Buffalo will have no shot at upsetting the Patriots in Foxborough if it can't get RB Willis McGahee on track. He was held to three yards on eight carries (not a misprint) when the teams last met in Buffalo last December, a 35-7 New England laugher. Buffalo has to establish the run to take pressure off of QB J.P. Losman, who will be making just his fourth career road start. He was 0-3 last season, but should've won at Miami (a 24-23 loss) when he tossed three TD passes. Losman should be able to exploit New England's aging linebacker corps with passes to McGahee and his tight ends. Defensively, it's always the same for the Bills: stop QB Tom Brady, who is 10-1 lifetime against the Bills. He rallied his team to a 21-16 victory last season at home, producing nine points in the final 10 minutes. WR Deion Branch is a holdout but Brady still has plenty of weapons. Shutting down his tight ends and his top running back, Corey Dillon, will be crucial.
--Bills RB Willis McGahee, who has dropped 10 pounds and will be more involved in Buffalo's passing game, vs. the Patriots' aging LBs, including the un-retired Junior Seau.
LB Takeo Spikes, who participated fully in training camp after Achilles' surgery last season, will start Sunday in New England.
He has declared himself 100 percent and the Bills felt there was no need to include him on their Wednesday injury report, even as a precaution. The Bills have veteran Mario Haggan in reserve if Spikes' lower leg tires. Spikes played only two series of live game action in the preseason.
Meanwhile, SS Matt Bowen, who missed three preseason games with a bone bruise on his lower right leg, is questionable. He did not practice Wednesday.
The Bills may start veteran Coy Wire, who his third on the depth chart and coming off an abdominal strain, against New England and Tom Brady rather than toss rookie top pick Donte Whitner into the fire. But coach Dick Jauron said Whitner will have to see some playing time with Wire not 100 percent in game shape.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
The Patriots will try to accomplish two very basic things in this game: run the football and stop the run. Considering the Patriots lack of depth at receiver and the fact that Buffalo finished last in the NFL against the run in 2005, expect to see a lot of Corey Dillon early and often. Laurence Maroney suffered a knee injury and his status for Sunday's game is up in the air. If the rookie can play, New England will use both he and Dillon to wear down the Bills' defensive front. Once they establish pounding the ball right at the Bills, it will force safeties Troy Vincent and Donte Whitner to crowd the line and open up options in the passing game for Brady and the Pats offense.
On paper, the Patriots defensive front seven holds a big advantage over the Bills shaky offensive line. Buffalo dumped first-round bust Mike Williams this offseason but unfortunately for the Bills, he wasn't their only weak link. In two games last season, running back Willis McGahee ran for 136 yards on 31 carries in a close 21-16 loss, then managed only three yards on eight carries in a Patriots 35-7 blowout. The Bills are 9-2 when McGahee eclipses the century mark so keeping him under wraps will be priority No.1 for the Patriots defense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Patriots OT Matt Light vs. Bills DE Aaron Schobel -- The underrated Schobel has traditionally been a thorn in the Patriots side. In two meeting last year against New England, Schobel registered three sacks, seven tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Light was out for both of those contests and this will be his first regular season game action since he broke his leg against Pittsburgh in Week 3 last year. Light will need to be on top of his game or Brady will be under heavy pressure all afternoon.
--Patriots TE Benjamin Watson vs. Bills CB Troy Vincent -- Watson is a tough matchup for any defense. His combination of size and blazing speed makes him almost impossible for linebackers and bigger safeties to cover. The Bills, however, have Vincent -- a former cornerback playing safety -- and his coverage skills should help him in this matchup. Putting Vincent on Watson is the Bills best chance of slowing down Brady's new favorite pass catcher.
--Patriots Special Teams vs. Bills Special Teams -- Buffalo has arguably the best special teams units in the NFL and they'll need a big play or two in this area if they're going to upset the Patriots. McGee is one of the most explosive kickoff returners in the NFL, while Roscoe Parrish is another dangerous threat as a punt returner. Pro Bowler Brian Moorman led the AFC in punting last year, averaging 45.7 yards per kick. Rian Lindell connected on 29-of-35 field goal attempts, while the Bills coverage units remain among the league's best. New England enters the season with untested rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski and will try to improve on a return game that was less than spectacular in 2005. If the game is close, the Bills special teams could be the difference.
Tedy Bruschi's broken wrist is getting most of the attention leading up to the game. While Bruschi is one of the leaders on defense, Laurence Maroney's injured knee could be just as devastating to the Patriots offense if he's unable to play. The rookie had a marvelous preseason and flashed the big-play ability that could make him a special player for the Patriots. Dillon had a down year in 2005 and he showed nothing in the preseason games that would suggest he's regained his old form, averaging just 3.2 yards per rush. Dillon is still an effective short-yardage runner but Maroney is much quicker through the hole and rips off longer runs than Dillon does at this stage of his career. The Patriots worked a lot on their power running game throughout training camp and the preseason. A 1-2 punch of Dillon and Maroney is a far bigger challenge for the Bills defense than just the aging Dillon himself. If Maroney doesn't play and Dillon struggles running the football, Tom Brady will have to put the offense of his shoulders like he did too many times in 2005. The big difference this year is the Pro Bowl quarterback doesn't have Deion Branch and David Givens around to catch passes, so the Patriots ground game needs to be productive and take some of the pressure off Brady. That has a better chance of happening with Maroney on the field.