If you’ve been waiting for the Bills to put together a complete game, solid in all phases, you had to be happy with the performance they put in against the New York Jets on Sunday.
The Bills had shown flashes of competency in previous games, but rarely did they seem to put it all together and come up with the win. Sure, the Bills had two wins coming into Sunday’s contest, but was it really so surprising that they had defeated two of the worst teams in the league in Miami and Arizona?
The Bills had arguably only faced two strong opponents prior to Sunday’s game, being outclassed by the Patriots in week 4 and losing a close game to the Jets in week 5. The Bills faced each opponent before racking up a win and were desperate to get off the schnide. Sunday’s game was different. The Bills no longer had a monkey on their back and were looking to prove that they were a much better team than their record indicated.
To be certain, the Bills are maturing as a team. The offensive line has begun to gel and that has meant good things for the offense. For the past two games the line has allowed a hundred yard rusher and not allowed a sack of Drew Bledsoe. The Bills have not turned the ball over and the penalty flags that fell like lake effect snow in the southtowns have been reduced to a manageable level (15 for 121 yards over the last two games).
The running game has found new life with Willis McGahee. The Bills “rookie” running back has seemingly ended any running back controversy with his strong on the field performances. McGahee has started three games, run for over a hundred yards in those three games and in case anyone forgot, the Bills won all of those games. McGahee has shown great ability to build up a good head of steam and drag defenders as he runs between the tackles. If McGahee gets to the outside he’s likely to gain extra yards with a powerful stiff arm.
I recall how shocked I was when the Bills made their first round selection in 2003 and commissioner Paul Tagliabue uttered the name Willis McGahee. It took many hours of painful rehabilitation, but eventually I was able to get my jaw from dragging on the floor, my eyeballs back into my head and regained my ability to speak the English language. Of course I always knew that this was a brilliant move that would pay huge dividends and now I’m glad to see that my unwavering confidence in it has allowed me to fully enjoy McGahee’s current success (damn this HTML – they really need to add a sarcasm tag in the next standard).
The Bills defense has continued to play well and ranks 3rd in the NFL – 4th against the run and 3rd against the pass. On special teams the Bills rank 4th in kickoff returns, averaging better than 25 yards per return.
All of the recent good news and the statistics show that the Bills are a team on the move. Surely the team has turned the page on their early failures and are now ready to contend for a playoff spot.
Not so fast.
The Bills proved that they are a better team than casual observers (the Pats fans with whom I work) see, but they have much to prove if they want to be seen as serious contenders.
The Bills need to defeat a solid team like the Patriots if they want to take the next step – the step so many Bills fans have been waiting for. The upcoming game on Sunday night should show us where the Bills currently stand. If they can go into hostile territory in Foxboro and beat one of the league’s best teams in front of a national TV audience they will have proven that they should be taken seriously. If they fall short they fall back into mediocrity or worse.
Sunday’s game will set the tone for the entire second half of the season. Win it and the playoffs are still a remote possibility, lose it and the Bills are playing for pride and a lesser draft pick for Bill Parcells. The game is also big for me personally – if the Bills win I can strut into the office on Monday with a smile on my face and gladly talk football with my coworkers, if the Bills lose I have to arrive early on Monday to ensure nobody steals or defaces the buffalo head on the wall of my office and defend myself from every yahoo who calls themselves a “huge Pats fan” even though they can only identify Tom Brady because they saw him in a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial (they may also recognize Adam Vinatieri – he sells everything from furniture to snowplows).
The Bills still have their share of problems as a team. Defensively the team is solid, but even this unit could improve in a few areas. Although they rank as one of the best teams against the pass, they are very susceptible to the big play. The first two pass plays the Jets had in Sunday’s game each went for better than 20 yards. Santana Moss caught an easy 51-yard touchdown when Terrence McGee fell down on the play. McGee is learning, but he’s being picked on by opposing quarterbacks and may not be ready for full time duty in the position. The Bills don’t have many options and may have to live with McGee filling in for Troy Vincent, but he’s quickly developing the nickname of Quizno, another well known toasted sub. The Bills have to be more vigilant about giving up the big play – it’s going to hurt them badly if they don’t get it under control.
Buffalo also needs to do a better job at forcing turnovers. The Bills are –2 in turnovers this season – about average in giveaways but near the bottom of the league in takeaways. They are headed in the right direction – in their 3 wins the Bills are +3 in turnovers but they have to find a way to force turnovers from their opponents (what else is new).
On offense the Bills still need to be more dynamic if they are to go to the next level. The Bills have averaged only 3.5 yards per carry on the ground, although McGahee has averaged a slightly better 3.7 yards per attempt. The Bills rank 27th in the league in passing, a stat that needs to improve dramatically for the team to be successful. The Bills also have to do a better job in short yardage situations. Simply put, when the Bills are at 3rd and 1 they rarely seem to be able to pound the ball for the yardage they need. A grinding ground attack based on McGahee with some deep shots down the field to keep defenses honest would be a tremendous boost to the Bills, particularly if it kept the offense on the field for sustained drives.
So how do I feel about the Bills against the Patriots on Sunday and beyond? I have to admit that I’m still pessimistic. I feel better about the team being able to put up a challenge in Foxboro, but ultimately I think the Pats are a better team and certainly have a huge advantage by playing at home on a Sunday night (if you’ve been a Bills fan you know that the Bills don’t typically shine in the spotlight of a nationally televised game). I don’t see a blowout, but I do see a Patriots win. I believe that the Bills won’t receive much credit for putting up a good fight – the national media (and unfortunately for me, the local media as well) seem to think that the outcome of the game isn’t in question – the only newsworthy item to come from the game would be a Patriots loss.
I still see the Bills struggling to reach 8-8 this season. They are headed in the right direction and that alone makes me happy as a Bills fan. It’s just too difficult to start out the season so slowly and claw your way back into it, particularly if you play in a tough division like the AFC East. Many will be disappointed if the Bills fall short of .500, but given how they failed to get the job done and how bad they were prior to winning a game I’ll take any sign of forward progress – I think we finally have it and I’ll enjoy it as long as it lasts.
Here’s to a better second half of the 2004 season and a brighter 2005 for the Bills.
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