By BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
With the crucial parts of the offseason program still many weeks away, football has entered the speculative period, in which fans start dreaming of kickoff and the hopes that come with a new season. Keeping this in mind, we look ahead to the first part of the Bills season and anticipate what kind of joy, or heartbreak, we might be in for.
Week 1 @ NY Jets
Opponent Summary: The Jets are certainly a team immersed in turmoil. Last year their coach’s brashness backfired, their defense under-performed, they started to lose faith in Sanchez and their locker room fell apart. Yet, despite all that, they still beat the Bills pretty handily. Twice. Coming into this season the Jets turned to Tim Tebow to try and restore some leadership in the locker room and push Sanchez on the field. The only problem is that the inclusion of Tebow will likely bring about even more drama, and the Jets still want to play a ground and pound style, but they have no back capable of carrying the load. Santonio Holmes is a dynamic threat at WR, and Stephen Hill is long on talent, but unlikely to do much in his first game. Where the Jets really pride themselves is their talent in the trenches. Their offensive line, led by Mangold and Ferguson, should be a good first test for the Bills revamped d-line, and Rex Ryan is going to send blitz often against the Bills front five. So, these new units will be tested very early on. How they answer will determine not only the outcome of this game, but possibly the entire season.
Intriguing Match-up: It’s easy to say that most Bills fans are intrigued with the possibility that Aaron Maybin will start for the Jets at OLB, and even more will say that they want to watch the CBs and WRs. Stevie versus Revis was really fun last season and the Jets are likely to start Stephen Hill, which means Hill could be going up against Gilmore; rookie on rookie.
However, I think the key to this game will be the Jets RT. Right now Wayne Hunter is penciled in to start at RT for the Jets, the position that will be responsible for blocking Mario Williams all game long. It could set up for a huge first game for Super Mario.
Outcome: 24-21 Jets
I know, it seems illogical to pick the Jets to win after everything that I just said. However, even though my gut is telling that the Bills will win this game, and they most certainly can, I think it’s safe to assume a split with most solid division opponents when doing predictions. The Jets will be at home and looking to right the ship after last season’s poor performance. An inter-divison loss for them would be a terrible way to start the season. I think they will lay it all on the line and, in the spirit of tempering expectations, squeak out a victory at home.
Week 2 vs Kansas City
Opponent Summary: This is not the same Chiefs team from last year. Jamal Charles is back and teaming up with Peyton Hillis to form a pretty solid one-two punch in the backfield. Their defense will be healthy with the return of Eric Berry, and their secondary is very talented. Dwayne Bowe provides a dynamic threat on the outside and will be another tough test for the Bills young secondary.
However, the Chiefs also ranked 26th against the run last year, and it’s safe to say I’m a little skeptical about how quickly Dontari Poe can help them to remedy that situation. In fact, I thought they had a pretty weak draft overall and didn’t really add much in the way of immediate impact talent.
This game should come down to Charles and Hillis versus the Bills run defense. The run defense was torn apart last year, but the new additions, and switch to a 4-3 should help that. This is going to be the first real test for the run defense.
Intriguing Match-up: Tony Moeaki versus the Bills D is certainly the match-up to watch. Coming off an injury, Moeaki might lack some of his old athleticism, but it’s no secret that the Bills struggle with athletic tight ends. They added Gilmore partially to help with that and also switched to a 4-3, which should enable more flexibility in tight-end coverage.
Outcome: 27-17 Bills
It’s the home opener after a truly impressive and momentum-building offseason; I just don’t see us losing. I’m not a believer in Cassel and I don’t really fear the Chiefs defense. I think that their running game will be solid, but not enough to single-handedly win the game for them. Unless they can manage some type of passing offense, the Bills should be able to hold on in this one.
Week 3 @ Cleveland
Opponent Summary: In my opinion the Browns are battling for the number one overall pick next year. They have some pieces on defense that helped them rank 10th overall last season and adding Trent Richardson will help, but this is a team that ranked 28th in rushing last year, so it’s not as if Richardson is running behind the world’s best line.
Not to mention the Browns complete lack of passing attack. I know they drafted Brandon Weeden, but he’s still a rookie, 28 years old or not. Rookie quarterbacks do not usually come into the league and set it ablaze. Especially when they’re throwing to the likes of Greg Little and Mohammed Massaquoi. Why the Browns didn’t add a dynamic receiving option is beyond me.
Joe Haden is a true shut down corner, D’Qwell is a tackling machine, and Jabaal Sheard proved that he can get after the quarterback, but there really isn’t any other player on defense that strikes fear in opponents’ hearts.
Intriguing Match-up: This could be a pretty uneventful game, so the eyes of many viewers will almost always fall on Stevie versus Haden. Stevie has done his best work against good CBs, and Haden seems to keep improving. Stevie certain has his work cut out for him in the first three weeks. Revis, Flowers and Haden are all arguably in the top 5 CBs in the AFC. It will really test his potential to be a #1 WR.
