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NFL Preview - Buffalo (0-0) at New England (0-0)



By Tony Moss, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - Tom Brady makes his formal return to the NFL field on Monday night, when the three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback and his New England Patriots play host to the AFC East rival Buffalo Bills, in the regular season lid-lifter for both teams.

Brady missed the final 15 games of 2008 after suffering reported tears of his left ACL and MCL on a low tackle attempt by Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard. In his absence, New England managed to finish a surprising 11-5 behind backup Matt Cassel, but missed the playoffs one year after finishing the regular season 16-0 and reaching the Super Bowl.

The 2007 season was a record-setting one for Brady as well, as the four-time Pro Bowler threw for 4,806 yards and an NFL-record 50 touchdowns versus just eight interceptions. Twenty-three of the scoring strikes went to wideout Randy Moss, also establishing a new league mark.

With Brady back in the fold, expectations are high for the Patriots again in 2009, and the addition of several well-regarded veterans has done little to diminish those hopes. Running back Fred Taylor, wide receiver Joey Galloway, and cornerback Shawn Springs are among the new Patriots who will be making their respective debuts with the team on Monday.

Meanwhile, former lineup staples such as linebackers Mike Vrabel (traded to Kansas City), Tedy Bruschi (retired), safety Rodney Harrison (retired) and, perhaps most surprisingly, defensive end Richard Seymour (traded to Oakland), will no longer be a part of the New England defense.

Seymour was dealt to Oakland in exchange for a 2011 first-round draft choice last Sunday, although as of the time of writing, Seymour had not reported to the Raiders and subsequently placed the trade in jeopardy.

The Bills are not without their own share of drama as the 2009 regular season commences.

With little more than a week to go before Monday's opener, Buffalo head coach Dick Jauron fired offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, elevating quarterbacks coach and former Bills signal-caller Alex Van Pelt to his position.

Van Pelt will have his work cut out for him, as the Bills are expected to start three players - tackle Demetrius Bell along with guards Andy Levitre and Eric Wood - who have never appeared in a meaningful NFL game.

Meanwhile, the Bills will be without top running back Marshawn Lynch, who will begin serving a three-game suspension for violation of the NFL personal conduct policy.

One Buffalo player who is expected to be in uniform on Monday is wide receiver Terrell Owens, who missed the team's final four preseason games with a toe injury. Owens was signed to a one-year, $6.5 million contract by Buffalo on March 8th, days after being released by the Dallas Cowboys.

SERIES HISTORY

The Patriots hold a 56-40-1 edge over the Bills in a series that dates back to 1960, and have claimed 16 of the last 17 overall, including 11 in a row since Buffalo's 31-0 home victory over New England to open the 2003 campaign. Last year, New England took a 20-10 home win over the Bills in Week 10, and gutted out a 13-0 win in blustery weather conditions at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Week 17. Buffalo is 0-8 in New England since last winning there in 2000, when the then-Wade Phillips-coached club was a 16-13 overtime victor.

The Bills have averaged just 8.7 points per game during their 11-game losing streak to the Pats.

The clubs have also met once in the postseason, a 26-8 New England road victory in a 1963 AFL Division Playoff.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick holds a 16-3 record against the Bills in his career, including a 16-2 mark while with New England. Buffalo's Jauron is 1-7 against both the Patriots and Belichick as a head coach, including 0-6 since taking over the Bills.

WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL

Van Pelt is going to have to get very creative about moving the football, and if he's smart, that approach will put the ball in the hands of Owens and fellow starting wideout Lee Evans (63 receptions, 3 TD) early and often. The presence of the future Hall of Famer Owens (69 receptions, 10 TD with Dallas) in the lineup should make things much easier for Evans, though whether quarterback Trent Edwards (2699 passing yards, 11 TD, 10 INT) has the time to find Evans deep remains to be seen. With Lynch sidelined, the running game will fall mostly to the underrated Fred Jackson (571 rushing yards, 3 TD, 37 receptions), who averaged 4.4 yards per rush a year ago but is going to find the sledding tough while working behind Buffalo's green line. Second-year-pro Xavier Omon, who had six carries a year ago, will spell Jackson against the Patriots. The Bills were 14th in NFL rushing offense and 22nd in the league in passing last season.

