In the aftermath of a big win over the Niners, Rex Ryan was asked what stringing together four straight wins after an 0-2 start did to validate him as a head coach.
"Nothing, man," Ryan said. "We just won four games. We gave up over 20 points against the Jets. I think that's the only team that's scored over 20 all year."
Classic Rex. In one breath, he downplays the idea that he's revived his reputation over the past month. Seconds later, he throws out a statistic that reminds us how terrific a job he and his staff have done this season.
Ryan can say what he wants at this point. Sunday's 45-16 thrashing of San Francisco, which gave the Bills their first four-game winning streak since 2008, was a tribute to Rex's ability to steer his ship through troubled waters and keep his team bonded and focused on the long-term goal.
OK, there's still a lot of season ahead. We've been hoodwinked before when Bills teams went on runs early in a season. They have beaten a third-string quarterback and two marginal starters in their last three games. Tyrod Taylor, for all his magnificence as a runner, continues to have issues in the passing game.
But all nitpicking aside, this team has the look of a wild-card contender in a mediocre AFC. They're 4-2, a game back of New England in the AFC East. It's amazing to contemplate, but if they win in Miami, they could be playing for first place in the division -- maybe the conference -- when the Pats come to town in two weeks.
Colin Kaepernick, starting his first game since he began kneeling during the anthem to protest racial injustice, was the big national story. But once the game got going, Kaepernick was just another opposing quarterback struggling to make throws in a stiff wind and a howling din at New Era.
Today, it's the Bills who will be a national topic of discussion. One month ago, they were 0-2 and looking like a train wreck. Firing Greg Roman looked like a panic move and a scapegoating. We were contemplating 0-4 and wondering which national network would be employing Ryan next season.
But Ryan, who never lost faith in his coaching ability, turned it around when things looked dire. He knew he might be coaching for his job this year, so he decided to do it his way, bringing in his own defensive guys -- his brother Rob, John Blake and Ed Reed -- to help teach and better express his vision of defense.
His players never wavered. In Ryan's first season in Buffalo, his entire defensive line questioned his tactics. At 0-2, nary a discouraging word was uttered when the Jets toasted his defense on national TV, or when Ryan fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman the next day.
"His staff is always going to be prepared, week in and week out," said safety Aaron Williams. "We're not worried about the outside stuff. They have to control what they can control, and that's preparing us each and every week, and they do a great job of that. Nothing's changed. We just have been dialed in a lot more."
It was a highly controversial move when he put Anthony Lynn, who had never an offensive coordinator, in place of Roman two games into the season. I didn't like it. Ryan got roasted nationally. It's a little early to paint Lynn as some offensive mastermind who simply needed his chance. But the early results are encouraging.
On Sunday, in a windy stadium, the Bills scored 30 or more points for the third game in four with Lynn calling the shots, four of the last five overall. For the second week in a row, Lynn put together a run-heavy game plan to compensate for a shaky receiving corps and it worked splendidly.
The Bills rushed 44 times for 312 yards, their most in 24 years. They ran for 164 yards on 21 carries in the first half. A week earlier in LA, they had 148 yards on 14 carries at halftime. That's 312 yards in the first half over the two games.
LeSean McCoy, who wanted Lynn as the OC and has validated it with his play, had more than 100 yards in each of those first halves. He finished with 140 yards on 19 carries and has 587 on the year.
Lynn had backup guard Ryan Groy reporting in constantly as an eligible receiver, giving the Bills six offensive linemen to execute the run game. He rotated his tackles on the direct snap that McCoy ran in for a 12-yard TD to give the Bills a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, a lead
they would never relinquish.
They even used backup quarterback EJ Manuel on a second-and-8, and Manuel kept the ball for 8 and a first down. Taylor ran for 68 yards. Mike Gillislee, who has been used judiciously and to great effect by Lynn, broke a 44-yard TD run.
Tyrod Taylor and the offense had another rough third quarter, mustering only one first down (that by penalty) on their first three possessions. But the defense stifled Kaepernick and Taylor threw a 30-yard TD dart to Justin Hunter late in the quarter for a 24-13 lead.
It was a feeding frenzy from then on. The Bills' defense seems to get stronger as the games go on. Maybe it's because they have so many players (Nickell Robey-Coleman, Lorenzo Alexander, Zach Brown) who have been marginal NFL guys and take nothing for granted.
"We have great leadership on this team," said defensive tackle Corbin Bryant. "Our coaches are in there, evaluating tape and doing a great job preparing. We know that we need to focus on every game, one game at a time, and make sure we're doing things right during the week, so on Sunday we can go out and execute on a high level."
Make no mistake, the Niners are a bad football team. They have lost five in a row and given up a 100-yard rusher in each. They might be the worst team in the NFL. Over the last three games, the Bills have beaten a third-string quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) and two marginal starters (Case Keenum, Kaepernick).
But you have to beat the teams you're supposed to beat. The Bills have hurt their playoff chances in recent years by losing to bad teams (Oakland in 2014, the Jaguars last year). If you're a good team, you take care of business against the weak sisters. That's what playoff teams do, and the Bills looked the part.
"Yeah, that is definitely what good teams do," said Kyle Williams. "We were able to withstand their first surge. It's like the last few weeks. The answers are going to be boring. The thing that has won the last few games is our preparation."
This was Ryan's first four-game winning streak since 2010, the year his Jets got to a second straight AFC title game. He used the same model he's using now: Great defense, a highly ranked running game, and an efficient, mistake-free passing game.
That model eventually found its level in New York. How far Rex can take it in Buffalo remains to be seen. But he is proving again that doing it his way can work, at least in the short term. The man deserves a lot of credit for that.
"I know it's boring football," Ryan said, "but we just want to win, whether that means we're going to put it up 30 or 40 times a game or just run the football. Obviously, I'd prefer to run. There's no question about that. Maybe that's the old school in me, but I still think you run the ball to win games.
"We know we need to do a better job of passing it and I thought we did today. The main thing is being efficient."
It's an old-school model, but it looks shiny and new right now. The next four games look pretty daunting. We'll see how the model holds up on the bumpy road ahead.