After three games, both the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills have begun to exhibit an inevitable wear and tear. Several key players were limited on the practice field Thursday. Others were absent. Bill Belichick and Chan Gailey have undoubtedly been game-planning to minimize their losses and exploit new matchups.
Let's take a look at some of the key players who are questionable at best for Sunday:
Bills RB Fred Jackson has been sidelined since Week 1 with a sprained right knee. When healthy, Jackson serves as the Bills' primary ball carrier. At his best, Jackson is an elite threat on the ground. Last year he managed 934 yards and 6 touchdowns through ten games, before injury struck.
The Bills hoped a healthy Jackson could make them a surprise team in the AFC. However, His opening-day injury in 2012 seemed serendipitous as it allowed C.J. Spiller to come storming off the bench to rack up monster numbers.
But with Spiller joining Jackson in the training room in Week 3, the Bills' luck may have run out. ESPN reports that Jackson has been limited in practice, although he may still make his return in time to face the Patriots. He experienced soreness today and is questionable as Sunday approaches.
If Jackson is unavailable, the Bills' rushing attack may have to rely on Tashard Choice. In their last visit to Buffalo, the Patriots struggled to slow down Jackson, who ran for 74 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries. Patriots fans will surely be hoping to see Jackson on the bench come Sunday.
Edelman has emerged in 2012 as one of Tom Brady's favorite weapons, being targeted 15 times through three games. The elusive slot receiver is a great option when Brady is facing pressure, as Edelman can routinely turn short passes into decent gains.
Edelman did not practice Thursday and is not likely to play a large part on Sunday. If Edelman is out, expect Brady to give Wes Welker more attention. Welker dominated Buffalo last September and should have little trouble covering for Edelman this weekend.
Deion Branch, who recently re-signed with New England, is also expected to see more looks if Edelman is absent.
C.J. Spiller stepped in for starting running back Fred Jackson in Week 1 and promptly decimated any defense in his path. The shock emergence of Spiller has been among the season's top stories.
However, the instantly elite Spiller had his dream start slowed by a shoulder injury last weekend against the Cleveland Browns. After three weeks, Spiller ranks third among running backs with 308 yards. Not to mention Spiller leads the league in yards per carry with a whopping 9.3.
Unfortunately for the Bills, Spiller is doubtful for Sunday's game. He did practice Thursday, albeit in a limited capacity. Perhaps a late recovery could see Spiller hit the field against the Patriots, but more likely the Bills will be lamenting the fragility of their two talented backs.
Logan Mankins did not participate in practice for a second straight day due to a hip injury. The Patriots star guard is now questionable for this weekend's game in Buffalo.
Mankins, a former first-round pick out of Fresno State, is the most talented and experienced member of a Patriots' O-line that no longer includes LT Matt Light (retired) and C Dan Koppen (released).
The Patriots face an elite pass rush this weekend that features top free-agent signing Mario Williams, former Patriot Mark Anderson and the Bills' current sack leader, Kyle Williams.
If Mankins is unavailable Sunday, Tom Brady could spend much of the day on his back. Mankins would also be missed in the running game, where he could otherwise be a key to a big day for RB Stevan Ridley.
Chan Gailey's defense must be salivating over the thought of a weak Patriots offensive line, missing its star guard.
Although Aaron Hernandez is not expected to play on Sunday due to a high ankle sprain, he seems likely to return earlier than previously thought. The Patriots granted replacement TE Kellen Winslow his release on Thursday, presumably because Winslow did not anticipate having much of a future in New England.
Hernandez was originally expected to miss four to six weeks but could potentially return next weekend against the Denver Broncos.
If he somehow surprises the Bills by playing on Sunday, he will allow the Patriots to trot out their vaunted two-tight-end set. His absence will most likely cause the Patriots to line up in the shotgun early and often, as they did against Baltimore.
A heavy dose of the shotgun could mean a reduced role for RB Stevan Ridley, with Danny Woodhead, Wes Welker and Deion Branch likely to see more of the ball. Meanwhile, Hernandez's partner, Rob Gronkowski, will be expected to step up despite increased coverage.