bigger things out of their star back.
The Patriors had their share of problems with Jackson over the years, not that it resulted in many losses, but Spiller will pose an even bigger issue. He’s an elusive runnier who isn’t easy to bring down, so it’ll be a full team effort to make sure he doesn’t break free. If the line doesn’t get him, it’ll be up to the hard-hitting linebackers to bring him down. If Spiller is able to make it into the New England secondary, who aren’t really know for their ability to tackle, chances are he’ll be running for awhile.
Spiller can also beat you in the passing game, so he’ll be a big weapon for rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. With a 23-year-old making his debut under center, Spiller will get plenty of play against the Patriots.
Secondary Remains A Primary Concern
Steven Johnson really doesn’t like the New England Patriots, but he sure does love to talk about them. The talented, but somewhat eccentric, receiver was at it again last week saying he doesn’t think anyone on the Patriots can cover him. That may be true, but he lost a bit of credibility when he said Patrick Chung was still part of the New England secondary. We’ll find out later today if he knows that Aqib Talib is now a member of the Pats, and will likely be all over him for the afternoon.
Talib said he didn’t hear Johnson’s comments. But the corner, who signed a one-year deal to stay with the Patriots, now has some more motivation to make sure Johnson doesn’t find the end zone (plus, who knows what Stevie would do when he gets there).
Johnson’s comments pretty much sum up the major concern with the Patriots entering the 2013 season. The secondary was been, to put it lightly, atrocious at times the last three seasons. They’ve ranked at the bottom of the NFL in passing yards allowed, and the bend-don’t-break D will only get you so far. An improved pass-rush will help mask the problems in the secondary, but won’t solve it. The Patriots added Adrian Wilson in the off-season to get a veteran presence back there, but he was done before he took the field in a meaningful game. Because of that, the Patriots secondary trots out the same starting four that had mixed success — at best — in 2012.
It’s a new year for the Patriots, and their secondary had a whole training camp together this time around. Talib made an instant impact upon his arrival following last season’s trade deadline, and there will be just as much pressure on him to do the same for a full season.
But for Sunday, he just needs to worry about keeping Johnson out of the end zone.
Tune in to Patriots-Bills today at 1 p.m. on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV. Pregame coverage begins at 10 a.m. on 98.5 FM and at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay on WBZ-TV. Following the game, stay tuned for full post game reaction and analysis on 98.5 The Sports Hub, and for Patriots 5th Quarter on myTV38.