Belichick proved his notorious lack of sentimentality in the period since the Patriots last took the field for a meaningful game, ushering out many of the players who helped New England reach four Super Bowls earlier this decade. Experience remains among that group, however, with defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (66 tackles, 2 INT) and Ty Warren (41 tackles, 2 INT) anchoring the club's three-man front and Adalius Thomas (35 tackles, 5 sacks) and second- year star Jerod Mayo (126 tackles) continuing to do their thing at the outside and inside linebacker spots, respectively. Among the newcomers to the New England starting lineup who will be counted on for consistency are inside linebacker Gary Guyton (28 tackles), who will fill Bruschi's former role; Pierre Woods (27 tackles), who will be looked to for a spark in the pass rushing game; and the new cornerback tandem of Leigh Bodden (73 tackles, 1 INT with Detroit) and Shawn Springs (36 tackles, 1 INT with Washington), who will have a tall order right off the bat in handling Evans and Owens. New England was 15th in the league against the run last year, and 11th versus the pass.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

As he makes his return in full to the NFL field on Monday night, Brady will find himself surrounded by some intriguing new weapons. Joining Moss (69 receptions, 11 TD) and Wes Welker (111 receptions, 3 TD) in the group of primary targets will be 37-year-old flier Joey Galloway (13 receptions with Tampa Bay) along with former Jets tight end Chris Baker (21 receptions with New York). But Brady's ability to locate those pass-catchers will be determined in large part by the offensive line, which returns largely intact despite allowing 48 sacks last season. The man doing the running for New England should vary from series to series, though mainstay Sammy Morris (727 rushing yards, 7 TD) figures to get the start, with ex-Jaguars Pro Bowler Fred Taylor (556 rushing yards, 1 TD with Jacksonville) and Laurence Maroney (93 rushing yards) getting their opportunities as well. Even with Brady absent from the lineup last season, New England finished eighth in the league in scoring.

Buffalo's ability to stay in this game will be predicated on its success at pressuring Brady, and defending the Patriots' bevy of receivers. The Bills were not a good pass-rushing team last season, with a foot injury that sidelined Aaron Schobel (19 tackles, 1 sack) for the majority of the year a major culprit in their paltry showing of 24 sacks. But Schobel is back and healthy, and the presence of first-round draft choice Aaron Maybin (Penn State) off the edge should help as well. Buffalo also looks solid in the secondary, with Terrence McGee (66 tackles, 3 INT) and Leodis McKelvin (31 tackles, 2 INT) manning the corners and Bryan Scott (64 tackles) and Donte Whitner (61 tackles, 1 sack) lending the all-important support over the top. The Bills were only 22nd in the league against the run last year, but are expecting a better year from Marcus Stroud (45 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Kyle Williams (55 tackles, 2 sacks) at the point of attack, with linebackers Paul Posluzsny (110 tackles, 1 INT), Keith Ellison (71 tackles), and Kawika Mitchell (82 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) a year wiser behind them.

FANTASY FOCUS

If you picked Brady in your fantasy league, you did so with the vision of him being your starting quarterback, and he did nothing in the preseason that should make you nervous to use him. There should also be little hesitation in opening with Moss or Welker, who put up numbers in the New England offense no matter who is running it. It's risky to start a Patriots running back given their probable committee approach, but Morris figures to end up with the most touches of that group. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is always a must-start, and the Patriots defense is a good play this week due to the quality of the Bills offense.

On the Buffalo side, there isn't a single player who looks like a can't-miss, but Owens, Evans, and kicker Rian Lindell are those most worth taking a flier on.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

It's hard to say what NFL teams the Bills could hope to beat while in the midst of such a major offensive transformation, but it's safe to assume that the Patriots are not one of them. Even with some of the changes the New England defense has gone through in recent weeks, the noted defensive guru Belichick will throw the store at the woefully inexperienced Buffalo o-line, a situation that is going to yield negative consequences for Edwards and the rest of the Bills attack. On the other side of the ball, Brady might not look totally sharp in his first full game since February of 2008, but he'll get some short fields, make some big plays, and walk away with a confidence- building victory.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 24, Bills 3

09/10 17:05:21 ET

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