Outcome: 33-13 Bills
I don’t see this one being particularly close. I don’t expect Fitz to have a great day throwing the football, but the Bills will likely control time of possession and win the field position game, which shouldn’t be under-stated. In truth, I just don’t think the Browns and enough offense, and the Bills should wipe the floor with them.
Week 4 vs Pats
Opponent Summary: There’s not much to say about the Pats that people don’t already know. Brady is still going strong, they added another incredible receiving option in Brandon Lloyd, and their defensive front got better in the draft with the additions of Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.
However, the importance of losing Matt Light can’t be over-stated. I know they were planning for his retirement, but he’s still a tough guy to replace. Vollmer and Solder are both solid players, but neither is near the level of Matt Light.
They also failed to address their secondary. Tavon Wilson was wildly over-drafted, and they didn’t take a cornerback until the 6th round. I understand that people assume Dennard was a steal because he was formerly projected as a first rounder, but he dropped for a reason. He’s slow and doesn’t have great recovery speed and won’t be able to win as many physical battles at the line of scrimmage as he did in college.
Intriguing Match-up: This one easily comes down to the Bills D versus Hernandez/Gronkowski. The Bills have seemingly spent all offseason thinking about how to stop the two-headed monster. This will be the time to see if all that hard work has paid off.
Outcome: 34-31 Bills
Like last year, I expect these games to be high scoring because the offenses are just too good, and the secondaries are just too suspect. The Bills took the first game last year, and even though it’s important to be conservative with predictions early in the season, I truly think the Bills will split the series again. The best place to win one is at home. The Patriots are arguably the best team in football, and coming into a season assuming you are going to sweep them would be a mistake, but I think Stevie will relish leaving behind top CBs to go against the Patriots secondary, and the Bills front four will be able to focus simply on getting after the QB since the Patriots offer very little in the way of a running attack.
Week 5 @ San Francisco 49ers
Opponent Summary: One of the surprise teams of 2011, the 49ers look primed to make another run at an NFC championship since teams that hang their hat on defense tend to have an easier time maintaining consistent production than teams which rely on elite skill position players. Following that model, San Francisco will again ride the coattails of Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Carlos Rogers, and a host of other talented defenders. They were even able to add to the collection with highly underrated DE/OLB Cam Johnson, who I truly believe will be a valuable rotation player for the team.
The offensive philosophy is still going to be based on ball control and pounding the running game. The 49ers added Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James in order to lighten the load of, and provide insurance for, Frank Gore. All the backs will still be running behind a very strong offensive line led by Joe Staley at LT. Although, the 49ers may need to find a replacement for RG/RT Anthony Davis who looks primed to be a real bust after an inconsistent career at Rutgers.
However, the area where the 49ers improved the most might be at WR. After being led by mercurial Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan, the 49ers watched Morgan leave in free agency. They answered by snatching Mario Manningham from the Giants, drafting AJ Jenkins in the 1st round, and signing Randy Moss who proved in his workout that he might have a little gas in the tank. This is not going to be a team that is going to air it out, so all those guys need to do is be solid and consistently catch the ball and the 49ers will have a far more potent offense.
Of course, it all rests on the progress of Alex Smith. A potential bust, Smith resurrected his career under Harbaugh by proving that he can be a game-manager and control the ball. If he starts throwing picks and his accuracy drops, this offense might be in trouble.
Intriguing Match-up: Eric Wood vs. Patrick Willis. This may seem like an odd choice, but in a game that will likely be low-scoring and closely contested, this game could come down to a couple of plays. With Willis calling defensive plays and Wood adjusting his O-line, this game could truly be decided by which leader can make the right adjustments on the fly.
Outcome: 20-13 49ers
When you play a strong team on the road, wins are always going to be hard to come by. You’re not going to light up the 49ers, so this game has to be won by the Bills D preventing the 49ers from controlling the clock. Based on last year’s performance, I just think this team is too disciplined to beat on their home turf.
Week 6 @ Arizona Cardinals
Opponent Summary: This is one of the hardest teams to figure in the NFL. They seemed atrocious for most of the season, but then Kevin Kolb found his groove and they went 7-2 over the last nine games, including wins of San Francisco, Dallas and Philadelphia.
If Kolb lives up to expectations placed on him after his time in Philadelphia, this team could be tough to beat; especially now that they added Michael Floyd to pair with Fitzgerald. Boldin and Fitzgerald were the most dynamic receiver duo in the league, and I see no reason why Floyd can’t fill that void. The only real knock on him was his off the field issues, and there is no better mentor to cure that than Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals also have some pieces on defense with Patrick Peterson, Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, but they really need to find a consistent pass rush. They got eight sacks from Campbell and seven from rookie Sam Acho, but the rest of their sacks were a mixed bag shared by most of the other defenders on the roster. Acho could potentially be for real, and the team thinks they may have a second pass rusher now that O’Brien Schofield is fully recovered from knee injury, but that remains to be seen.
