The Buffalo Bills defense seems to be greatly improved after losing their best safety and best LB. What has changed?
I'm not sure I'd even consider them improved, but there has not been much (if any) regression from last year's Top 10 unit, which is a start. The 2013 Bills defense was the first good one they'd had in years, but they've already been forced to change schemes again, and yes, they lost Jairus Byrd and Kiko Alonso. Jim Schwartz is emphasizing some different things - playing better against the run, and getting off the field on third downs - and so far, they've been nearly as aggressive at all levels. But then, they also kind of have Miami's number lately, so we're still not exactly sure how good they are.
Can the Bills win if their running game can't get going?
Sure - they did it just last week. A lot else will need to go right in those situations, like they did against Miami (strong defense, a kick return for a score, and a solid outing from the passing offense). Buffalo will never get away from the running game - there's a good chance they'll lead the league in rush attempts per game again, as they did last season - and they're too talented in the backfield to not rip off a few big runs per game. As long as EJ Manuel continues to play well, the Bills will have enough balance on offense to compete with anybody. Obviously, that's far easier said than done.
How good is Buffalo's pass-rush?
It's basic, and quite good. Not elite-level good, but teams can't ignore any of those starting four players; all four are capable of winning one-on-one matchups with laughable ease. But Schwartz doesn't blitz an awful lot - he's almost certainly not going to do it much against Philip Rivers, given how quickly Rivers gets rid of the football - so they're over-reliant on those four guys to generate pressure on passing downs. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus are the true gems of the unit; they set everything up for the ends with their often-dominant play inside.
What's different about the 2014 Bills compared to last year's team?
So far, it has been Manuel. His completion percentage is up to 66 from 58, his yards per attempt is up to 7.8 from 6.4, and he's only made one bad decision through two contests. Buffalo's offense still has its share of problems when Manuel is playing well - they struggle mightily in the red zone, for example - but they have an abundance of skill talent, and have not yet had issues moving the ball between the 20-yard lines.
What are your expectations for this game and does home field advantage come into play at all?
My guess is that a combination of a slight home-field advantage, plus San Diego traveling three hours east after a crazy win over the defending champs, will tilt the extenuating circumstances scale in Buffalo's favor a bit. As far as expectations, I'm looking for a close, down-to-the-wire game, with either team's highly-skilled offensive weapons being the deciding factor late. San Diego has the clear advantage in terms of skill talent, if only because of the gap between Rivers and Manuel, so Buffalo's best shot will be to take an early lead and hang on for dear life, like they did in Chicago.
Thank you for your insightful responses, Brian, and best of luck for Sunday.