(WGR 550) -- When the start of September rolls around, hope and optimism for the coming NFL regular season is as prevalent as the air that we breathe. With a new head coach, coaching staff and quarterback, fans of the Buffalo Bills are no different -- excitement is abundant across western New York for the season to finally get underway.
They'll get their first taste on Sunday of how this version of the Bills will look, and they'll see them against a New England Patriots team that has dominated them since the turn of the century.
How will Sunday play out? Here are some things to look for when the Bills and Patriots square off at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday.
1) The start of a new era: EJ's debut
- The highly anticipated debut of the only first-round quarterback selected in 2013 will happen in Orchard Park on Sunday. EJ Manuel, thought by some as a project and by others as the quarterback with as much potential as any in this year's class, will be under center trying to run offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's offense the way they both envision it. Expect the Patriots to try and make Manuel nervous with pressure from all angles based on their film review of him and his tendencies at Florida State University. Starting offensive tackles Cordy Glenn and Erik Pears have a big job ahead of them, with both Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich having success against the Bills (3 sacks in 2 games) last season. The Bills might not over-simplify things for their rookie quarterback, but it would be fair to expect them to scale back the full offensive playbook just a little bit in Week 1 while still expecting them to take some shots down the field. As for the pressure of the moment? The maturity and presence Manuel has shown all along indicates that the moment of his first start won't be too big for him to handle. Whatever ends up happening in his first start, there will be plenty to talk about after his NFL debut.
2) The art of surprise an ally for Buffalo
- Going up against New England in Week 1 of the season may seem like a bad way to start things off in most years. While it could wind up in a loss due to New England still having Tom Brady quarterbacking the team, playing the Patriots in the first week is a benefit to Buffalo's cause. Noted for his ability to provide the blueprint in stopping his opponents, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has had no substantial game tape to review on Bills head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett in the confines of the NFL other than the vanilla preseason looks they gave. The mystery surrounding exactly how Hackett will call his offense might catch the Patriots off-guard and the Bills could jump out to a quick start because of it. Hackett is the true wild card for Belichick, and if EJ Manuel is able to move the offense down the field the Bills could have a solid beginning to the contest.
3) Spiller's best friend?
- A lot of focus thus far has been on the new parts of the offense, and one of them will greatly benefit Buffalo's budding superstar: C.J. Spiller. Much to the chagrin of the former coaching staff, expect Spiller to get the ball in bunches on Sunday and throughout the season. Don't just look at carries, Spiller could also have a big impact on the passing game as well. A certain part of the Bills' game that didn't get all that much run during the preseason will likely help Spiller find open field in the run game. Going back to Nathaniel Hackett's time at Syracuse, they ran the read-option with Ryan Nassib quite a bit. Now with EJ Manuel as his quarterback, who is very accomplished in running the football at the position, it would be silly to think the read-option won't play a role in the team's approach. In turn, Spiller's job could become that much easier on those play calls. All he needs is a defender to hesitate slightly for him to be able to blow by for more yardage, and that's exactly what the read-option is designed to do to a defense. If that part of the Bills' game starts working early on, Spiller could be in line for a big day.
4) In New England, 80 is the new 83
- Bills fans will learn about Tom Brady's favorite new toy on offense fairly quickly. Wes Welker has moved on from his time with the Patriots, and New England quickly moved on signing the lightning-quick Danny Amendola to man the slot receiver position for them. It was a dynamite signing and one that could yield very large results if he stays healthy. While the last part of that sentence isn't guaranteed, Amendola is healthy for the game against the Bills and could have a remarkable debut against their weakened secondary. He'll be matched up against second-year player Ron Brooks for most of the game, and Brooks hasn't shown to be all that consistent when he's been on the field in not only his rookie season, but through training camp and the preseason of 2013. If Brooks struggles early on, the Bills may turn to undrafted free agent Nickell Robey to try and contain Amendola. As long as Amendola is healthy and Brady is throwing to him, there may not be a cornerback on the roster that could limit their production on the field.
5) Pettine pressure is paramount
- Besides the obvious mismatch between Danny Amendola and Ron Brooks, the entire secondary could be in for a long day against perhaps the best quarterback in the history of the NFL. Second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore is out and franchised safety Jairus Byrd is doubtful, meaning Leodis McKelvin will be the man with the most experience of the back four. McKelvin and Justin Rogers will start at cornerback, while Da'Norris Searcy and Aaron Williams will get the nod at safety. McKelvin's struggles have been well-documented, Rogers hasn't had a good outing since 2011, Searcy struggled mightily in coverage in the preseason and training camp, and Williams will be making his first regular season start of his life at safety. Due to all of those factors, it's absolutely essential that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine dials up enough unique blitzes to force Brady to make early decisions and limit how much he can beat the Bills. Getting to Brady quickly with the likes of Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Kiko Alonso and others will be the defense's best friend when they trot out an inexperienced secondary.
Injury Report Buffalo: OUT: CB Stephon Gilmore (wrist), K Dustin Hopkins (right groin), G Doug Legursky (knee) DOUBTFUL: S Jairus Byrd (feet) PROBABLE: QB EJ Manuel (knee)
New England: OUT: T Will Svitek (knee) DOUBTFUL: TE Rob Gronkowski (back) QUESTIONABLE: HB Brandon Bolden (knee), WR Aaron Dobson (hamstring), S Nate Ebner (ankle), S Duron Harmon (hamstring) PROBABLE: WR Danny Amendola (groin)
Prediction: Patriots over Bills
- While the Bills can come out and surprise the Patriots a bit in the early going with looks on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, it may not matter when the game goes final. In the end the talent of Tom Brady against a weakened secondary, and Bill Belichick's ability to adjust on the fly, will give New England the edge over Buffalo once again. Don't blink, however, because you may end up missing something. Both these teams are going to push the tempo and run a lot of plays on Sunday.