The team also needed to address some deficiencies on the offensive line as they try and open up more running lanes for the 24th ranked rushing offense, led by Beanie Wells and a now healthy, Ryan Williams. They certainly added quantity with Bobby Massie, Nate Potter, Senio Kelemete, and Blake DeChristopher, but, with the exception of Massie, most of them were more high profile because of name recognition and not ability.
Intriguing Match-up: Stephon Gilmore versus Larry Fitzgerald, and not just because the match-up of dredlocks will be awesome. This is going to be a legitimate test for Gilmore. None of the first five teams the Bills play boast a WR as dynamic, physical and intelligent as Fitzgerald. If he eats Gilmore up, this could be a very long day for Buffalo.
Outcome: 33-24 Bills
I have no faith in Arizona’s defense, but I also think that Floyd and Fitzgerald are going to have a good day against this young Buffalo secondary. As long as the Bills can make a few stops throughout the day and put some pressure on Kolb, I think they can score enough and run the ball well enough to get out with a win.
Week 7 vs. Tennessee Titans
Opponent Summary: There is going to be a lot to learn about the Titans during their training camp, and it all starts at the quarterback position. Matt Hasselbeck will battle Jake Locker and the team identity will depend on the outcome of the battle. Hasselbeck brings some stability and leadership, but limited playmaking ability. Locker brings all kinds of athleticism and upside, but I’m not a real believer that he can be consistently successful over a full NFL season. I guess think his accuracy concerns will come up and bite him if he’s a full-time QB.
The Titans might have to make their success with their running game. Chris Johnson showed at the end of last year that he still has some juice left in the tank, but the coaches also called out their offensive line for poor performance. Then they didn’t add any significant help. That’s going to be a problem if their QB play falters.
While they did help their QB play with a compliment to Kenny Britt in Kendall Wright, it wasn’t really their biggest need. True, if Britt can come back from injury at full strength, these two can be quite the tandem, but the Titans finished 31st in the NFL in sacks last year Mike Martin is a great player, but he’s not going to help that number. They need to find a way to get after the quarterback, especially since they don’t have Cortland Finnegan to lock down opposing receivers.
Intriguing Matchup: Marcel Dareus versus Steve Hutchinson. The Bills second-year defensive tackle will be moving to a position that many feel is his best fit, and he could really jump amongst the elite. Hutchinson will be a great test for him. One of the best guards in the NFL for over a decade now, Dareus can make a real statement by making some big plays against him.
Outcome: 27-10 Bills
I simply don’t think Tennessee is a very strong team. They’re going to turn to the run game, so the Bills won’t see many possessions in a game that I see being a grind-it-out type of affair. However, without Finnegan or a real pass rush, the Titans don’t have a defense that instills much fear in opposing offenses.
Week 8 BYE
Week 9 @ Houston Texans
Opponent Summary: Last year was the Texans year, only the injury bug refused to comply. Losing Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub and Mario Williams for extended periods of time should have killed any team, but the Texans kept shrugging it off. Truth be told, it was Schaub injury that really hurt the most. The Texans defense didn’t miss a beat without Williams and they ran the ball so effectively that losing Johnson was not a death sentence.
They’re going to be very strong this year too, and it all starts with the defense. The Texans were 6th in sacks, 2nd in total defense without Williams for most of the season and adding Whitney Mercilus will help. The offense also figures to be more dynamic with the addition of DeVier Poesy and KeShawn Martin, who I think was very undervalued in the draft.
The area that really concerns many Texans fans is the offensive line. One of the best lines in the NFL in 2011 lost two starters, which might impact the value of Adrian Foster and the rushing attack. I think Brandon Brooks can step in and fill one of the spots, but losing RT Eric Winston could be a big problem.
Intriguing Matchup: Mario Williams vs the Texans RT. This match-up is significant for two reasons, the most obvious being William’s return to Houston after taking the money and running to Buffalo, but also because nobody has any idea who the Texans will line up opposite him. How he responds to the likely boos and how he can handle this phantom RT will be a determining factor in the game.
Outcome: 20-17 Texans
I have a feeling that this is going to be a real defensive struggle. The Texans are a very aggressive, fundamentally sound team that will pose a real challenge to Buffalo’s offensive line. Similarly, Arian Foster is a dynamic, hard-nosed runner, and it will take a great performance from the revamped defensive line to keep him in check. The Texans are a real contender in the AFC and hanging with them will be a statement that the Bills are for real.
Tags: Buffalo Bills