Sunday September 25th, 2011

CHICAGO -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take in a tight, taut and thrilling Week 3 in the NFL that featured seven of the early eight games being decided by a touchdown or less ...

• No way, no how would the Buffalo Bills have ever won this game last season. But because of last season, when the heartbreaking, narrow loss was the Bills' specialty, Buffalo learned the kind of resiliency in the face of adversity that proved to be essential to its corner-turning 34-31 comeback win over New England Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

When the high-octane Patriots jumped out to what appeared to be an insurmountable 21-0 second-quarter lead, the Bills never panicked, and they didn't throw their game plan out the window. They just gathered themselves after the early New England scoring flurry, and went to back to work, eventually scoring 34 of the game's final 44 points. After all, just last week Buffalo climbed out of an 18-point halftime hole to win its home opener against Oakland. What's another field goal's worth of deficit?

With Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker doing his best Jerry Rice impersonation, torching the Buffalo defense for a career-high 16 catches, 217 yards and two touchdowns, the Bills didn't self-destruct or lose their poise. They just pounced on every possible Patriots mistake, turning four Tom Brady interceptions -- tied for his career high and the same number he threw all of last season -- into 24 points and taking advantage of every short field they were given. The exclamation point play in that regard was Drayton Florence's 27-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Buffalo might have been the NFL's most snake-bitten team last year, but the Bills proved in this game that history can be both overrated and occasionally overcome. The Bills entering Sunday had lost 15 games in a row to New England, the league's longest active skid in any series and the third-longest in league history. These current Bills had that New England domination hung around their necks in recent years, and they finally rose up to put an end to it -- beating the NFL's best and hottest starting quarterback (Brady) in the process.

I can't help but think that last year's miseries in Buffalo paved the way for this season's remarkable 3-0 start, when the 2010 Bills began 0-8, and finished 4-12, losing along the way to four eventual playoff teams (Baltimore, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Chicago) by three points each. Three of those went to overtime, which provided Buffalo with some much-needed experience in high-pressure situations, where every snap could be a game's final play. The Bills might have lost every one of those thrillers last year, but those games are paying dividends this time around. This season, Buffalo is mastering the art of the comeback, and it's learning how to win the close games it once routinely lost. With today's victory and last week's rally from a 21-3 hole against Oakland, the Bills are the first team in NFL history to win consecutive games it trailed by 18-plus points.

This kind of early season success was largely unexpected of the Bills, but I don't think there's anything fluky about Buffalo's 3-0 getaway. The Bills have come close to beating the Patriots in recent seasons -- see Week 3's 38-30 loss in Buffalo last year -- but could never finish strong and close the deal. They can now. These Bills are mentally tougher than any recent Buffalo club, and Gailey's got offensive playmakers galore to work with in quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, receivers Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones and David Nelson, and running back Fred Jackson.

So far, talent and some newfound resiliency is a winning combination in Buffalo. It's only late September, but the Bills are suddenly in first place in the AFC East, and their eight-year hex against New England is finally over. The next target is obvious: Ending the franchise's 11-season playoff drought, tied for the longest in the NFL with Detroit. In Buffalo, the dreams are getting bigger and a little more realistic every week.

• I'm not sure how the Vikings players feel about the notion of an 18-game regular season, but I'm fairly confident everyone in Minnesota's locker room would be willing to play more games as long as they all ended after 30 minutes. The Vikings would be 3-0 if games lasted half the time the NFL rule book calls for, but alas, Minnesota is winless under the 60-minute format.

And things are getting worse by the week for Leslie Frazier's team, which blew a 10-point halftime lead and lost in Week 1 at San Diego, then followed that up by losing a 17-point halftime lead against Tampa Bay in last week's home opener. On Sunday came the greatest indignity -- and second-half fold job -- yet. The Vikings led the favored Lions 20-0 at the break, but still found a way to lose, 26-23 in overtime. Detroit had lost 13 games in a row in Minnesota, last winning at the Metrodome in December 1997.

The Vikings were already the first team in NFL history to lose its first two games despite being up by at least 10 points at halftime, and now it's a three-game streak Minnesota owns in that galling department.

• As long as the Viking are going to lose every week with Donovan McNabb at quarterback, can we be all that far away from the dawn of the team's Christian Ponder starting era? McNabb might be giving Minnesota its best chance to win at this point, but if you're still not getting bottom-line results in the won-loss column, what's the use of delaying the inevitable?

• What a story the Lions are becoming. They were last 3-0 in Billy Sims' rookie year of 1980, and Detroit is even starting to win games in which it doesn't play all that well. The Lions looked lifeless in the first half against Minnesota, but Jim Schwartz's team hung up 26 points and 308 yards of offense in the second half, after being shut out and held to just 50 yards in the first half.

Detroit ran for just 20 yards on 19 carries (a paltry 1.1 average) in the game, but quarterback Matthew Stafford and his two favorite targets -- receiver Calvin Johnson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew -- refused to let the Lions lose. Stafford finished 32 of 46 for 378 yards and two touchdowns, finding Johnson and Pettigrew a combined 18 times for 220 yards and two scores.

The Lions face another test next week at Dallas, but it's a winnable game for a Detroit team that has now won 11 games in a row, including last year's regular season and this year's preseason. Then come home games against Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta. Brace yourself, but with a trip to Denver looming just before Detroit's Week 9 bye, a 7-1 or even 8-0 record is not out of the question for the Lions.

• I don't really know every step of the NFL's new protocol for concussion testing by heart, but sometimes the eyeball test still works pretty well, and you could just see Sunday that Michael Vick wasn't right. The Eagles quarterback has just absorbed too much pounding in the season's first three games, and in actuality the physical abuse started even in the preseason.

