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Skinny
09-06-2007, 05:17 PM
Thu, Sep. 06, 2007
By Michael Rushton, Sports Network
The Sports Network

The Denver Broncos can officially put an offseason to forget behind them this Sunday, when they travel to Buffalo to battle the Bills in the season opener for both clubs at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Broncos ended 2006 on a down note, losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the final regular season game. The defeat cost Denver a postseason spot, but that became an afterthought just a day later, when starting cornerback Darrent Williams was gunned down at the age of 24 in a drive-by shooting upon leaving a downtown club on New Year's morning. Tragedy again struck the team less than two months later, when running back Damien Nash, also 24, collapsed and died following a charity basketball game.

Forced to address the unfortunate absence of Williams, the Broncos went out and acquired Dre' Bly from Detroit for running back Tatum Bell in March. Denver then quickly replaced Bell by signing former Buffalo and Tennessee running back Travis Henry.

The club continued adding players as recently as this week, when it signed defensive end Simeon Rice on Monday. Rice, who was released by Tampa Bay in July after failing a physical, has 121 career sacks, second among all active players. He battled a shoulder injury in 2006, though, and it limited him to eight games and just two sacks before he was placed on injured reserve.

The Broncos hope the addition of Henry, coupled with second-year back Mike Bell, will help take the pressure off quarterback Jay Cutler, who is also entering his second NFL season and started the club's final five games in 2006.

It's fitting that Henry will make his Broncos' debut against a club that gave up on him. He was drafted by Buffalo in 2002 and enjoyed a solid first couple of seasons with the Bills before fracturing his right leg in 2004. Henry eventually lost his starting job to Willis McGahee and was dealt to the Titans the following offseason.

Henry, who was released by Tennessee in a cap-related move over the spring, has faced the Bills just once since the club traded him. He went off for 135 yards on 25 carries that day to help the Titans to a 30-29 win on December 24, 2006.

The back may be hiding a smile under his face mask, as McGahee is not longer on Buffalo's roster following a subpar 2006 season and some ill-received comments directed at the city during the course of the year. He was traded to Baltimore in March.

Hence, the Marshawn Lynch era will officially begin in front of the home fans in Buffalo on Sunday. Lynch was selected by the Bills with the 12th pick in the 2007 draft and will become the eighth rookie running back to start a game for the Bills.

Another rookie who should see a lot of snaps against Denver is middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, a second-round pick out of Penn State. Posluszny will be just one of the many new faces on the defensive side of the field for Buffalo, who lost linebacker London Fletcher-Baker and corner Nate Clements in free agency and traded linebacker Takeo Spikes.

A win today is important for the Bills, who are staring at a pair of tough road games over the next two weeks with trips to Pittsburgh and New England. Buffalo head coach Dick Jauron is 2-4 in his career in season openers.

Meanwhile, a fast start by Denver, which hosts Oakland next week, will help them play less meaningful games in late December. Having Mike Shanahan on the sideline will help, as the head coach is 10-4 all-time in season openers and has the top winning percentage among all active NFL head coaches who have coached in at least five opening day games.

Shanahan also needs just one more regular-season victory to give him 124 as Denver's head coach. That would even him with Chiefs' Hall-of-Famer Hank Stram for the 10th-most wins with one team in league history.

SERIES HISTORY

Buffalo has a 17-14-1 edge in its all-time series with Denver, but has lost the four most recent installments of the series. The Broncos were 28-17 road winners when the clubs last faced off in 2005 and are 2-0 in Buffalo since last losing there in 1994. That game, a 27-20 Buffalo triumph, marks the Bills' most recent victory in the series.

In addition to the regular-season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, a 10-7 win for Buffalo in the 1991 AFC Championship.

Shanahan is 4-1 in his career against Buffalo, with the loss coming for his Raiders in the 1988 campaign. Jauron is 1-0 against both Shanahan and the Broncos as a head coach, with the win coming for his Chicago Bears during the 2003 season.

WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL

Cutler will get his first taste of season-opening football in the NFL on Sunday. However, he showed he was up to the task late last season, throwing for 1,001 yards and nine touchdowns after taking over for Jake Plummer. Denver gave Cutler a vote of confidence when they shipped Plummer to Tampa Bay during the winter. Having Henry (1,211 yards, 7 TD in '06) and Mike Bell (677 rushing yards, 8 TD) lined up behind him will also help. Wideout Javon Walker (69 receptions, 8 TD) turned in 1,084 receiving yards in his first season in Denver in 2006 and should be Cutler's main target today. Also in the receiving mix is the young Brandon Marshall (20 receptions, 2 TD) and Brandon Stokley, who is trying to come back from an Achilles tear that limited him to just four games with the Colts last season. Cutler, though, won't have veteran wideout Rod Smith to throw to, as he is on the Physically Unable to Perform list while recovering from hip surgery. On the offensive line, left guard Ben Hamilton will likely miss the game because of a concussion.

Buffalo will be unveiling a new-look defense in Week 1. Behind the defensive line, strongside linebacker Angelo Crowell (82 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and weakside man Keith Ellison (65 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) were to be counted on to replace the production of Fletcher-Baker and Spikes, while also keeping their eye on rookie starter Posluzsny in the middle. However, Ellison is out indefinitely after suffering a high-ankle sprain in preseason, meaning Coy Wire (23 tackles) will slide into the starting spot. In the secondary, Terrence McGee (76 tackles) is now the No. 1 corner with Clements out of the picture, with former Falcon Jason Webster (49 tackles, 2 INT) joining him on the other side. McGee suffered a concussion in Buffalo's preseason finale but is expected to be okay for the opener.

WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL

The biggest difference for the Bills on offense will be in the backfield, where Lynch and Anthony Thomas (378 rushing yards, 2 TD) are expected to initially share carries. Lynch is listed as the starting back on the depth chart, but Thomas performed well in relief of McGahee last year and has Jauron's trust. Under center, J.P. Losman will look to build off a 2006 campaign that showed those in Buffalo they may in fact have a long-term quarterback on their roster. Losman threw for career-highs of 3,051 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, but was also sacked 47 times. The Bills' starting receivers remain the same in Lee Evans (82 receptions, 8 TD) and Peerless Price (49 receptions, 3 TD), with Evans bringing playmaking ability to the field. The Wisconsin product established personal bests for catches and receiving yards (1,292) in 2006.

Losman and Evans will be tested by a Denver secondary that, even without Williams, is very tough. Bly (59 tackles, 3 INT) is a two-time Pro Bowl participant but isn't even the best corner on the roster. That distinction belongs to shut-down defender Champ Bailey, who tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions last season and has a league-high 18 picks over the last two campaigns. The Broncos also feature a new look across the board on the defensive line, where John Engelberger (30 tackles, 1 sack) and Elvis Dumervil (17 tackles, 8.5 sacks) both will start at the end spots and free-agent signee Sam Adams (14 tackles, 2 sacks) and former practice-squad resident Amon Gordon will start at defensive tackle. It is unknown how the signing of Rice will factor into the end rotation that is without Ebenezer Ekuban, who is on injured reserve because of a torn right Achilles. Rookie ends Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder, Denver's first and second-round picks, respectively, should make their regular season debuts. It should also be interesting to see how well D.J. Williams (76 tackles, 1 sack) fills the void at middle linebacker after shifting from the strong side to replace the popular Al Wilson.

FANTASY FOCUS

For Buffalo, fantasy owners of both Lynch and Thomas will get their first look at how the carries will be split between the two. Those who took a flyer on Lynch hope the rookie does nothing to lose the starting gig in Week 1, while owners of Thomas will get a chance to see if they got a late-round steal. As far as Losman goes, he is not a good start this week because of Denver's strong secondary. With regards to the Broncos, Henry should be motivated by facing his former club and is worth starting, though Shanahan has been known to do crazy things with his running back rotations. Denver's defense should also get a look this week due to Lynch's inexperience and Losman's past troubles.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Losman's progression as a quarterback last year lifted the spirits of Buffalo fans for the upcoming year, even though a handful of players bolted the club this past offseason. Unfortunately, Losman will have a rookie back behind him and will be facing a very tough secondary on Sunday. Denver, meanwhile, will just be thankful to get back on the field after its rough offseason, and Henry will be at his best against a former club. The Bills' young offense will have trouble getting going versus Denver, while the Broncos should be able to handle Buffalo's rebuilt defense. In a battle of up-and-coming quarterbacks, expect Cutler to take the biggest step forward.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 21, Bills 13

http://www.miamiherald.com/858/story/227741.html

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