EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – You know you’re not getting a whole lot of respect when you enter a game with a 4-3 record and the other team comes in at 1-6 and the oddsmakers favor your opponent to win.
Doug Marrone normally steers clear of any discussion even remotely related to gambling, but he couldn’t resist this juicy bit of motivational fodder while preparing the Buffalo Bills to face the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
“Yes, we brought it up,” the Bills’ coach confirmed after his team’s 43-23 victory. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get this team ready to go and motivated. If I can find a piece of information to get it, I’ll use it.”
So Marrone pulled out the we-don’t-get-any-respect card, and his players – especially those on defense – were determined to show the oddsmakers and everyone else who doubted the Bills that they don’t have a clue as to what they’ve been watching through the first half of the season.
They weren’t the least bit burdened by the fact they were 0-5, including a loss to the New York Giants, at MetLife Stadium. Or by the fact that they had lost their top two running backs, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, to injuries last week. Or by the fact their offensive line had allowed 13 sacks in the previous three games and was facing one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL. Or by the fact that three of their four victories were by three or fewer points. Or that they lost to arguably the two best teams on their schedule, New England and San Diego, by a combined score of 59-32.
Now, let’s make one thing clear: The Jets were beyond awful. They are 1-7 on merit. They don’t have an NFL-caliber starting quarterback and they’re playing as a team that knows its season is as good as over.
But let’s also give the Bills, and especially their defense, credit for their role in the Jets committing six turnovers. They ran Geno Smith out of the game by intercepting three of his passes in the first half. Then, after having some initial difficulty with Michael Vick’s effective scrambling and his left-handed throwing, they forced him to fumble twice and intercepted him once.
The Bills actually could have capitalized far more than they did on the quarterbacking blunders, but they prospered enough to generate the most points they’ve had since a 49-31 victory against Cincinnati in 2010. Kyle Orton only completed 10 of 17 passes, but four were for touchdowns. The Bills finished with 280 yards in offense, marking only the second time in their history they scored 40 or more points with fewer than 300 offensive yards.
And now the Bills find themselves with their second two-game winning streak of the season (the last time that happened was also in 2010) and entering their bye with a 5-3 record. Who among their fan base wouldn’t have signed up for that before the season?
“I’d have signed up for it 20 times over!” Bills President Russ Brandon said with a huge grin on his face outside the visiting locker room.
The Bills can legitimately spend their break thinking playoff thoughts. Whether that will amount to anything more than pleasant dreaming remains to be seen, but being two games above .500 is a significant achievement in a league where competitive balance rules. It puts them in a position to still be very much in the hunt as the leaves pile up and the temperature goes down.
How the Bills got to this place is also worth noting. They have repeatedly shown that they aren’t quick to succumb to adversity. They proved it tenfold in last week’s last-second victory against Minnesota. And as lopsided as Sunday’s score might have been, they did manage to shake off the fact they allowed the Jets to make a 24-7 gap midway through the second quarter shrink to 24-17 just before halftime.
“So far, I like how this team responds,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “It’s different than teams we have had in the past, when they have had adversities come up. In the past, things have happened and we used it as a crutch.”
Some of that comes from being more mature, and the Bills seem to be learning those lessons – occasionally, the hard way. One classic example came early in the second quarter when rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins, after catching a deep pass over the middle, was on his way to the end zone … then started slowing down to stick out his right arm to celebrate. That allowed Saalim Hakim to catch Watkins from behind after an 84-yard gain, 5 yards shy of the goal line. The Bills still ended up with a touchdown on the drive, but Watkins’ antics weren’t overlooked.
Marrone and multiple players on the sideline let the rookie know that any behavior that hurts the team won’t be tolerated and that, in the coach’s words, they don’t expect Watkins to “ever do that again.”
It is a sign of a club that understands it isn’t good enough to squander opportunities, which happened more than once Sunday. Linebacker Nigel Bradham picked up a taunting penalty that knocked the Bills out of field-goal range in the first quarter.
But the Bills are good enough to win when they get the sort of defensive effort they had against the Jets – and when the opponent demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had no business being the favorite.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we’re playing really physical football,” defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said. “In practice, guys are intercepting balls, guys are really working hard on their pass-rush ability and other things that go with it. We’re riding a momentum wave now, and we just want to keep riding it. We’re 5-3, we’re 2-1 in the division, and the sky’s the limit for us, I think.”
“Guys here just keep battling,” Kyle Williams said. “We will enjoy our bye week. We have guys that need to get healthy, myself included, and get ready for the second half of the year.”
Maybe they’ll do it with a little more respect than they had through the first half.