It's true that you can't change Vick's style of play and still expect him to be Michael Vick. It doesn't work that way. The skill set that makes him so electrifying also leaves him open to plenty of danger and contact. But this much is also clear: Vick will never make it through the 2011 season at this rate. He reportedly broke his right hand in Sunday's loss to the Giants, and the average of an injury a week sounds pretty accurate for No. 7 about now. At 1-2 and on a two-game losing streak, the Dream Team is already getting a wake-up call in regards to the fragility of its starting quarterback.

• So the poor, injury-depleted Giants don't have any receivers left, huh? Don't try telling that to Victor Cruz, he of the two long scoring receptions against the Eagles (74 and 28 yards). And did you notice that Cruz twice victimized well-paid Philly cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who whiffed on an open-field tackle on Cruz's first touchdown and was beaten at the goal line in coverage on Cruz's second score?

And wasn't Giants cornerback Aaron Ross supposed to be his team's weak link defensively? Ross had two interceptions against the Eagles, picking off both Vick and Philly backup Mike Kafka once each. New York intercepted Philadelphia three times overall, and maybe the Eagles' worst defensive moment of the game came when Giants running back Brandon Jacobs simply ran away from Eagles rookie linebacker Casey "brother of Clay'' Matthews on a 40-yard first-quarter touchdown reception. Matthews has his older brother's hair style down pat, but not his game.

• It's a little too knee-jerk to decry that Houston's loss at New Orleans means the same old Texans are back at their teasing ways again this year, but let's let Gary Kubiak's team win a truly big game before anyone tries to claim they've gotten over the hump. It's Year 10 of the Texans' franchise, and we're still debating whether or not Houston is for real.

Maybe the Texans' new 3-4 defense under coordinator Wade Phillips isn't quite as far along as we had all presumed in the season's opening two weeks. In reality, the Texans' red-zone offense was the real culprit against the Saints. As long as Neil Rackers is kicking what amounted to four chip-shot field goals, as he did in New Orleans, we know Houston isn't making the most of its scoring opportunities.

The Texans had a golden opportunity to start 3-0 for the first time ever and ride into an upcoming tough stretch of games with some momentum. But now next week's home game against Pittsburgh is a chance for Houston to start over, rather than keep going. A home game against Oakland and trips to Baltimore and Tennessee await the Texans after they play the Steelers.

• Hey, how long until we're treated to Chan Gailey, A Football Life on the NFL Network?

• Who said offensive football was dominating the NFL in the season's opening weeks? We saw four early games on Sunday in which neither team even reached the 20-point plateau: Tennessee 17-14 over Denver; Cleveland 17-16 over Miami; Carolina 16-10 over Jacksonville; and the ugliest of the ugly, San Francisco 13-8 over Cincinnati.

• If you're the Browns, you've got to feel hopeful to be 2-1 after that embarrassing Week 1 loss at home to Cincinnati. Cleveland rallied for a last-minute game-winning touchdown drive to climb above .500 after three games for the first time since 2002. That's a good omen of sorts. The one and only time the expansion Browns have made the playoffs was in 2002.

• Sunday registers as a significant step back for Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who looked dismal for most of the day in a five-point loss at home to the 49ers. Dalton finished 17 of 32 for just 157 yards (40.8 passer rating), and threw two costly fourth-quarter interceptions to doom any chances of a Cincinnati comeback.

The Bengals raised some hopes with the road win at Cleveland and the narrow loss at Denver. But they laid an egg in their home opener, and just over 43,000 fans showed up to witness the stinker. If you can't handle the 49ers on your own home field, there aren't many opponents you'll be expected to beat.

• It hasn't been pretty for a single second on offense, but San Francisco is just some conservative fourth-quarter play-calling against Dallas away from being a heady 3-0 this season. That ought to at least make the 49ers' weeklong stay in Youngstown, Ohio, a little bit more enjoyable.

• Loved those Tom Dempsey-era Saints throwback uniforms against the Texans. But for a decent bit of the game, New Orleans played like the Saints of the bad old days wearing them.

• Two more fumbles for Reggie Bush despite touching the ball just 12 times, and I can't imagine he's doing anything but effectively moth-balling himself in Miami. Dolphins' rookie running back Daniel Thomas (95 yards on 23 carries) is quickly making Bush all but irrelevant.

• I have to admit I didn't foresee a blueprint of victory for the Titans that didn't include big production from all-world running back Chris Johnson, but Tennessee has won two in a row and is 2-1 despite getting next to nothing on the ground from Johnson. He ran just 13 times for 21 yards in the win over Denver, with a long gain of eight. At least Tennessee managed to get C.J. involved in the passing game, with four catches for 54 yards, including a pretty 34-yard reception.

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has been everything the Titans could have hoped for thus far, and his 311-yard, two-touchdown passing day only further proves he was the guy Seattle should have hung onto for at least one more season.

• That's more like it, Baltimore. My AFC Super Bowl pick demolished the Rams in St. Louis on Sunday, looking much more like the team that humbled Pittsburgh in Week 1 than the uninspired club that fell at Tennessee last week. The Ravens look like they have a star in the making in rookie receiver Torrey Smith, who caught five passes for 152 yards, scoring three first-quarter touchdowns as Baltimore raced to a 21-0 lead and never slowed down.

The Ravens have been seeking a legitimate stretch-the-field vertical threat forever, and if Smith and Lee Evans both contribute this season, Baltimore's offense will finally be more explosive and versatile under coordinator Cam Cameron.

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