Following a 29-10 win over the Miami Dolphins in their home opener, the Buffalo Bills sit at 2-0 and atop the AFC East. Surprising, yes – to everyone but the players themselves.
As CJ Spiller said after the game – the preseason doesn’t mean anything – and the Bills, currently, are living proof of that.
Amid an emotional week in which Terry and Kim Pegula agreed to terms to purchase the team, all but guaranteeing it will remain in Buffalo, and Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly was declared cancer free, the Bills got the run of good news started with an upset win over the Chicago Bears and finished it with a dominating one over the Dolphins.
A methodical breakdown of the game would go something like this: the Bills minimized mistakes on the offensive side of the ball, used the running game to set up “manageable” passing situations for EJ Manuel, and relied heavily on a relentless defense that did not cede an inch to the Dolphins most of the day, with a healthy dose of solid special teams play thrown in the mix.
But even an impartial observer cannot deny the role that emotion played in the win especially after Kelly’s emotional pregame speech. CEO Russ Brandon mentioned after the came that he had never heard Ralph Wilson stadium so loud. In a week that exposed the worst side of the NFL, the city of Buffalo and their team never received the memo and demonstrated the best that the game has to offer: loyalty, hard work, focus, a city struggling to survive and the team trying to help them do so.
If Roger Goodell wants to display the positivity that the NFL can engender he may want to spend the next week in Buffalo.
Returning to the actual action on the field, however, found star wide receiver Sammy Watkins living up to his billing after a slow start to Week One. Still battling a painful rib injury Watkins caught eight passes for 117 yards and the Bills only passing touchdown. Manuel targeted Watkins 11 times while looking to his other receivers just 15 combined.
Manuel would only drop back to throw 26 times this game, similar to last week, but would not turn the ball over after throwing just one interception against the Bears. No one in Buffalo envisioned Manuel as a ‘game manager’ when drafted but with the Bills possessing strengths in so many other areas that is all that is required of Manuel right now.
Offensively outside of Watkins this game was all about making the league remember just how dynamic and electrifying Spiller can be. Replacing Marquise Goodwin on kickoffs, Spiller took one 102 yards to the house while also breaking off a 47 yard run on the ground and contributing in the passing game as well.
While some might worry that Spiller means too much to the success of this offense to risk putting him on kickoff returns – fears that nearly came to fruition when he had to visit the locker room after the opening kickoff – for one day at least the decision to do so seemed smart.
The Bills’ offense was certainly more efficient than anything they showed during the preseason but red zone issues remain. The Bills were just 1 of 6 in scoring plays when in the red zone against the Dolphins and a mere 5 of 15 on third downs.
Similarly to the game against the Bears, the Bills were outpaced by a large margin by the Dolphins in terms of first downs.
The difference maker here is that the Bills are converting when they need to, with a reliable kicker in Dan Carpenter (five of five on field goals) and a defense that is able to keep the opposing team out of the end zone.
The Bills defense would sack Dolphins’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill four times and hold Miami to just 62 yards in the first half. Certainly they were helped when Knowshon Moreno – who ran roughshod over the New England Patriots’ defense last week – was knocked out of the game early on but the Bills were solid in their fundamentals and are making a strong case for being among the best defenses in the league.
Cornerback Corey Graham has been a big pick-up for the Bills, wresting the job from Leodis McKelvin during training camp and showing no signs that he will relinquish it any time soon.
Graham racked up ten tackles and three passes defensed and has made his presence known while covering virtually the entire field.
Outside of Spiller’s kickoff return for a touchdown special teams were also responsible for a blocked punt and a recovery of a muffed punt later in the game. The old cliche that states you have to play well in all three phases of the game rang especially true for the Bills yesterday.
There are still things to work on: converting more often in the red zone, getting Manuel to look down field on a more regular basis, and consistently gaining yards in the ground game rather than relying on an occasional big run (as has been the case in the first two games) are all issues that need to be addressed.
But the foundation is in place and even with a run of difficult games coming up, including the San Diego Chargers– coming off a surprising win over the Seattle Seahawks – at home next week, there is optimism in Buffalo that has not been there in quite some time.