ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Is this a must-win game for the Buffalo Bills?
It could be. Hosting the Baltimore Ravens in their third home game in four contests, the Bills are trying to avoid a 1-3 record, entering what could be a tough October. After Sunday's game, the Bills travel to Cleveland next Thursday before hosting the 2-1 Bengals, and then traveling to face the 3-0 Dolphins and 3-0 Saints.
But Buffalo can't afford to look past the Ravens. The defending Super Bowl champions lost several key players this offseason, but have bounced back, winning their past two games. This will be one of the Bills' toughest tests of the season.
Here's what to watch for:
1. Can Spiller get going? Bills CEO Russ Brandon told WGR 550 this week that the Bills "need" to get their running game cranking. That begins with C.J. Spiller, who gained just nine yards on 10 carries against the Jets. He is probable for Sunday's game and should play. If he can get into a rhythm, it will take pressure off rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. But it won't be easy: the Ravens allow just 74.7 rushing yards per game, fourth in the NFL, and have some big bodies in Haloti Ngata (340 pounds) and Arthur Jones (315 pounds) for the Bills' offensive line to move.
2. Do Bills help their tackles? The Ravens have a pair of the NFL's best pass-rushers in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, who have combined for five sacks already this season. The Bills may opt to use their '12' package -- one running back and two tight ends -- more than usual on Sunday, allowing tight end Lee Smith to help out the offensive tackles with Suggs and Dumervil. So far this season, left tackle Cordy Glenn and right tackle Erik Pears have held up well, but an eight-sack performance by the Jets may be enough to give offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett pause about leaving his tackles without help on the edge.
3. Will Rice play? Ravens running back Ray Rice has been dealing with a hip injury that kept him out of last week's win against the Houston Texans. Rice said Friday he hopes to play, and if he does, Rice presents another challenge for the Bills. Their run defense ranks 31st in the NFL, allowing 155 yards per game. The positive for Buffalo is that their trio of defensive linemen who were dealing with injuries this week -- Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Mario Williams -- are all probable for Sunday. Their presence will help, but the Bills will need a complete defensive effort against the Ravens.
4. Will Hackett slow things down? One hot topic this week was the Bills' offensive pace, which is the fastest in the NFL, even ahead of Chip Kelly's attack in Philadelphia. The results haven't been there for Buffalo just yet, though. They are struggling to convert third downs, leaving their defense on the field for over 35 minutes a game, second-most in the NFL. It will be worth watching Sunday if Hackett dials things back, especially if the running game, led by Spiller and Fred Jackson, starts to gain some momentum. The better bet, though, is that Hackett will stick to his up-tempo philosophy.