Is it just me or was the Bills contest against the New York Giants somewhat of a déjà vu experience? Just two short weeks ago we saw a Buffalo team come out and play well early, get a lead and run out of steam at the end to come up 3 points short.
Just as it happened against Cincinnati, deep in the fourth quarter the Bills we being rag-dolled by their opponents and the final chapter was all but assured – the Bills were going to lose and everybody knew it. Predictable and inevitable, the losses were only 3 points but at the end of the day the final results count – and count against Buffalo in the win-loss column.
As I’ve talked about all season, I’ve been wary of the Bills success. Accuse me of hedging my bets and not being fully on the bandwagon just so I can say “I told you so” on a day like today – nothing could be farther from the truth. Like you, I’m a fan and it hurts to see my team lose – we all know what the post game afternoon and Monday mornings feel like.
It’s no secret I’m a pessimist about the Bills – after such a deep fall from grace in the early 90s I’ve been reduced to looking for some sign of forward progress towards and past mediocrity. I’ve actually seen the progress – it is much more tangible than the 5-1 start in 2008 – so why am I not happier that the Bills enter their bye week at 4-2, a single game out of the AFC East lead?
I’ll tell you why I’m down on the Bills – and why you might be as well – these were winnable games. The Bengals and the Giants are decent teams. While neither is a lock to win the Super Bowl, neither is a bottom feeder. Cincinnati boasts the best total defense in the league and the Giants, when healthy are good enough to beat anyone with strong play from the quarterback and the defensive front 7. Beating either of these teams would have been a good accomplishment for the Bills – a way to plant a flag and tell others they had finally arrived.
Play the games against the Bengals and the Giants 100 times and I think the Bills probably win at least half the time and probably more – that‘s what I mean by winnable. These would not be “holy cow – we actually won!” games like the Patriots game, but more a way of showing the Bills were competitive. Alas, as they say – “any given Sunday”, and the Bills ended up with some near wins. Unfortunately, near wins in the NFL get are known better by their true identities – losses.
Good teams don’t often lose winnable games – that’s what makes them good teams. While the Bills are certainly learning to win they need to hold onto the leads they have earned and put these games away. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the Patriots game I’d almost feel better if the Bills had defeated the Bengals and Giants and lost by 3 points to the Patriots and Eagles. Under that scenario the Bills would have won the games they arguably should have won and lost close contests to teams with elite talent. Yeah, I know – the result is the same at 4-2, but losing winnable games irks me to no end and makes me question what the 10 weeks of post-bye football holds for the Bill.
They say defense wins championships and if that’s true the Bills are in trouble. On Sunday the Bills failed to force a turnover from their opponent, the first time that has happened all season. Points off turnovers has powered the Bills to all of their wins this season and coming away empty handed in this department hurt them this week.
Without scoring any points on turnovers the Bills offense had to score more points that the Bills defense gave up in order to win the game (how’s that for an obvious, John Maddenesque pronouncement?). The Bills were not up to the task on Sunday. Sure they scored 3 touchdowns, but they also gave up 5 scoring drives.
Many want to pin Sunday’s loss on Ryan Fitzpatrick and the 2 interceptions he threw. Without a doubt the interceptions seriously hurt the Bills – Fitzpatrick can’t really escape blame, they were terribly underthrown, off target passes. For as many heroics as Fitzpatrick has provided this season, you have to expect that these are the types of throws you’re going to get from him from time to time. I like Ryan Fitzpatrick – I think he’s got ability, attitude and a great command to lead a team of misfits, but that doesn’t make him Joe Montana or Aaron Rodgers. If you expect him to play like a Hall of Fame quarterback on a sustained basis you’re going to have to suffer the heartbreaking reality that he’s a good, not great signal caller and is going to have games like he had on Sunday.
I don’t want to let Fitzpatrick off the hook for his performance – take away the interceptions and the Bills almost certainly leave the Meadowlands with a victory. But here’s a stat I find very telling: the shortest scoring drive the Giants had all day was 69 yards. Think about that – the Giants started at no better than their own 31 yard line each time they scored. That tells me that despite giving the ball to New York the Bills defense failed to make a stop when needed – the defense is responsible for losing the game.
Last week I expressed doubts about the amount of yards and points the defense was giving up and how the team was succeeding due to the turnovers. I certainly was not alone in expressing my fears and I’m not here to pat myself on the back, but I now feel justified for having a gnawing feeling in my gut that continues to grow.
The Bills defense needs to show marked improvement after the bye if they want to stand any chance of finishing above .500 on the season. Blast me if you must, but you cannot finish above average giving up more than 400 yards a game and failing to put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Eli Manning is a solid if unspectacular quarterback and if you give him the time to throw like he had on Sunday he’s going to kill you. Throw in a secondary which relies more on picking off poorly thrown passes than shutting down receivers and you get what we had on Sunday – it’s not pretty.
If you’re like me you just wanted to throw something through your TV every time Manning would drop back and hit a wide open receiver for a gain of 12+ yards. Somehow Ahmad Bradshaw chipped away at the Bills for 104 yards and 3 scores, exposing the Bills run defense as a soft spot as well. At times the Bills defense simply could not get off the field – they may not have given up any huge plays to New York but they certainly allowed them to move the ball at will a put up points.
Some will point to the absence to Kyle Williams and Shawne Merriman as key factors to Sunday’s poor defensive showing. While I agree that their absence hurt the Bills, the statistics don’t show that the Bills defense was markedly worse without them. Every team must suffer through injuries throughout the season – compared with the previous few years the Bills are substantially healthier than they have been through 6 weeks of the season (although they are so thin at left tackle I’m waiting for them to call me, a man in his 40s with a knee replacement, to come for a tryout). The bye actually comes at a very good time for the Bills – they need to get some players healthy and take a look at how to improve their defense. Simply put, the Bills need to get more teeth defensively or the rest of the season could be marked with more frustrating losses in winnable games – my TV won’t survive.