The last time the Buffalo Bills and the Carolina Panthers played meaningful football against one another, it was October of 2009. Dick Jauron and John Fox stood on opposing sidelines, and Ryan Fitzpatrick out-dueled Jake Delhomme at the quarterback position in a 20-9 Bills victory. A lot has changed for both franchises since then, and the rivalry will be renewed at Ralph Wilson Stadium tomorrow afternoon as these teams look to bounce back from bitterly disappointing opening day losses to playoff-caliber opponents.
From a national standpoint, the appeal of this game is clearly the matchup between two young quarterbacks hoping to take their respective teams to the next level: Cam Newton already has one Pro Bowl under his belt as he looks to cement himself as one of the league's elite passers, while EJ Manuel is coming off of a solid, if mostly unspectacular NFL debut in which he threw two touchdown passes in a near-upset of New England. If fans tune in for that intriguing matchup, however, they may feel inclined to stick around and watch two young, talented football teams try to right the proverbial ship in what shapes up to be a physical and competitive contest.
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Re-establishing home field advantage
As the Bills have degraded from perennial playoff contender to the league cellar over the last decade and a half, one of the predominant myths about the Bills has been that they have lost their competitive edge playing at home in Ralph Wilson Stadium (or, as it was known during the team's heyday, Rich Stadium). As it turns out, that hasn't been the case for most of the head coaches since Marv Levy retired; in nearly every regime, the Bills performed significantly better at home than they did on the road.
It has been a very long time since the Bills were a dominant team at home. Levy's Bills won 75 percent of their home games over the span of a decade (we discounted his abbreviated 1986 campaign as an interim coach from the numbers above, by the way), a figure that has seemed like a pipe dream for 13 years. Even as the team has toiled in mediocrity, however, that home-field advantage has remained roughly the same throughout.
Still, it's about the spirit of the thing: Bills fans long not just for the team to return to its winning ways from the early '90s, but to become the dominant force at Orchard Park that they once were. There's a reason that the Bills have struggled to sell out home games in recent seasons, and that reason only has its beginnings in the team's notorious playoff drought: it's just less fun to go to a home game these days. It's still decidedly fun, mind you, but the time and financial investment is easier to justify when you know you're paying to see a win, rather than paying to hopefully see a win (or, in many cases, even just a competitive contest). That food and drink you're so carefully preparing in a parking lot in the dead of winter is much more delicious when you're about to see your favorite football team handle business.
History shouldn't matter to football players trying to focus on their jobs, but it certainly matters to fans. Carolina comes into this game as three-point favorites. The Panthers are 13-20 in their last 33 games, as compared to the Bills' record of 12-21. Vegas is entirely justified in favoring the Panthers this week. The Bills are already 0-1 at home this season. At some point, playing in "The Ralph" needs to be more than an advantage for this franchise again - it needs to be an ominous date on their opponents' calendars. These Bills can start that process this weekend.
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Bills offense vs. Panthers defense
When Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett brought their up-tempo, West Coast-with-vertical-elements offense from Syracuse to the NFL, it's safe to bet that they did not envision such a dud of a season opener in the new attack - even with a rookie quarterback under center.
In their 23-21 loss to New England, the Bills managed just 286 yards of offense against a Pats team that they had shredded for 400 or more yards in their four preceding matchups prior to Week 1. Manuel was responsible for 150 yards through the air, and while C.J. Spiller was stymied on the ground (41 yards on 17 carries), Fred Jackson picked up the slack (67 yards on 13 carries) and the Bills ultimately ran for 136 yards on the day.
That right there is the mark of Buffalo's offense: they're a run-first attack that will heavily involve Spiller and Jackson, then allow Manuel to make checks to find big plays in the passing game. (He did that twice against New England for two touchdowns, for the record.) Don't look for much to change philosophically this week: the team will stay up-tempo, they'll still try to feature Spiller, and they'll keep the game plan simple for Manuel to try to maximize his output and avoid mistakes.
Avoiding mistakes will be a theme in and of itself, as well: the Bills lost several big gainers thanks to untimely drops and penalties in Week 1. The attack won't change, but the execution and synchronization has to if the Bills are going to improve on a sub-par performance.
Carolina's defense presents the Bills with much bigger challenges than did New England's. You'll be hard-pressed to find many more talented front sevens in football; supremely underrated pass rusher Charles Johnson and rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei highlight an excellent front four, and star linebacker Luke Kuechly anchors a supremely athletic trio of linebackers also featuring Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. Kuechly might be the best linebacker in football at the moment. In combination, it's a fast and physical front seven with enough depth to stay fresh throughout the game. After a rough outing in the run game last week, Buffalo's offensive line must be up to the challenge against this group.
Panthers offense vs. Bills defense
Buffalo's defense under new coordinator Mike Pettine looked much-improved in holding Tom Brady and the Pats to 23 points, and Brady himself to 288 passing yards and as many turnovers as touchdowns (two each). Then again, given what we've seen from New England's offense through two games, it's fair to wonder just how improved Buffalo's defense really is.
