The cards were stacked against the Buffalo Bills from the start of their opening-week game against New England on Sunday. New coach. Rookie quarterback. Injured stars on defense. Ten-point underdogs at home.
These were the headlines entering the week, but once the two teams got onto the field, none of those overhyped storylines mattered much.
Yes, the Bills suffered another gut-wrenching loss in the waning seconds to the New England Patriots, but there were enough positives to feel good about the direction of the team in the near and long term.
Let's take a look at positional grades for the Bills in a Week 1 23-21 loss to the Patriots.
Initial reviews of EJ Manuel's NFL debut have been mostly positive. The rookie quarterback tossed two touchdowns and finished the day without a turnover against an improved Patriots defense. His box score stats were limited by a lack of opening up the passing playbook in his first game.
Both of Manuel's touchdowns were impressive, but the score to Steve Johnson to begin the second half was easily his best pass of the day. The Bills' rookie signal-caller diagnosed the Patriots' play call early on and hit Johnson in stride with a pass to his outside shoulder in the left side of the end zone.
He was the victim of a few key drops and penalties—two issues that plagued the Bills all afternoon and ultimately became the deciding factors in the game.
Manuel can still be a little better with his accuracy on quick passes. Johnson and Scott Chandler each dropped passes in pressure moments that should have been caught. That being said, Manuel was a little off target on each pass, making each potential catch more difficult than they should have been. Many will say if a ball hits a receiver in the hands, then it should be caught, but Manuel could have helped his teammates out a bit better.
Nine months after finishing off a 6.0-yard-per-carry campaign, C.J. Spiller was a preseason favorite to carry the Bills and fantasy teams to victory in 2013.
Spiller's 2013 opener got off to a horrendous start, with a costly fumble on his second touch of the game, and his day never got any better after that. He ended the day with 41 yards on 17 carries, which amounts to a pitiful 2.4-yards-per-touch average.To put things in perspective, the worst single-game average Spiller had during his breakout season was 2.5 yards per carry against the New York Jets in the season finale.
Spiller will eventually get back on track, but the run game was supposed to be the team's identity on offense until Manuel got up to speed.
Not soon to be forgotten, Fred Jackson carried the Bills' ground game in the second half. He led the team with 67 rushing yards and 41 receiving yards as a reserve. No one was exactly sure what Jackson's role would be entering the year, but the team is lucky to have the talented back on days when Spiller struggles to find room to run.
Buffalo receivers only accounted for five of the 18 completions on the day for Manuel. This had less to do with them and more to do with the game plan, but there were still plays there for the taking from the unit as a whole.
Johnson and Robert Woods each hauled in over-the-shoulder touchdown grabs, but the production was sparse aside from the scores.
Johnson dropped two balls on the afternoon—none more important than the simple pitch-and-catch with the lead in the fourth quarter. On 3rd-and-2, Manuel found a wide-open Johnson on a quick out to his left side. The ball was fractionally off, but Johnson turned his head before the ball hit his hands and subsequently dropped the ball, forcing the Bills to punt.
Johnson's concentration in tight games has been called into question before, and his issues with drops in big moments is starting to become a concerning trend.
Marquise Goodwin made a nice catch in the second quarter and then fumbled it over to the Patriots. New England would eventually score a touchdown after the mistake to go up 17-7 in the middle of the second. Goodwin did not return for the second half and was seen in a cast following the contest.
Sunday was not the return Chandler had probably envisioned for himself. His stat line may have been Chandler-esque with four catches for nearly 40 yards, but mistakes make the former Iowa tight end a candidate for least valuable player of the contest.
Chandler wiped out two big plays on the day on drives that ended up with punts. He dropped a fairly easy pass on Manuel's first real test of the Patriots secondary on a throw downfield. Two drives later, Chandler was the culprit in an illegal block on one of Spiller's best plays from scrimmage on the afternoon.
A ho-hum performance for the Buffalo offensive line in game one is not necessarily a bad thing. There were obvious questions about the unit after the losses of Andy Levitre to free agency and Chris Hairston to injury, but for the most part, it looked like a cohesive group.
