Both the Cardinals and Bills sit at 1–2 after a 33–18 Buffalo win on Sunday, and given recent developments, it’s hard to say which one of those records is a bigger surprise.
A little more than a week ago, the Bills fired their offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, off a disheartening home loss to the Jets on Thursday night. With one of their stars, Sammy Watkins, out of the lineup and the team facing off against the Cardinals and the Patriots in the coming weeks, Rex Ryan’s team appeared to be on the brink of total collapse.
Meanwhile, Arizona shook off a lethargic opening loss to New England in Week 2 by handing Tampa Bay a 40-7 shellacking, sparked by three touchdown passes from Carson Palmer and five turnovers forced by their defense.
Sunday pitted a Super Bowl contender on the verge of finding its stride against a long-struggling franchise inching toward a coaching change. And, of course, the latter came out on top. What remains to be seen now is whether or not the stunning outcome tells us more about the Bills or Cardinals moving forward. Was Roman’s dismissal the turning point for Buffalo after a miserable start? Or is Arizona less a title threat than a team stuck in the NFL’s muddled middle?
There certainly must be questions asked of Bruce Arians’s Cardinals at this point. Counting last season’s NFC Championship Game in Carolina, the Cardinals have been beyond underwhelming in three of their last four games. Palmer has fired a combined eight interceptions in his last two road outings—the loss to the Panthers and Sunday’s game in Buffalo.
Arizona won’t panic yet, not with a favorable October schedule. This has to be a troubling beginning, though.
The Cardinals don’t have much of an excuse for losing Sunday, other than that Buffalo’s desperation level was higher. The Bills were a mess offensively in Week 1, and a complete nightmare defensively in Week 2.
“This might be the exact team we need to play,” Ryan said earlier this week, in what would turn out to be an impressive piece of foreshadowing. “This might be the best team in the league. And maybe this is the exact team we need to play.”
What exactly did Ryan mean? He recognized that the Bills were at a franchise crossroads and that the team needed to see what they were really made of. And what better opportunity than against one of the league’s best teams?
And the Bills rose to the occasion, even without Watkins in the lineup. Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy combined for 186 yards on the ground and three touchdowns (two by McCoy), while Taylor also threw for 119 yards.
Better yet, the defense harassed Palmer into another disastrous outing. Even when the Cardinals had chances to get back in the game late, Buffalo refused to let them—Corey White and Stephon Gilmore each picked off a pass in the waning moments to thwart Arizona’s comeback attempts. A botched field-goal snap by the Cardinals helped, too. Aaron Williams scooped up that loose ball and took it back for a 30–7 lead in third quarter.
The Bills made every play they needed to win. The Cardinals did just about everything they could to lose.
Such is life in the parity-filled NFL, a place where lessons learned one week tend to melt away the next time teams take the field. That’s not to say that the Cardinals are headed toward a 7–9 season—heck, Carolina also is 1–2 to start this season—or that the Bills are about to springboard themselves into the AFC playoff race. But those outcomes are more of a possibility than they were mere days ago.
How important this win is for Ryan (and his brother Rob, the Bills’s assistant head coach in charge of defense) could be incalculable. His future as Buffalo’s head coach was tenuous at best headed into the week, with no other scapegoat readily available following Roman’s ouster.
Now, suddenly, he has an impressive victory on his résumé ... and a chance to really vanquish some demons if he can pull off another win in New England next week. Don’t forget that the Patriots could be on their fourth-string quarterback for that game.
The NFL is a wild, unpredictable place. Buffalo’s win Sunday was another reminder of just how much can change from game to game.