Carolina brings with it a solid run-oriented attack based off of Newton's talents as a read-option quarterback. Between he and aging running back DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers present a physical rushing attack that they use to set up a vertical passing game when they're clicking on all cylinders. Newton is already among the league's best at pushing the football down the field, and that should be the Panthers' basic approach heading into this game: establish the run, then attack the Bills' depleted secondary (they'll be without Stephon Gilmore, Ron Brooks and probably Jairus Byrd) as aggressively as possible.
What the Panthers do lack is a deep stable of weapons in the passing game. Newton and coordinator Mike Shula game plan specifically to feed balls to Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen, but beyond those two players, the talent is fairly marginal. Newton will look to spread the football out a bit more in future games - 18 of his 25 targets were to Smith and Olsen in Week 1 - but in general, that's the gist of their passing attack.
Pettine is a firm believer in his scheme. The only adjustment fans should expect this week is, perhaps, a bigger emphasis on defending the run against a more run-oriented team - which might mean slightly fewer dime works and a bit more work for Arthur Moats and Nigel Bradham. Otherwise, it'll be business as usual: vary the fronts, vary the coverages, and attack, attack, attack. Buffalo's defense has a lot of positives to build on from Week 1, but one negative they must improve on is their thus-far horrendous third down defense; New England converted 11-of-20 such opportunities, including a handful late in the fourth quarter en route to a last-second win.
All-22 film review
Bills running game: Wondering how the Patriots were able to corral the explosive Spiller? We were, too, and we took an extensive look at his day earlier this week. The short version: New England has a very good run defense, and the Bills didn't block particularly well on Spiller's carries. The longer version is linked above, and details some missed opportunities on Spiller's part, as well.
Newton in Panthers' offense: Carolina is coming off of a Week 1 contest in which they produced even less than the new-look Bills did against New England. Sure, they were playing a very tough Seattle squad, but even with the explosive Newton on the field, 243 yards of offense (125 of them in the air, a career-low mark for Newton) is a slow start for a high-upside unit. We took a look at some of Newton's missed opportunities against Seattle, and also at how the Panthers structure their offense around Newton's unique talents.
Two sleeper Panthers
Ted Ginn: The Bills have a punting problem. Shawn Powell has had major issues with his kick trajectory consistency ever since taking over as the full-time punter early in the 2012 season. He's solid pinning opponents deep and kicks a beautiful ball when he strikes the ball well, but all too often his punts come off low and provide excellent opportunities for big returns from opponents. If the Bills let Powell kick freely, keep an eye on the explosive Ginn - he's bounced around the league as an out-of-place former Top 10 pick, but he's always been an elite return man, and has the potential to blow the proverbial barn doors off of this contest if Powell even has one bad boot.
Greg Hardy: There are definitely bigger names on defense for the Panthers, but Hardy - a former sixth-round draft pick that broke out with 11 sacks in 2012 - enters this game on a hot streak. He has nine sacks in his last 10 games, a benefit of working across the formation from Johnson (who has eight sacks in the same time frame). Carolina has quite the pair of bookend pass rushers, but while Johnson gets more attention, Hardy may be just as dangerous.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Two sleeper Bills
T.J. Graham: Manuel told reporters that the Bills plan to take more shots down the field this week. With designated vertical threat Marquise Goodwin sidelined following hand surgery, the onus to get deep will fall on Graham, a 2012 third-round pick that has started for most of his first year-plus in the NFL with very little production to show for it. As good as Carolina's front seven is, their secondary is far from perfect, and there will be opportunities for Graham - whose vertical speed truly is elite - to get open deep. Having missed a good deep opportunity against New England, in which Manuel threw a ball harmlessly out of bounds ahead of an open Graham, it will be interesting to see if the Bills can free the speedster up in Week 2 for a big play.
Manny Lawson: When the Bills signed Lawson as a free agent this past March, most probably didn't envision him as a run-down player. That's the role he played in Week 1, and he excelled setting the edge and making plays against a very good Patriots rushing attack. Many did believe that the lanky and rangy Lawson would be used in coverage, but his athleticism may come in handy in a different way on Sunday: he'll be important in keeping tabs on Newton as a runner. As an edge defender, he'll need to be assignment sound to contain the read-option - and if things get hairy, he's one of the Bills' few front-seven defenders with the athleticism to mimic Newton's movements in the open field. He'll play a vital role against Carolina.
This game features two young, physically gifted and aggressive football teams. All signs point to this being a far more compelling game than most believe it will be. Buffalo has a lot to clean up - execution on offense, third down defense and penalties across the board, for starters - while the Panthers will look to kick-start their offense and continue their stellar play on defense. Defending their home turf with a win is an important step in the development of this young Bills team, and they have enough talent on both sides of the ball to accomplish it. Carolina is an excellent squad that will give Buffalo a lot of problems, but we're looking for a bounce-back performance from Spiller and the offense in a closely-contested victory. Bills 23, Panthers 20