By JOHN WAWROW
AP Sports Writer
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Self-confidence won’t be an issue for Bills receiver Stevie Johnson in preparing to open the season Sunday against Buffalo’s long-time nemesis, the New England Patriots.
The ever-colorful Johnson on Monday offered one good reason why he believes the Bills can compete against an AFC East rival they’ve beaten only twice in their previous 24 meetings.
“I feel like because I’m here,” Johnson said, breaking into a smile.
Not stopping there, the Bills’ leading receiver then proceeded to provide the Patriots’ defense additional bulletin-board material.
“I don’t think they’ve got nobody to stop me for real,” Johnson said. “And I think we’ve got guys in the receiver room that’s as good as I am … if not better. I don’t know. I’ve just got that confidence in my teammates and in myself.”
Those are eyebrow-raising words from a player on a team that’s had very little success against New England. The Bills are 3-23 since Bill Belichick took over as coach and they’ve beaten New England only once, a 34-31 win in 2011, in their past 19 meetings.
The oddsmakers aren’t giving Johnson and the new-look Bills much respect. The spread has now jumped to 9 1/2 points in favor of New England after opening at 6 1/2.
Johnson has had modest success against the Patriots since becoming a starter in 2010. In six games, he’s got 28 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns.
Johnson did say he has plenty of respect for the Patriots and their defensive secondary, particularly noting cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Devin McCourty.
What boosts Johnson’s confidence is the speedy receivers the Bills have added to complement him. It’s a group that includes second-year player T.J. Graham and rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin.
“McCourty, he’s been a Pro Bowl player. But I still think we can take advantage of their defense,” Johnson said. “I mean, it’s going to be a test. It’s going to be a challenge, but I still ride with my boys over their guys.”
The Bills face several questions going into the game, beginning with who will start at quarterback. First-round pick EJ Manuel practiced fully for the first time Monday since hurting his left knee in a 20-16 preseason win over Minnesota on Aug. 16.
Coach Doug Marrone was encouraged by what he saw from Manuel, but cautioned it’s still too early to determine whether he’ll play this weekend.
“Mentally, we feel he’s fine, but it’s just a matter of physically,” Marrone said.
If Manuel isn’t ready, the Bills will turn to Jeff Tuel, an undrafted rookie out of Washington State.
The Bills also have an injury-depleted defensive backfield. Starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore (broken wrist) is out, while two-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd is nursing a foot injury and is unlikely to play. Byrd has also missed nearly the entire offseason before joining the team 10 days ago after signing his franchise tender.
Buffalo signed free-agent safety Jim Leonhard on Monday. Leonhard is an eight-year veteran who broke into the NFL with Buffalo in 2005 as an undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin. He immediately becomes the Bills’ most experienced player.
Leonhard spent last season in Denver before signing with New Orleans in April. He was cut by the Saints last weekend.
Leonhard has 61 starts over a career that included stops in Baltimore and New York Jets, where he played under Buffalo’s new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
NOTES: DE Alex Carrington and RT Erik Pears were held out of practice because of sore ankles. Both are expected to resume practicing Wednesday. … Buffalo filled out its eight-player practice squad by signing cornerback Johnny Adams, running back Ronnie Wingo and offensive tackle Edawn Coughman.