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Jerry Sullivan: Bills look to avoid repeat of 2011, knock on Wood

CINCINNATI – Six years ago in early October, the Bills went to Cincinnati, coming off a rousing, historic win. They had just rallied from a 21-point deficit at home to break a 15-game losing streak against the Patriots.

They were unbeaten at 3-0, flying high to Ohio. It was the height of Ryan Fitzpatrick's time in Buffalo. He was lighting up the league and was featured in a Sports Illustrated story about the NFL's "Fitzmagic" craze.

So the parallels are unmistakable, I told Eric Wood on Wednesday. You're coming off your biggest road win in ages, rising above low expectations, and off you go to your hometown of Cincinnati as the talk of the league.

"We're the talk of the league right now?" Wood said, a contrary look on his face. "It doesn't feel like it did then. There's no main event in town. We don't have ESPN lined up at our lockers."

Now that you mention it, ESPN isn't quite singing their praises these days. In their Week 5 power poll, they had the Bills rated 15th. The Falcons and Broncos, the teams they beat the previous two weeks, were ranked third and fourth, respectively. Evidently, the network looked at those as trap games for the real contenders.

There are other experts who have been kinder, who feel the Bills are a legitimate contender. But the prevailing notion is that they're at best an average team, one that has overachieved through the first four weeks. That explains the point spread for Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium.

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Cincinnati is a three-point favorite, which is the stock betting line when two teams are considered relatively even. The home team is favored by three. The Bills were a restrained bunch during the week, reciting Sean McDermott's standard mantras about respecting the process and getting better every week.

But McDermott and the players admitted they've had a chip on their shoulders all season after being picked as bottom feeders in the tank. If you don't think the Bills noticed the ESPN poll, you don't know pro athletes, who love to bond against the perceived "disrespect" of outsiders. LeSean McCoy was screaming when the media entered the locker room after the Atlanta game, "Y'all picked us to lose! So y'all come talk to the winners!"

Richie Incognito, that cuddly curmudgeon, tells me he looks forward to my critical reviews of Bills game on Mondays. He said it's good motivational fodder (I told him, you should have read me back in the day, before I mellowed).

The Bills lost that game at Cincinnati in 2011. They led at halftime, 17-3, and we writers were researching the odds of teams making the playoffs after a 4-0 start. Then it fell apart. They lost in overtime, 23-20, to a Bengals team with a rookie quarterback named Andy Dalton. They finished 6-10.

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"In 2011, the injury bug hurt us pretty good," Wood said. "We had a couple of come-from behind victories. We earned those, but those were improbable wins. We were really hot on offense at the time, and not quite so hot on defense. We were getting some really opportunistic turnovers."

"Why are we talking about 2011?" Incognito barked from the adjacent stall. "It's 2017. It's a whole new team."

It's true that only three players (Wood, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus) remain from that team. Still, the 2011 season (not to mention 2008) is a cautionary tale about getting overly excited about a fast start in the NFL.

McDermott said Wood and Kyle Williams reminded the younger guys on the team about 2011 and the dangers in losing focus -- sorry, losing sight of the "process" -- after a hot start.

"They have reminded the team," McDermott said. "The great part about this team is we have a ton of leaders that make their presence known. Those guys have made it very clear what it was like years ago, when the team had a good start and didn't stay focused on the process."

While it's good for sharpening focus, I'm not sure the 2011 bunch strayed from the process. It was more a matter of their limitations and luck catching up with them. It was a weak defensive team, one that lost Kyle Williams after five games due to injury. Fred Jackson went down with a broken leg. Fitzpatrick played through cracked ribs.

Wood believes this team is better, but has a long way to go. He used the exact words at this point six years ago before the Bengals game.

"I honestly feel we have a really consistent group of guys on this team," Wood said. "I really don't feel it would make a huge difference if we were 1-3 or 3-1. We got a pretty mature team led by a coach who isn't letting us forget how much we have left to grow.

"We're fortunate to be 3-1," he said. "We earned those wins, but it's exciting to see where we could go with the right amount of work and attention to detail. It's a little more sustainable when your defense is playing this good and keeping you in every game. With a new offense, I can only see us going up from here."

Therein lies the big question. How sustainable can their success be with the offense functioning at such a low level? A defense can only carry you so far, and this young Bills D is bound to find its level at some point.

The Bills are 31st in the NFL in passing, 29th in percentage of sacks against and 27th in yards per play. They got by the last two years, when they led the league in rushing and yards per attempt. But the model is sputtering through four weeks. They're 27th in yards per rush at 3.4.

Despite last week's historic win at the Falcons, questions remain about the offense, and particularly quarterback Tyrod Taylor's ability to carry them on days when the running game is ineffective, particularly on the road.

Taylor hasn't passed 30 times in a game this season. The Bills are 1-10 when he throws it 30 or more times. The Bills have attempted the fewest passes of any team in the NFL. They haven't turned it over since the first possession of the year, which covers up for some of their offensive inefficiencies.

So it's essentially the same model as under Rex Ryan, but with a zone blocking run game that seems to be inhibiting the process. The offensive line has not played well. They haven't scored in the first quarter yet. When you take a step back, it really is amazing that they're 3-1.

Winning is all that matters, however, and if the Bills win Sunday, they'll arrive at the bye at 4-1. More important, they'll be 3-0 in the AFC. Conference record has killed them at times in the past. As huge as it was to pull the upset in Atlanta, this is more important as far as playoff implications.

Beating the Bengals would elevate them in the eyes of the skeptics, maybe even sneak them into ESPN's top 10. If not, that's fine with them. They're happy to be under the radar, or to put it another way, go incognito.

 

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