The Buffalo Bills' offense finds out today if it's ready to run with the big boys.
The San Diego Chargers bring the highest-scoring offense in the NFL into Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Seven different Chargers offensive players have combined to make 15 Pro Bowl appearances. Just one Bills offensive player (Jason Peters) has one Pro Bowl to his name.
Yet the Bills think they are ready for today's challenge because they believe the whole of their attack has become greater than the sum of their parts.
"We feel like we've got a lot of weapons on this team, and each week somebody different steps up," said Bills running back Fred Jackson. "We know they're a very powerful and explosive team. But we feel like we are, too."
The Bills' scoring is up almost 10 points per game from last year despite the addition of just one significant part, rookie James Hardy. Buffalo ranked 30th in 2007 at 15.8 ppg. So far they're at 25.2 ppg this year.
The Bills are spreading the ball around to all their weapons better. They are running a more diversified attack, which was a point of emphasis for new coordinator Turk Schonert entering the season.
"Last year we had some things where the guys knew they weren't going to get the ball," Schonert said. "This year they can get the ball on any given play. I don't think Lee [Evans] has led our team in catches one time in five games. Yards yes, but not catches."
Eleven Bills have caught passes this season and five have caught 13 or more. Last year through five games, only two had caught that many.
"Guys get excited about that," Schonert said. "When you involve everybody, they get more involved during the week. They work hard. They study hard, because they know they have to be accountable. I like getting everybody involved. I like everybody feeling good about themselves, feeling good about what we're doing. I think keeping [defenses] off balance and changing things up. We've been fairly diverse and not predictable."
Some of the credit goes to quarterback Trent Edwards, who has done a good job of reading defenses and distributing the ball.
"It keeps defenses honest, it keeps guys involved in the offense, it keeps guys [alert] in meetings, knowing that I'm spreading the ball around," Edwards said. "It may be the third or fourth in the progression, but they're going to have to pay attention in meetings, because it might come to them on Sundays. It's keeping guys interested, keeping guys active, and it's keeping defenses a little bit confused."
The Bills' ability to spread the wealth will be tested today.
San Diego has one of the best starting cornerback combinations in the NFL in Quentin Jammer, the fifth overall pick in the 2002 draft, and Antonio Cromartie, who led the league in interceptions last year with 10.
Jammer held New England's Randy Moss to just three catches for 26 yards last week.
Jammer and Cromartie have the ability to restrict the chances Edwards might give to Evans, who stands fifth in the AFC in receiving yards.
It's somewhat similar to the situation the Bills faced against Oakland, which has two top cornerbacks. Evans had four catches for 65 yards versus the Raiders. Tight end Robert Royal and receivers Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish each contributed against the Raiders to help the Bills win. It's a plus for the Bills today that Parrish is expected to return from a thumb injury that kept him out the past two games.
"They have two great cover corners and a great pass rush," Edwards said. "We're obviously going to need Rob [Royal] and Derek [Schouman] to come up for us for plays in the middle. And we'll need Josh [Reed] to get open and Roscoe [Parrish]. And then when we need to take those shots outside, we'll need to do that, too."
Tight ends for Carolina, Denver and Miami have been able to have an impact against the Chargers this season.
However, the Chargers can give alternate receiving weapons -- tight ends and running backs -- fits in pass protection. Chargers defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who runs the 3-4 scheme, led the league last season in five-man pass rushes.
"They don't send a lot of DBs because they feel as though their front four and their linebackers can get the job done," Royal said. "It's a lot of four- and five-man rushes coming from different areas. They have a lot of athleticism, and they try to get mismatches on tight ends and running backs in pass protection."
"It's going to be a chess game," Jackson said. "What protection do we have called against what blitz they have called? We have to know our assignments. We have to hold up."
Holding up will be much easier if the Bills can have some success running the ball. The Bills rank tied for 23rd in rushing. San Diego has one of the best nose tackles in the NFL in Jamal Williams. He presents a tough matchup for Bills center Melvin Fowler or Duke Preston, who starts if Fowler's sore elbow keeps him out.
It all adds up to a litmus test game for the Bills' offense, which knows it probably will have to carry its weight. San Diego has scored 23 or more points in 11 of its last 12 regular-season games.
"We have a lot of confidence in our defense, and we feel our defense is going to play well this week," Jackson said. "But we know it could come down to that [a shootout]. . . . If it comes to that, we feel like we can match them."
The trio of Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates creates a myriad of problems for opposing defenses.
*QB Philip Rivers: 248.2 ypg, 14 TDs, 61.8 comp. pct., 109.4 QB rating
*RB LaDainian Tomlinson: 3.7-yard avg., four TDs, 88.2 scrimmage ypg
*TE Antonio Gates: 20 receptions, 252 yards, 12.6-yard avg., four TDs