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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Stop The Presses: The Buffalo Bills Might Actually Be Good in 2011

When you've beaten a divisional rival 15 straight times, you are basically working on borrowed time in the NFL. No sport has the same level of parity (which is what makes it the best professional league) so in that sense, today's 34-31 win by the Buffalo Bills (3-0) over the New England Patriots (2-1) at Ralph Wilson Stadium shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

However, New England was up 21-0 early in the second quarter and seemed headed to a laugher in Upstate New York. However, just like a week earlier against Oakland (down 21-3), Buffalo rallied to get it within 21-10 at halftime and then they proceeded to outscore the Pats 24-10 in the second half.

Led by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's (my favorite Harvard alum) big game (27 of 40, 369 passing yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs), the host Bills vaulted to one of the most important victories in franchise history over the past forgettable decade.

It also put Buffalo atop the AFC East, ahead of New England and the New York Jets (2-1), who lost later in the day in Oakland. The Miami Dolphins (0-3) are already on the clock for Stanford QB Andrew Luck as far as I'm concerned.

It's easy to make fun of the Bills and their fans for celebrating their September Super Bowl like the Jets always do but in many ways, that fan base more than almost any other in the NFL deserves success. They're so loyal and year after year, they've had to watch a terrible onfield product.

No Patriots game would be complete without the usual video game numbers from quarterback Tom Brady (30 of 45, 387 yards, 4 TDs) but a wrench was thrown in the standard plot as TB12 was picked off four times. Those interceptions, coupled with the lack of desire to run the ball and the defense's inability to get off the field equaled a win that could turn around things for Buffalo.

No Aaron Hernandez but Wes Welker (career-high 16 catches and 217 yards, 2 TDs) and Rob Gronkowski (7 catches, 109 yards, 2 TDs) were still unstoppable. The problem was that without Hernandez, the Patriots lacked a viable third option. Deion Branch was held without a catch and Chad Ochocinco (2 catches, 28 yards) failed to capitalize on way more playing time. He dropped an easy touchdown that didn't come back to bite the Patriots but it would have been a big boost for his fragile confidence.

The Bills lack the marquee names of the Patriots but Steve Johnson (8 catches, 94 yards, TD), Donald Jones (5 catches, 101 yards), David Nelson (6 catches, 84 yards) and running back Fred Jackson (87 yards receiving; 74 yards rushing, 1 TD) are combining to give Fitzpatrick and Buffalo one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL this season.

Rookie running back Stevan Ridley (7 carries, 44 yards; 1 catch, 8 yards) showed some nice burst in his most extensive workday in his pro infancy. He's deserving of some more touches starting next week I say. I love them both but I think at this point, opponents know what to expect from Danny Woodhead (21 yards rushing; 20 yards receiving) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (16 yards rushing).

Kyle Arrington was the only Patriots defensive player worthy of a mention. He had two interceptions, both in the first half. Fellow cornerback Devin McCourty had 11 tackles (8 solos) but he looks shakier by the week as teams appear to be going right at him all the time now.

New England received the opening kickoff and they proceeded to reel off maybe their most impressive drive of the contest. In nine plays covering 84 yards (5:15 elapsed), Brady found Welker with a short pass that Welker turned into a 14-yard touchdown. Stephen Gostkowski's PAT made it 7-0 and two plays into Buffalo's first drive, the Pats got the ball back when Arrington made his first pick.

Brady used the short field and the omnipresent no-huddle attack to quickly cash in. Brady hit Gronkowski (an Amherst, NY native) for a 1-yard TD pass after a six play, 30-yard drive. Gostskowski's second PAT made it 14-0.

Fitzpatrick and the Bills offense started to click on their next possession but once again, Arrington ended it with an interception (this time in New England's end of the field). The Pats had a cushy 14-0 lead after one misleading quarter.

The teams punted back and forth twice before Brady and Co. put it all together once more. A 26-yard touchdown to Gronk and Gostkowski kick put the Patriots ahead 21-0. For most teams, that would be more than enough but when you don't want to/can't run the ball to bleed the clock and your defense can never get stops in crunch time, no lead is truly safe against a worthy foe.

Fitzpatrick and Johnson got the Bills on the board with an 11-yard touchdown strike. Rian Lindell's PAT cut it to 21-7.

New England looked poised to grab another touchdown (or at least field goal) before halftime but Brady's pass went off Woodhead's hands and it was intercepted by Bryan Scott at the Buffalo 11-yard line. Credit to the Bills as they went 66 yards in 10 plays (1:02 elapsed) to set up Lindell for a 42-yard kick. That gave Buffalo a boost, down a manageable 21-10 at halftime with the second half kickoff coming to them.

It's hard to remember it but New England's beleagured defense actually forced a 3-and-out on Buffalo's first possession of the second half. The problem was that Brady threw his second interception (Leodis McKelvin) on the following play. It was intended for Ochocinco but Brady tried to fit it into too tight of a space for a guy that still doesn't seem comfortable in the system.

After a nice 21-yard return, the Bills used the short field to their advantage as Fitzpatrick found Scott Chandler for a 3-yard touchdown pass after a 7-play, 37-yard drive.

New England's next drive stalled in the red zone and they settled for a 23-yard Gostkowski field goal and a 24-17 lead.

Buffalo punted twice, sandwiched around a New England punt, before George Wilson recorded the Bills' third interception of Brady. A 48-yard pass to Jones and a costly penalty to Sergio Brown (31 yards) placed the ball at the Patriots' 1-yard line and Jackson punched it in for the tying score with help from Lindell's PAT.

For the second time, Brady was intercepted on the first play of a drive (which is killer) but even worse, Drayton Florence returned it for a 27-yard touchdown and the go-ahead score at 31-24.

The crisis was averted as New England went on a nice long drive (15 plays, 74 yards, 6:57) with Welker getting the money catch (6-yard TD on 4th-and-6). Gostkowski's kick tied it at 31. All the Pats needed was a stop and it would get the ball back or worse case, it would go to overtime.

Three long plays later (29-yard catch by Jones, 12-yard catch by Jackson and 39-yard catch by Jackson) and the Bills had the ball down at the 1. At first, it was ruled a TD but it was just semantics since no kicker will ever miss a kick that short. Buffalo did its best to get some dumb penalties and move it back but Lindell split the uprights from 28 yards out with no time left.

Well this was painful to recap and relieve for the second time today. New England travels to Oakland next Sunday afternoon (4:15 p.m.) for a game that promises to be much harder than originally expected. The Raiders (2-1) actually have their act together and they could beat the Patriots if their defense is the same sieve it was today. Brady can't carry them forever, this team needs balance offensively and it needs the defense to show some progress from week to week.

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