For years, the AFC East was considered to be among the best in the league.
As of last year, the dynamics of the AFC East have changed again.
Now all four teams are highly competitive and it remains to be seen who will prevail in taking the division title.
For the Buffalo Bills, one of the most important steps they can take is to pull off a “W” against the biggest thorn in their collective sides—the New England Patriots—in the first game of the '09 season.
A win over any division rival is of the utmost importance but the Pats have left a particularly sour taste in the mouths of Bills fans for the past six years.
The last time Buffalo showed any productivity at all while playing the three-time Super Bowl Champions was back in the season opener of 2003, when the Patriots were blanked, 31-0.
Since then, it’s been nothing but heartache and embarrassment for a team that has been trying to recreate the success of their glory days with Jim Kelly and Marv Levy. If the Bills wish to be seen as a legitimate threat in the AFC East, they must somehow overcome the problems they have had in the past with the Patriots.
For Buffalo, there are three main areas in which they need to outplay their sneaky rivals.
They must put the heat on Tom Brady. If he’s not feeling the flames, the Bills aren’t doing their job
There was a time when DE Aaron Schoebel was heralded for being a sackmaster when it came to Brady. Injuries and age, though, have made it more difficult for him to achieve such a large task alone.
Enter the other Aaron.
Aaron Maybin, the Bills 2009 first-round draft pick, held out of training camp and most of the preseason while contract negotiations were being worked out. However, when he finally appeared, his fast-as-advertised first step and ability to bring the pressure on the quarterback earned him instant recognition from fans and media alike.
If the preseason is any indication of raw talent, Maybin might be in for a big year. Recording a sack in each of the last two games is pretty impressive considering the entire defensive line only combined for a total of 14 during the 2008 season.
Hopefully the two Aarons can work together to create pocket folds and cause Brady to force the ball. Consistently putting pressure on him will lead Brady to make poor decisions, and in turn, go three-and-out or toss the ball into the hands of a defender.
The Bills secondary must contain Randy Moss and Wes Welker
While this seems almost impossible, Buffalo now has enough gifted cornerbacks to give the Pats' receivers a run for their money.
It all starts with veteran Terrance McGee. The past few years have shown him to be one of the fastest punt and kick returners in Bills history and the NFL. He’s also an extremely perceptive cornerback. This guy can read plays from clear across the field.
Nonetheless, as with any team sport, McGee cannot tackle receivers of their caliber all by his lonesome. Being a defensive-minded coach, Dick Jauron picked up on this and spent money and draft picks the last few years on McGee’s reinforcements.
Leodis McKelvin, last year’s 11th overall pick, is learning quickly how to adjust to life in the NFL and come up with some big-time plays. While he still has some polishing to do, it’s pretty clear why the Bills wanted him on their team.
In his rookie year, he accounted for 32 tackles and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. While not overly impressive, lining up opposite McGee should provide him with the motivation he needs.
Finally, to add spice to the already flavorful mix, the Bills threw in the likes of the ballhawking Jairus Byrd from Oregon, Ellis “Mr. Interceptions” Lankster, and the properly named Reggie Corner. All of these guys, with help from one another, have the ability to keep Welker and Moss at bay.
On paper, it looks as though Moss will not be able to create separation as easily as he did last year. If this translates to the field, the Patriots offense is in for a real downturn. If not, Brady and Co. will be able to walk all over the Bills for yet another season, literally.
The Bills offense needs to step up and take the initiative when it comes to Bill Belichick’s sturdy defense
Trent Edwards is a game manager and has been praised for his pocket poise, though not so much this preseason. Terrell Owens is one of the greatest receivers to ever play in the NFL and Lee Evans is very underrated. The running back tandem of Marshawn Lynch and Freddy “Action” Jackson is among the best in the league.
The biggest question mark is the offensive line. With the trade of Pro-Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, the Bills have completely revamped this unit. If they can hold, the offense has the potential to be explosive.
However, many people wonder whether it will be fiery enough to get past the Patriot’s defense.
With the recent firing of offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, a multitude of questions have been raised. His replacement, Alex Van Pelt, was a former Bills quarterback and a backup behind Jim Kelly. While he’s quite familiar with the type of no-huddle offense the Bills are trying to run, it still remains to be seen whether or not he can actually lead them.
The fact that AVP, as fans refer to him, has only a little over a week to prepare doesn’t help his cause either.
One thing the Bills do have going for them on offense is the number of defensive playmakers the Patriots have recently lost.
Linebacker stud Mike Vrabel was traded to the Chiefs earlier this offseason.
The ever-determined Tedy Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison both decided it was time to leave the NFL.
The final blow came within the last few days, as five-time Pro-Bowler Richard Seymour was traded to the Oakland Raiders in an effort to create a younger, healthier team.
With the loss of experience comes the possibility of losing games, something the Bills may be able to take advantage of early on. If the Buffalo's re-tooled offense can successfully exploit the new missing links on the Patriots’ D, they may finally be able to find the end-zone, a true rarity when playing this team.
In order to start the season off right, and quiet all the naysayers, the Buffalo Bills must defeat or at least come very, very close to defeating the Patriots in the first game.
They can do this by getting after Tom Brady, defending their star receivers, and outplaying them on offense.
If they fail to do these three things and lose by a margin of more than seven points, they could be in for one very long year.
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