ATLANTA – Leslie Frazier's final halftime instructions were still echoing in the heads of all of the Buffalo Bills' defensive players after they took the field for the second half of Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons.
"We need some turnovers," the defensive coordinator said. "If you want to be a playoff-caliber team, you need to force turnovers on the road."
The Bills generated not one, not two, but three turnovers in the second half – a strip-sack fumble that end Jerry Hughes caused and rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White returned for a 52-yard touchdown, and two Micah Hyde interceptions – to spark a stunning, 23-17 victory. It was their defense that also kept the Falcons out of the end zone when they had the ball at the Buffalo 10 in the final minute.
Couple that with an equally surprising New England Patriots loss, and the 3-1 Bills find themselves sitting alone in first place in the AFC East.
Playoff-caliber, indeed. And the sudden contender's status the Bills have assumed – after an offseason of moves that screamed "the future isn't now" – is rooted in a defense that both smothers and produces big plays.
"It says that we can compete and play at a high level," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "But at the same time, we still can't start drinking the Kool-Aid. We've still got to respect the process, understand we've got to continue to work the way we were when we were underdogs. That's kind of the mindset of this team – blue collar, just keep grinding games out and finding ways to win."
Let's get the disclaimers out of the way. No, the Falcons didn't have their two best receivers, Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, in the second half after both exited with injuries. Yes, the Bills probably benefitted from two critical calls that should have been reversed but weren't.
So what? The Bills have been on the wrong end of officiating errors plenty of times, and those things have a way of balancing out.
What matters is how their defense, which had been so vital to victories in two of their first three games, came through against one of the best quarterbacks, Matt Ryan, leading one of the more explosive offenses in the league.
And there's no disputing the amount of work the Bills poured in to their preparation. All day long, their defense was generally a step ahead. The Bills didn't hold up so well against Devonta Freeman, one of the league's top running backs, but they gave Ryan nightmares.
"I'm just so happy to see practice paying off," defensive end Jerry Hughes said. "I mean, we work on turnovers in practice every day, dating back to minicamp, OTAs. So it's just great to see it, all that hard work that guys are putting in throughout the week."
Hughes started the turnover avalanche. After the Bills went three-and-out on the first possession of the third quarter, the Falcons faced a third-and-9 from their 47. As Ryan cocked his arm back to throw, Hughes hit him, the ball came out, White picked it up and ran for a touchdown to give the Bills a 14-10 lead with 10:55 left in the third quarter.
It appeared Ryan had followed through far enough with the ball in his right hand for the play to be an incompletion rather than a fumble, but after a review, officials allowed the call to stand.
"I got off the ball really well," Hughes said. "I was just watching the tackle's hands. I was kind of able to beat him on the edge and just really wanted to just lunge and grab that quarterback's arm. That's one thing that Coach Wauf (Mike Waufle, the Bills' defensive line coach) has preached on. We have numerous drills throughout the week where we actually work on strip sacks."
Strip sacks and scoop-and-score, as White did.
"That's just something we practice every day, scoop-and-score," the rookie said. "No matter if the ball's incomplete or not, just pick the ball up and just run."
Hughes had the wind knocked out of him on a collision as he made the play, so he was a little preoccupied while watching the replay.
"Oh, man, I was just really hoping that the ruling stuck," he said. "It's great momentum for us."
How great? On the very next series, Ryan fired to the deep middle on second-and-1 from the Falcons' 39. Hyde turned in front of receiver Taylor Gabriel, jumped and came down with the ball at the Buffalo 12. The Bills proceeded to drive 82 yards for a 24-yard Stephen Hauschka field goal to make it 17-10.
The Bills' only significant defensive glitch came on the next possession, when the Falcons drove all the way to the Buffalo 3. Middle linebacker Preston Brown saw the Falcons come out with no backs in a spread look. Anticipating a quick throw to the end zone, he tried to call a timeout because he knew the Bills were in the wrong defense. Too late. Ryan connected with receiver Justin Hardy for a touchdown to tie the game at 17-17 with seven minutes left.
Hauschka then bombed through a 56-yard field goal, and Hyde made his second interception on the next series on a tip (which could have been reversed because the ball hit the ground) to set up a 55-yarder by Hauschka to make it 23-17.
The Falcons weren't dead yet. With the Falcons facing a fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 10, the Bills called timeout with 49 seconds left. They correctly anticipated a play-action pass that, like the one just before it, was incomplete.
"I don't know if there's another team in the league that does situational football as much as we do," defensive end Eddie Yarbrough said. "I mean, fourth-and-1 situations. I mean, it could be a situation from Mars. And, chances are, Coach (Sean) McDermott and our team has drilled it.
"Definitely a time to say, 'Hey, this isn't our first rodeo.'"