While the Buffalo Bills were a sexy pick to make the playoffs this season after adding Mario Williams and Mark Anderson on the defensive side of the ball, did anyone envision the New England Patriots starting 1-2 this season?
And can you imagine if they come out flat in Buffalo and drop a third straight game?
Crazier things have happened, of course, and the Bills did beat them in Week 3 of last season. And this is a better Bills team this year, though the running back situation remains up in the air, with injuries to Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
This promises to be one of the better games of the weekend. Let's take a closer look at this vital early-season game between AFC East rivals.
Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo, New York
When: Sunday, September 30 at 1 p.m. ET
Listen: Sirius 91 and 117; Westwood One
Stream: NFL Audio Pass
Betting Line: Patriots (-4.5), according to Bovada
Patriots Injury Report (via ESPN)
WR Julian Edelman, Hand, Questionable
RB Shane Vereen, Questionable
TE Aaron Hernandez, Out
Bills Injury Report (via ESPN)
WR Ruvell Martin, Questionable
RB Fred Jackson, Knee, Questionable
RB C.J. Spiller, Shoulder, Doubtful
What's At Stake?
Generally, it's enough that this game is a clash between AFC East rivals, and there are divisional standings in play. But when you add in the fact that Buffalo could move to 3-1 while giving the Patriots a shocking 1-3 start to the season, this game takes on even more importance.
Fantasy Start 'Em, Sit' Em and Sleeper
For the Bills, there are worse plays than Ryan Fitzpatrick, but you can probably do better. If either Fred Jackson or C.J. Spiller starts, they must be started. Steve Johnson is an every-week flex option at this point as well.
For your sleeper, it's all about Tashard Choice if Jackson and Spiller can't go. I'm not saying he'll put up the same crazy numbers that the aforementioned studs would, but given the success the two have had in this offense, it isn't crazy to think Choice could give you a nice day.
Think 70 yards from scrimmage and a score. Not bad for a one-week waiver addition, right?
What They're Saying
Bills' defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt is back in the AFC East after being away from the division for eight years, after his stint as head coach of the Miami Dolphins ended in 2004.
Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Globe takes a look at the defensive scheme he runs, and how Tom Brady has dealt with it in the past:
Wannstedt seldom likes to blitz, though he is doing that more this time around with linebacker rushes. The cornerbacks are asked to play press coverage a majority of the time, with safety help over the top. And the tackles have to take up blockers to keep the linemen off the linebackers, who are asked to clean up against the run.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has had mixed results against Wannstedt in his career, though considering how much the game has changed, it’s almost impossible to compare statistics from eight years ago with today.
Brady was 5-3 against Wannstedt’s Dolphins. He completed 130 of 231 passes (56.3 percent) for 1,348 yards (5.8 yards per attempt) with 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. His quarterback rating was 74.7.
Times change, and Brady is certainly a better quarterback than he was back then. But the Bills front four is pretty dangerous themselves, as we'll get into later on in this piece.
Patriots Player to Watch: Wes Welker, WR
It's crazy to think that we still don't know what Welker's role is on this team. While he put up huge numbers against the Baltimore Ravens (eight receptions for 142 yards), he was aided by the fact that Julian Edelman—or as I like to call him, Welker Lite—left the game with a hand injury.
If the Patriots honestly think they can get Welker's production from Edelman, they've got another thing coming. Why mess with a good thing? Tom Brady and Welker have formed one of the most consistent connections for years now.
Against the Bills, the good work they put in together a week ago should continue. Welker is a vital part of this offense, even if the Patriots want to go with Welker Lite to save a few bucks.
Bills Player to Watch: Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB
Who is Ryan Fitzpatrick?
Is he the quarterback that led the Bills to a 5-2 start last year behind 14 touchdown passes to seven interceptions, and has a 95.2 passer rating and eight touchdowns thus far this season? Or is he the guy that wilted down the stretch last year, as the Bills finished the season 1-8 behind Fitzpatrick's 16 picks?
If Jackson and Spiller can't play, the game will fall on the right shoulder of Fitzpatrick. The Patriots' corners can be beaten, but Fitzpatrick can't afford to turn the ball over and give Brady and the dangerous Pats offense extra possession.
As Fitz goes, so to will the Bills go in this one.
Key Matchup: Patriots Offensive Line vs. Bills Defensive Line
If you don't pressure Brady, he'll carve your secondary to shreds all game long. If you try to rely on the blitz to pressure him, he'll make quick reads and carve your secondary to shreds all game long.
But if you can pressure him with four rushers and drop seven into coverage, you have a chance. And the Bills have the defensive line to pull off that feat.
With Mario Williams and Mark Anderson coming off the edge and Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus creating push through the middle, Brady could find himself with a constantly shrinking pocket on Sunday. If the Patriots offensive line isn't up to the task, the Bills could stifle this offense like the Arizona Cardinals did.
If you think the Bills added Williams and Anderson for fun this offseason, think again—this was in large part about building a defensive line that could give Brady fits. We'll see if that plan comes to fruition in Week 4.
I think this is going to be a tough affair, but I don't trust Fitzpatrick and I can't imagine the Patriots losing three games in a row. Still, it will be close. Look for Brady to lead the Patriots to a late, game-winning score as the Patriots win, 24-21.
Hit me up on Twitter—my tweets wouldn't allow fake Golden Tate touchdowns to stand.