Despite how most NFL head coaches preach about the dangers of elevating one particular game over another in terms of importance, some games really are bigger than others when it comes to a team trying to grow into a winner. This week presents one of those measuring sticks for Dick Jauron's Buffalo Bills.
At 5-3, with consecutive division losses to Miami and the Jets marring their hope-filled 5-1 start, the Bills may not be facing a must-win this week at New England, but I think it's fair to say they are in a must-respond situation. Either the Bills return to the form they displayed in becoming one of the league's most improved teams in the season's opening seven weeks, playing with confidence, crisp execution and a sense of resiliency, or they risk slipping back over that invisible line that separates the contenders from the pretenders.
Will the season be over in Buffalo if the Bills lose on the road to the Patriots and fall to 5-4? Absolutely not. Especially since their schedule holds three imminently winnable games in the coming three weeks: home against Cleveland, at Kansas City, and home against San Francisco. They could easily be 8-4 at that point, and set up nicely for a December drive to the playoffs. Don't forget: The entire AFC East is currently separated, top to bottom, by one game.
But from a tone-setting perspective, this is, undeniably, the most critical game of Buffalo's season thus far. Perhaps even more important than winning this week is how the Bills play at Gillette Stadium, a venue they've never won at since it opened in 2002. A strong showing against the team that has beaten them nine consecutive times and 14 out of the past 15 and the still-maturing Bills will at least have something to build on as they embark on the season's second half. Being competitive in New England will re-enforce the positives that were so squarely on display in going 4-0 and 5-1, and build back some of the feeling that Buffalo is indeed a team on the rise rather than a perplexing version of the same ol' Bills.
But if Jauron's team goes into Foxboro and can't avoid the mistakes and breakdowns that have plagued the offense, defense and special teams the past two weeks, losing big to a Patriots team that's missing its marquee weapon in Tom Brady, what about the Bills will inspire much belief after 10 weeks of the regular season? They'll be a desperate 0-3 in the division, doubt will have taken hold -- whether it's admitted to or not -- and for the first time all season Buffalo will find itself looking up at another team in the AFC East standings. A one-game deficit will have never felt so large.
"This is a young team that has just had that first dip of our season,'' Bills offensive coordinator Turk Schonert told me Friday. "They've been self-inflicted wounds for the most part, but you've got to pull yourself out of it. You're not going to get a better measuring stick than playing the team that has dominated the division and dominated the conference for years now. We've been their whipping boys for a while now, and we've got to show we can toe to toe with those guys for 60 minutes.''
The Bills' recent problems have been many. They've gotten sloppy, turning the ball over f seven times in their losses to the Dolphins and Jets. The running game has stagnated, gaining just 30 yards against New York, and the offensive line is letting quarterback Trent Edwards take too much of a beating (Buffalo has allowed 23 sacks, just three shy of its 2007 total). On defense, injuries have plagued the secondary, opponents are consistently converting on third down, and the pass rush is MIA (just eight sacks the past seven games). Even the Bills' usually stellar special teams units have had a breakdown or two the past two weeks.
Add it all up, and if this isn't a crossroads game for Buffalo, it's at least an important checkpoint that could very well help determine the direction the rest of the season takes. For a team trying to end an AFC-worst eight-year playoff drought, self-confidence is a key component to the task. But that element is a fragile one right now for the Bills, and it can head one of two ways with this game against a proven winner like the Patriots.
"We know that if we don't play our best game this week, we don't have much of a chance,'' said Jauron, whose Bills last year were humiliated in their two games against unbeaten New England by a combined score of 94-17. "We can't turn the ball over. We can't give up the big plays and think we can beat a team of this talent level and history. They have a history of winning.''
And the Bills this decade have a history of losing. Which is the hardest habit in the NFL to break. We don't yet know which team is the real 2008 Bills; the one that won five out its first six games, or the one the past two weeks that looked so much like self-destructing Buffalo teams of years gone by. This week, in a game at New England that shouldn't be under-emphasized, the Bills could very well tell us all we need to know.
• Besides Jauron, I can think of a pair of third-year head coaches who are facing huge games this week: Minnesota's Brad Childress and Houston's Gary Kubiak. The Vikings play host to Green Bay, and it's imperative that Minnesota defends its home turf. Childress is 0-5 against the Packers in his tenure in the Twin Cities, and if that becomes 0-6, with the Vikings falling below .500 at 4-5 in the process, the heat is really going to start building on Minnesota's embattled head coach.
Ditto for Kubiak, whose Texans are at home against Baltimore on Sunday in a makeup of the Week 2 game that was postponed due to Hurricane Ike. Houston had high hopes for 2008 after getting to 8-8 last year, but it is just 3-5 at midseason, and desperately needs to put together a second half of 6-2 to show progress. Getting upset by the improved Ravens at home would probably ensure the Texans never see .500 this year, and that could put Kubiak's job in some jeopardy.
• Saints sources told me this week they believe tight end Jeremy Shockey is finally recovered from his sports hernia surgery and will begin to pay dividends on Sunday in Atlanta. With Reggie Bush likely out another week recovering from arthroscopic left knee surgery on Oct. 20, New Orleans could very much use the offensive boost Shockey was expected to provide this season.
• Why would the Steelers even think of risking further injury to Ben Roethlisberger's shoulder this week against the visiting Colts after watching Byron Leftwich's superb second-half showing in Washington on Monday night? And how many backup or starting quarterback-poor teams are probably kicking themselves that they didn't move more aggressively to pursue Leftwich during the preseason?
Let me name a few: Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, New England, San Francisco and Seattle.
• Where exactly has the real Devin Hester gone? The Bears' Superman of the return game is a mind-boggling 31st in the league in kickoff returns, with a 20.9-yard average and a long gain of 51. The scoring machine who ran back seven punts and four kickoffs for touchdowns over the course of his first two seasons in the league has none of either variety this year. Even worse, he hasn't even looked close to breaking much of anything and has struggled with turnovers.
There's only one deduction that make sense: The experiment of turning Hester into a fulltime receiver has failed miserably, and should be scrapped. Maybe then Hester's rare return magic will return.
• I have to admit I'm definitely going to watch the 49ers at Cardinals Monday nighter to see what Mike Singletary can do for an encore. You think ESPN might have a camera aimed his way a time or two? Something tells me he's not going to sign up to be wired for one of those Sounds of the Game features. Just a hunch.