The Buffalo Bills are 5-3 for the fourth time since 2000, the beginning of the NFL’s longest active playoff drought.
We all know how those three previous promising starts turned out, so what’s going to make this one any different?
In the warm afterglow of Sunday’s 43-23 victory against the New York Jets that can be savored through a perfectly timed midseason bye, the locker room at One Bills Drive was predictably overflowing with optimism. When your defense is as opportunistic as the Bills’ was in generating six takeaways and you’re able to produce more than 40 points with a modest 280 yards of offense, it’s easy to feel as if there are more than a few things working in your favor beyond having the mostly inept Jets as an opponent.
Sure, there were good feelings in 2011, the last time the Bills were 5-3. And then they went up in the flames of a 6-10 finish. There also were good feelings when the Bills were 5-3 in 2008. And they gave way to the anguish of a 7-9 season. Ditto for 2002, when the Bills also found themselves at 5-3. By the end of the year, they were 8-8.
So what’s different now, besides the Bills having new owners in Terry and Kim Pegula, who have generated a tidal wave of euphoria by removing years of lingering doubt about the franchise’s future in Western New York?
Let’s start with a defense that leads the league in two major statistical categories – sacks, with 28, and interceptions, with 12 – and is in the top 10 in several others. Then, there is the fact the Bills rank fourth in the NFL with a takeaway-giveaway ratio of plus-seven. And there’s a special-teams unit that, in addition to all of the turnovers the defense generates, does plenty to help the Bills have favorable field position, as was the case Sunday with their average drive beginning from their own 49-yard line while the Jets’ average drive began from their 19.
And don’t forget the quarterback, Kyle Orton, even if he wouldn’t hate it if the media would forget about bringing attention to him beyond those three hours that he’s on the field. Orton hasn’t been spectacular, but he has been more than sufficient and a clear improvement over EJ Manuel, the once-projected franchise quarterback that he replaced after the fourth game of the season.
With the help of dynamic rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Orton has done enough to allow the Bills to overcome their inability to run the ball, which was a problem before injuries took Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller out of the lineup at the same time. Through Sunday’s games, Orton ranked fifth in the AFC and seventh in the NFL with a passer rating of 104.0.
The mixture of defensive dominance and offensive efficiency is a formula known to have served other NFL teams well through the years.
“I mean, it can go all the way,” Bills tight end Scott Chandler said Monday.
Chandler, who is in his fourth season in Buffalo and eighth in the NFL, was part of the last 5-3-to-misery start, so he understands how quickly things can unravel. But he also knows how quickly they can come together.
“You look at this league, and it’s about getting hot at the right time,” he said.
It’s also about staying hot, something the Bills of ’11, ’08, and ’02 couldn’t do.
The best part about the arrival of the Bills’ bye is that it should provide time for injuries and general soreness to heal and/or at least subside to the point where most of the players should be physically ready to make a serious postseason push through the final eight weeks of the schedule.
The tricky part is the psychological impact. During the grind of a season, mental rest can be every bit as valuable as the physical kind. However, after back-to-back wins, are the Bills going to lose any momentum by having their season paused? Are they going to enjoy the spoils of easily disposing of an AFC East opponent on the road a little too much and become a little too full of themselves?
“I don’t think that’ll be an issue for everybody in here,” said defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who was part of the ’08 and ’11 collapses. “Because we’ve talked about it at length and they understand that when we get back, we’ve got the home stretch of the season that’s going to play a big part in this deal.”
When someone asked coach Doug Marrone Monday if he had any concern about his team being overconfident, he smiled.
“I can understand the question, but I don’t think that’s the case at all when you haven’t been to the playoffs in such a long time,” he said. “I think the one message I tried to tell them – Monday – was that it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder.”
“The pressure to go out there and play and perform gets harder as it goes,” Marrone said. “You start competing against teams that are in the same position you are. When you’re not, you’re competing against teams that want to knock you off. We’re not even in that position yet. We’ve got a long way to go before we get into that type of position.”
If the Bills get there, they’re likely going to do it, first, on the strength of their defense, which ranks 10th in the NFL in yards allowed, eighth against the run and 13th against the pass.
Their players on offense have no hesitation about acknowledging as much.
“I think we knew that our defense was going to be pretty stout,” Chandler said. “And they have lived up to that bill, no doubt, leading the league in sacks and just turning the ball over like crazy. And when we protect the ball offensively, we’ve been pretty good.”
That wasn’t the case on Oct. 12, when the Bills had three turnovers in a 37-22 loss against the New England Patriots. A week later, they had four turnovers, but managed a last-second, 17-16 win against Minnesota.
Marrone made avoiding turnovers a major point of emphasis leading up to the Jets’ game. He used numbers to deliver a message that the players seemed to receive loud and clear, as evidenced by the Bills’ plus-six turnover ratio Sunday.
“Coach Marrone does a good job of showing us those stats,” Chandler said. “Plus-one in the turnover margin, you’re winning 60-70 percent of the time; plus-two, you’re winning 80 percent of the time; plus-three, you’re winning like 95 percent of the time. And when we’re able to turn “the turnovers” into points – we didn’t all the time Sunday, but we did a lot of the time – it’s big.”
No, the Bills didn’t capitalize on all of their turnovers against the Jets, and that could have been a problem against a stronger opponent, such as the Patriots.
The thought of that and other shortcomings in an otherwise lopsided triumph clearly is weighing on Marrone, whose sour expression Monday seemed more appropriate for the mood at the training complex of the 1-7 Jets than at the facility of a team entering its bye two games above .500.
The players seem to have gotten that message as well.
“We’re still growing,” Chandler said. “We’re on track to get to where we want to be, but we’re not there yet.”
History would suggest the Bills still have a long way to go.