Pass protection was good enough to keep Manuel's jersey clean and the hurries from the Patriots' talented ends to a minimum. Run blocking could have been better, especially on the left side where Colin Brown is entrenched at left guard.
The only egregious error on the afternoon was by left tackle Cordy Glenn, who otherwise had a very good game against Chandler Jones. Glenn eliminated the Bills' longest play from scrimmage on a 19-yard pass from Manuel to Woods in the first quarter. The play would have given the Bills a 1st-and-10 at the 50-yard line, but the penalized play forced the Bills into a punting situation.
The defensive line was the hardest unit to grade in this segment. On one hand, the line put enough pressure to make Tom Brady feel a little claustrophobic in the pocket, but it was gauged too often in the second half by backup running back Shane Vereen.
Buffalo's line put up five of the seven hits on Brady for the day, including an acrobatic sack by defensive tackle Kyle Williams in the second half. Mike Pettine's defense promises big days from the line if it gets consistent pressure, and the Bills forced Brady into tough throws from the outset. Brady finished with a measly 76.4 QB rating and was at or under 50 percent completion for a good chunk of the game.
Run defense has been an issue plaguing this team for much of the team's playoff drought, and it was a hot-cold effort in that regard on Sunday. The Bills put up four tackles for loss on the day, but Vereen and Stevan Ridley broke loose for several big gains through the heart of the line.
The two Patriots backs finished a combined 23-for-147, which calculates to a 6.3 YPC effort between the two. If the Bills want to have any success on defense in 2013, they will need to limit the big plays on the ground.
Mario Williams is playing through plantar fasciitis, and it showed on Sunday. He was virtually nonexistent in the pass rush and finished with only two tackles on the day.
Overall, a good day for a young linebacking crew. The linebackers were consistently in a position to make plays as I flipped back through the defensive sets.
Kiko Alonso was stout against the run and seemed to be around the ball at the end of every play. He recovered the self-induced fumble by Brady on the goal-line stand in the third quarter and nearly had a much bigger day. On both the first Julian Edelman touchdown and the final acrobatic catch by Danny Amendola, Alonso was mere inches—even centimeters—away from tipping the ball away for an incompletion.
Unfortunately, both times the plays ended up as difference-makers in the Patriots' narrow victory.
Nigel Bradham and Manny Lawson both looked comfortable in coverage, but neither made any great plays.
Down their two most talented players, the secondary did an admirable job considering the opponent. The defensive backs contributed five passes defensed—four coming from Leodis McKelvin, who had a fantastic game as the Bills' top corner.
Ron Brooks and Justin Rogers saw extensive duty with Stephon Gilmore being sidelined, and each held their own against Brady's high-powered offense. Rogers picked off a tipped Brady pass to set up a touchdown late in the first half, and Brooks made several good plays matching up with Amendola.
It is easy to look at the box score and get upset at the defensive backs because of the yardage they gave up to guys like Amendola and Edelman, but their coverage was outstanding for much of the game. Patriots receivers were rarely wide open, and Amendola needed to make a miraculous catch not once, but twice on the final drive to snatch victory from the Bills.
McKelvin gambled several times but won his matchup almost every time down the field. He frustrated fantasy-darling Kenbrell Thompkins on more than one occasion and held the rookie to only four catches on 14 targets.
Da'Norris Searcy had a good game until he left with an injury in the fourth quarter. Searcy scored a 74-yard touchdown on a Ridley fumble and also picked up a sack on a perfectly executed safety blitz in the first half.
There isn't much to say about Buffalo's special teams, because it was rarely needed in the two-point loss.
Shawn Powell was the most-used player, and his punting was above average for most of the day. He had three punts end up inside the 20, and two of those were inside the 10-yard line. A punt in the fourth quarter pinned the Patriots inside their own 2-yard line and switched field position temporarily.
Dan Carpenter was 3-of-3 on extra-point tries in his first game as Dustin Hopkins' stunt double. His kickoffs were fine, too.
The return game was rendered ineffective due to the legs of Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen.