Call it a comeback? For the Bills, there are reasons to believe
No team in the NFL's Week 1 surpassed expectations more than the Buffalo Bills. Their 34-point blowout win at Kansas City was the largest margin of victory in the league's 16 opening-week games, and in embarrassing a Chiefs team that won the AFC West and owned six more wins than they did in 2010 (10-6 compared to 4-12), the underdog Bills also handily led the way in terms of the upset factor. As it turns out, any given Sunday was last Sunday in Kansas City.
But the thing is, those were our expectations that the Bills exceeded by a country mile. The Bills themselves did not share the same perspective going into their opener, and that's always the key distinction when you try to use the past to project the future.
"I guess it felt like an assurance that we are who we thought we were,'' said Buffalo's lead receiver, Stevie Johnson, channeling a little Dennis Green on the phone on Wednesday afternoon. "In training camp, we felt like we had a talented group. Not saying we thought we were going to step on everybody. We didn't expect to go in and smash Kansas City. But we felt like we could be a team that controlled the game, and we did that. Not to sound arrogant or highly confident over that game, but I just feel like we knew what we had on our offense and defense, and we felt like we could take advantage of that game.''
The Bills took advantage all right, to the tune of 41-7. Buffalo's vastly underrated quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, threw four touchdown passes to three different receivers, running back Fred Jackson posted his eighth career 100-yard rushing day, and the Bills' obviously improved defense forced eight Chiefs punts and three Kansas City turnovers. It was Buffalo's first 40-point showing on opening day since 1992, and the worst loss at home for Kansas City in 35 years. The Bills went 2-6 on the road last season, and the Chiefs were 7-1 at home. But none of that mattered on this Sunday, when Buffalo raced to a 20-0 second-quarter lead and never looked back.
"It felt great, putting up points like that and seeing the defense shut down an offense like that,'' said Johnson, who contributed four catches for 66 yards, highlighted by a 27-yard first-quarter touchdown grab. "It was just something good that we all enjoyed. We're not used to sitting out in the fourth quarter for good reasons like that. It was a great feeling overall. We're not saying anything too major, because there were a lot of people that started off 1-0 in this league on Sunday. But we've just got that confidence that we can play with anybody, and we can win.''
The Bills make for an intriguing early season story, but I'm fairly confident there's more to come, starting with this week's home opener against visiting Oakland. The Raiders won their opener, too, Monday night at Denver, but it's never an easy task to go cross-country on a short week, with a pair of road games as your bookends. Let the Bills post another impressive victory this weekend and I promise you they're going to wake up Monday to talk of them being this year's turnaround team, 2-0 and on their way to bigger and better things. Kind of like last season's Chiefs, the team they just rudely worked over.
Yeah, I know. The Bills remain in the top-heavy AFC East, with the behemoths from New England and New York, so a repeat of Kansas City's worst-to-first journey of 2010 in the AFC West is most likely out of the question. But what's the point of squashing the big dreams in Buffalo, which has endured an NFL-high 11 consecutive playoff-less seasons and last year started an agonizing 0-8 en route to a 4-12, last-place finish in head coach Chan Gailey's debut?
How much fun would it be if the long downtrodden Lions in the NFC and the Bills in the AFC gave us matching Cinderella stories to watch unfold this fall? They'd be partying like it was, well, 1999 in Detroit and Buffalo once again.
"In the NFL, every division is tough,'' Johnson said, when I asked him if the dominance of the Patriots and Jets makes the Bills believe anything higher than third place is unrealistic. "At one point, the Bills were the team that no one wanted to play. It was Buffalo at No. 1. In every division, there are going to be those teams at the top and the bottom for a while, then it flips around. So I feel like why not us? Why can't this be the year that we take over that No. 1 spot? We just have to get on a roll, stay focused, and grind out four quarters against those teams (the Patriots and Jets).''
The Bills may emerge as one of this year's surprise teams, but the reality is they really weren't as far away from contention last year as their desultory record indicated. Playing the AFC's toughest schedule, Buffalo lost six games by eight points or fewer, including five by five points or fewer.
The Bills lost three overtime heartbreakers by three points, 37-34 at Baltimore, 13-10 at Kansas City and that excruciating 19-16 defeat at home against Pittsburgh, when Johnson let the game-winning touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick slip through his arms in the end zone. Throw in a 22-19 loss to the Bears in Toronto in early November, and the Bills took those four eventual playoff teams to the brink, and lost them all. Buffalo was 0-9 last year against teams that finished with 10 wins or more, but if you looked closely enough, there were rays of hope.
The positives of 2010 started with the Week 3 insertion into the lineup of Fitzpatrick, who took over for the disappointing Trent Edwards and proceeded to throw for 3,000 yards and 24 touchdown passes in starting a career-high 13 games. Fitzpatrick, now in his seventh NFL season, has three four-touchdown games in his 14 starts with Buffalo, a record matched only by New England's Tom Brady since the start of the 2010 season. Gailey said the Bills were content to not select a quarterback in the first two rounds of this year's quarterback-heavy draft because of the confidence they had in Fitzpatrick, and the one-time Harvard standout is backing up those brave words and making Buffalo's front office look prescient.
Add in the running game led by the hard-charging Jackson (1,989 yards rushing in 2009-2010, with a 4.5 career average rush), and the breakthrough year produced by Johnson (82 catches for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns) and the Bills have themselves a quality set of triplets on offense. Receiver/return man/part-time quarterback Brad Smith was lured away from the Jets to add versatility to the offense, and third-year tight end Scott Chandler came out of nowhere on Sunday to catch a team-best five passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns.
But it's the improvement made at the front of the Bills' 3-4 defense, and specifically on run defense, that makes for the most obvious reason for optimism in Buffalo. First-round pick Marcell Dareus, a tackle who is playing defensive end in the Bills' scheme, is the cornerstone and looks like the real deal so far. But the acquisition of inside linebacker Nick Barnett in August, along with the hoped-for reemergence of outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, has given Buffalo's defense some proven veteran leaders and big-game experience. The Chiefs had just 213 yards of offense on Sunday, and Buffalo's seven points allowed were tied with Baltimore and Houston for a league low in Week 1.
"It's still only one game, and Coach Gailey let us know that,'' Johnson said. "But at the same time, it's a win, and that's something different. We don't start off the season with the 'L.' We've got the first one out of the way, and it's better that way. It's easier to go out and work harder when you're winning. Last year, we worked so hard, but had nothing to show for it.''
Maybe the only negative to come out of the Bills' win at Kansas City actually involved Johnson, and the criticism he received for his effective cut block of Chiefs safety Eric Berry in the first quarter. The block on a Jackson running play was a legal one, but Berry tore his left ACL at some point in the game and has been lost for the season, prompting a backlash against Johnson by Chiefs fans. (It's not clear whether Johnson's block was responsible for the injury to Berry, who bounced up after the play but left the game. Berry actually returned, and
Johnson said he feels "terrible'' for Berry having to miss the season, but did not apologize for the legal downfield block that resulted in neither a penalty nor a league fine.
"I'm not out there trying to hurt anybody,'' Johnson said. "I hope nobody in this league is out to injure somebody for the rest of the season or a career, something like that. But the thing is, I don't take the block back, because everybody does it. I was doing my job, so I can't sit here and say 'I take it back.' If I knew he'd be injured for the whole season, yeah, I'd take it back. I wouldn't want to do that. But it was just an unfortunate situation.
"I'm not surprised by the reaction and criticism, considering the severity of the outcome. There are Eric Berry fans out there that love him and have him on their fantasy teams. He's got a lot of supporters. And I like him. People send messages and stuff, negative stuff, but it's all good, because if the same thing happened to me, people in Buffalo would be after the Kansas City players. I don't know him, but I ended up figuring out what his Twitter account was and I sent him a message. But that was pretty much all the conversation that went down.''
This week, the Raiders, with their team-wide speed and Darren McFadden-led running game, present another challenge emanating from the AFC West. The Bills have already conquered the team that won that division last season, and now they draw an Oakland club that went 6-0 and ran roughshod over the Chargers, Chiefs and Broncos in 2010. The bar of expectation in Buffalo just got raised considerably with last week's victory. Let's see what the Bills do with it.
"It's going to be entertaining, I'll tell you that much,'' Johnson said. "It's going to be a matchup, with all of their speed out there, and the strength and size of their defense. But I'm still 100 percent confident in our guys that we can play with anybody. We're just having fun right now. We're out there playing and having genuine fun. For the past few years, we haven't been having fun at all.
"But we've got to make sure we hold onto this and stay focused and get this going, get it turned around. We've still got to handle business, but I feel like we've got a group that can match up with any team. We've got playmakers on offense, and a defense that can be on the field with any offense. This is not a surprise to us at all.''
The surprise was on us in Week 1. As these things always seem to work, the Bills saw it and knew what was coming before the rest of us did. But with one more building block victory, the turnaround story will be well underway in Buffalo. Come Monday, if 2-0 is a reality, just about everybody will be talking about the Bills being on their way back.