Matchup is worthy of better billing this time
These aren’t your older brother’s Buffalo Bills.
The Bills, who went 10-22 the previous two years and haven’t had a winning season since 2004, are 2-0. The partisans at Ralph Wilson Stadium, fresh off Sunday’s thrilling 38-35 victory over the Oakland Raiders, will be lubed up for the first-ever 2-0 clash between the Patriots and Bills.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Bills last won their first two games in 2008, when they started 4-0. They lost nine of their final 12 games under Dick Jauron, and he was fired nine games into the next season.
This is the Bills’ second season under Chan Gailey, and despite many new faces, his players seem to be buying into the system and playing fast on both sides of the ball.
A look at what the Patriots will encounter Sunday:
■ Quarterback: Harvard’s Ryan Fitzpatrick is the steady hand that runs Gailey’s spread offense. He is sixth in the league with a 109.6 rating and has thrown seven touchdowns and one interception. Fitzpatrick is unaffected by pressure - the Bills run a lot of shotgun out of the empty set - tough, and mobile. He has a strong arm with a long motion and doesn’t throw the prettiest spirals, but he gets the job done. Former Jets receiver Brad Smith will run the Wildcat, and the Bills love to sub him in for Fitzpatrick on second- and third-and-short.
■ Running backs: The Bills have two good ones in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, who is finally healthy. Jackson leads the league with a 6.5-yard average on 35 attempts. Spiller averages 8.8 on nine carries. Jackson hits the smallest of holes and is terrific on the second level.
■ Receivers: Stevie Johnson and David Nelson are Fitzpatrick’s favorite targets; Johnson has been targeted 20 times and Nelson 19 in Fitzpatrick’s 71 pass attempts. Johnson plays a little faster than his 4.46 pro day speed in ’08 coming out of Kentucky. He’s basically the Bills’ version of Wes Welker in the slot, and Nelson plays Aaron Hernandez. Johnson has a nagging groin problem, and if he can’t play, it would be a break for the Patriots. Tight end Scott Chandler is a tough matchup at 6 feet 7 inches, and Fitzpatrick loves him in the red zone.
■ Offensive line: The unit of left tackle Demetrius Bell, left guard Andy Levitre, center Eric Wood, right guard Kraig Urbik, and right tackle Erik Pears was much maligned in the preseason but has played very well so far. It is a very big group but could be susceptible to more speed on the edges. They handle blitzes well.
■ Defensive line: The Bills are a 3-4 team on paper, but they’ll often morph into a four-man line with linebacker Chris Kelsay dropping into a three-point stance. Marcell Dareus, the third overall pick out of Alabama, was hurt much of the preseason but is more of a disruption with every snap he takes. Tenacious nose tackle Kyle Williams is one of the league’s best. Former Raven Dwan Edwards is the other starter.
■ Linebackers: Kelsay has been outstanding so far, no matter where they play him. He is tough to move in the ground game. Nick Barnett came over from the Packers and brings his high tackling totals and tremendous energy. Veteran Andra Davis has brought leadership to the group. Shawne Merriman has not been the same player who dominated with the Chargers. They will use safety Bryan Scott as a sub linebacker and cross blitz him with Barnett when needed.
■ Secondary: A talented group, with safeties Jairus Byrd and George Wilson, and cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Drayton Florence. Second-round pick Aaron Williams is the nickel back, while Terrence McGee continues to battle a hamstring injury. Wilson seems to be the player teams try to take advantage of in the pass. Byrd is a ballhawk.
■ Special teams: Brian Moorman is annually one of the league’s top punters. Rian Lindell had a 39-yard field goal attempt blocked against the Raiders. Expect Spiller to return all kicks after Roscoe Parrish went on injured reserve. Spiller is dangerous on kickoffs, shaky on punts. Linebacker Chris White is a top coverage player.