The proud Buffalo defense returns to Ralph Wilson Stadium this afternoon, bent, battered and humbled, like a little boy who slips quietly up to his bedroom after a rough afternoon at the hands of the neighborhood bully.
People in town and around the league are mumbling after that beating last Sunday in Tampa. Maybe they're not so good, after all. Maybe all this talk about their place in history among the great defenses was a bunch of empty bravado.
Quarterback J.P. Losman, a self-professed veteran of street fighting, says this is when you find out who likes getting hit in the mouth. Today against Atlanta, the Bills get a chance to hit back, and the defense couldn't ask for a more ideal opportunity to regain their momentum and swagger.
Michael Vick is in town. Say what you will about the guy. It's all been said before, many times over. He's not really a quarterback. He's an athlete, a running back who happens to line up behind the center. He can't read defenses. He can't throw accurately. He makes fantasy football players rip their hair out.
People can't quite figure out how good he really is. In that way, Vick is a lot like the defense that he's facing today. Like the Buffalo defense, sometimes he seems more myth than reality, more hype than substance. A lot of football remains before we can assign him a proper place in NFL history.
But Vick is the most dynamic player in the league, an electrifying performer, a nightmare for opposing defenses. In that sense, the comparisons with Michael Jordan are apt. Vick has his flaws. But try telling the guys who defend him that he's overrated.
"Man, that's a bunch of baloney," said Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes. "When people say things like that, they're really jealous because of what they couldn't do. The ones who usually say it are the former quarterbacks who used to play the game and now are analysts. So who cares? I'd rather have a guy on my team who wins rather than someone who sits back and throws for 200, 300 yards a game. Give me a winner. Point blank, period."
Vick wins. The Falcons are 24-13 with Vick as a starter in his four-year career. They have a losing record without him. Record-wise, he reminds me of another QB who spent his career being questioned, a guy who didn't have the most orthodox methods but usually found a way to win: Doug Flutie.
Teams had to prepare for Flutie because he defied convention and could beat you on the move. The NFL is a league of film-watching copycats. They like their quarterbacks to operate in predictable, geometric patterns, so their precious X's and O's can line up just right. Improvisation is the enemy.
In the end, the best defense against Vick is great athletes. That's why today is such a compelling matchup. The Bills have a fast, playmaking defense that feeds off the talents of its linebackers and defensive ends. It's the sort of defense that should cause trouble for Vick, who can make bad decisions under pressure. The Bills match up well with Vick -- or as well as any defense can.
"Oh yeah," Spikes said. "Most definitely. I think we match up well with anybody, with the versatility and the athletic ability that we have across the front. It will definitely be a good game to watch this weekend."
Vick is the sort of athlete who snaps you to attention when he has the ball. It isn't about numbers. It's about raw, visceral competition. It doesn't matter what Vick's stats look like at the end of the day. Beating him is the lone objective.
That is what makes this game intriguing. It's Vick, who puts up poor numbers but wins, against a Bills defense that has gaudy stats but can't win the big games. What does this tell us about the nature of stats in football? The only stat that matters is winning.
"That's what (Vick) does," said linebacker London Fletcher, who is nursing a hamstring strain. "He finds a way to win. They just win football games. It's not always pretty, but they get the job done."
That's all the Bills have to do today. Win. Beat Vick. And to start it off, they have to stop the run. The Falcons led the NFL in rushing last year and had 10 (10!) games with better than 200 yards rushing as a team. Vick's potential to break a run makes every aspect of Atlanta's running game that much better.
The Bills' defense walks a fine line between aggression and discipline. Players try to do too much at times, especially when the run defense is struggling. Like Vick, they have to be ready when big plays present themselves.
"Whatever it takes to win, that's what we want to do," said Fletcher. "You don't like losing. It's a bad taste in your mouth. You deal with it for a couple of days. But now it's over with."
It needn't be an artistic or statistical success. History doesn't remember who finished first in yards allowed. It remembers records. Playoff appearances. Winning against the best teams and players. Beat Vick and the Buffalo defense regains its stride. It sends a message that Tampa was an aberration. It can remind us how good it is, and that if there's a myth on the field, it's not the defense -- it's that No. 7 on the other team.