When the San Diego Chargers make the long trek east to play the Buffalo Bills this Sunday it will mark one of the best match-ups of the weekend, pitting the surprising leader of the AFC East division against a team that just upset the reigning Super Bowl champion, Seattle Seahawks.
The Bills have the opportunity to begin the season 3-0 for the first time since 2011 (a season that quickly unraveled thereafter with the Bills finishing out the year at 6-10) and have won five of their last six games against AFC West opponents.
San Diego meanwhile, is coming off an emotionally charged victory over the Seattle Seahawks that saw them wear out a Seattle defense that had previously looked unstoppable and officially let the rest of the league know that Antonio Gates’ career is far from over.
San Diego has the arduous task of traveling all the way across the country for an early game, playing in a stadium that they have gone just 1-3 since 2000 with the lone victory coming all the way back in 2006.
The Chargers, who will also be without starting running back, Ryan Matthews, is out with a sprained MCL, and are relying on the capable duo of Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown to lead their running attack.
Woodhead and Brown, however, may find running lanes just as tough to come by as they were against Seattle (where they accounted for 18 carries and just 52 rushing yards combined) as the Bills are ranked fifth in the league against the run, giving up just 83.0 yards per game after finishing the 2013 season 28th in that category.
San Diego is most successful when they can keep their defense off the field – they are ranked second in time of possession – but they might find that a bit more difficult if they struggle to run the ball. Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers would be best served in once again looking to Gates, who caught three touchdown passes against the Seahawk’s legendary secondary, to ensure that San Diego’s offense is able to move the ball and put points on the board.
The Chargers have excelled in the red zone and on third down and that’s largely a product of Rivers use of the short passing game and the physicality and athleticism of Gates.
Rivers has several other weapons besides Gates including second year star receiver Keenan Allen and tight end Ladarius Green. San Diego might have the league’s best tight end duo in Gates and Green and Buffalo’s defense has struggled to contain tight ends – perhaps the biggest area of weakness in the Bills’ strongest unit – giving up 16 pass completions to tight ends through their first two games.
Their struggles against opposing tight ends notwithstanding, the Bills might have the best defensive line in the NFL, with three of their players (Kyle and Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus) having made the Pro Bowl last year. The defense has tallied five sacks, forced six turnovers and is giving up less than 16 points per game.
Rookie third round pick Preston Brown, tapped to help replace the injured Kiko Alonso, has 20 tackles, good for the third most in the league. So while they may have their hands full with San Diego’s offense they have already contained one of the most prolific offenses in the league in Week One’s win over the Chicago Bears indicating they are ready for the challenge.
The question now becomes: can the Bills’ offense continue their mistake free play? The Bills have just one turnover in two games and quarterback EJ Manuel has taken just one sack while completing 67 percent of his passes for a 95.4 NFL passer rating.
While Manuel has been asked to throw a mere 48 times, a strategy that has largely worked, he may have to take on more sometime in the near future if the Bills are to be a legitimate playoff contender.
Currently, it is working based on the strength of the run game, one that is averaging 153 yards per game, but San Diego was able to bottle up Seattle’s run game last week, the foundation of the Seahawk offense as well and their passing game wasn’t able to overcome that loss of production.
The Bills’ offense, while minimizing errors still have several issues to address, namely their problems in the red zone.
Over the course of 10 drives within the opponent’s 20-yard-line the Bills have come away with just three touchdowns, including the ghastly 1-6 mark they put up against the Miami Dolphins in Week Two. That ineptitude has left them just 29th in red zone efficiency while their ability to record just 28 first downs over two games is second worst in the league.
The Bills cannot afford to waste such opportunities to put points on the board when facing a San Diego offense that has the potential to be explosive in any given game.
The status of Sammy Watkins’ rib injury is still of some concern for the Bills as well. Even though Watkins caught seven passes for 118 yards last week he was in noticeable pain at times and one wrong hit could force him from the game yet again.
The offense is not nearly as dynamic without Watkins on the field.
This is a game that provides an opportunity for the Bills to prove their fast start isn’t a fluke and to continue to make progress on the concerns that remain about their offense.
Likewise, it is a chance for the Chargers to attempt to carry their momentum from their upset and domination of Seattle and keep pace in the AFC West with the Denver Broncos.
Though the Chargers are being given a slight edge by Vegas oddsmakers this game should be closely contested and will likely come down to Buffalo’s defensive ability to reduce San Diego to a one-dimensional team.