MIAMI – The NFL is a sport that invites exaggeration. They play only once a week, so there’s a tendency to invest every game with monumental significance. So I tried my best not to overreact to what I saw here Sunday afternoon.
But here it goes: The Bills team that showed up for Week Three looked a lot like a playoff team.
One week after being embarrassed by the Patriots, the Bills walked into Sun Life Stadium and turned Miami’s home opener into a home invasion, dominating the favored Dolphins in every phase of the game in a 41-14 rout.
Rex Ryan has been talking playoffs since the moment he walked into Buffalo. Ryan has spiked everyone’s expectations and set a higher standard. After New England put all the tough talk back in their faces, you had to wonder if this was yet another case of the standard being set too high.
There was no tough talk before this one. The Bills knew they had to channel their emotions onto the field or risk dropping to 0-2 in the AFC East. They responded with their biggest win here in more than a decade, a complete and convincing performance that left the Dolphins looking like playoff impostors.
The Bills got a typically strong effort from the defense, which humiliated Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and had the home fans booing their team off the field at halftime. Ryan’s staff, which was outcoached against New England, responded with a terrific game plan on both sides of the ball.
Sure, it’s early. We’ve been fooled by good starts before. Remember 2008 and 2011? But playing this well on the road against a Miami team that many experts projected as a playoff contender has to bolster the Bills’ belief that they will snap the NFL’s longest playoff drought at 15 years.
“Yeah. I’ve felt like that since OTAs,” said center Eric Wood. “Since we assembled this team, my expectations have been extremely high for this talented a group with this coaching staff. We obviously have a long way to go and a lot of hard work to get there, but that’s where I expect us to be. I’ve said that all along.”
But the most impressive part of this win – the thing that can make a skeptic believe the Bills are ready to make a playoff run – was the sensational play by the offense and, specifically, quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
Fresh from a humbling game against the Pats, Taylor was magnificent in his first road start, completing 21 of 29 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns. He marched the offense to touchdowns on the first two possessions, giving the Bills a 14-0 lead before the game was nine minutes old.
Bills quarterbacks had thrown a total of five TD passes in the previous nine trips to Miami. Taylor threw two on the first two drives of his first road start, hooking up with tight end Charles Clay for a 25-yard score and LeSean McCoy on a 10-yard TD strike.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman scripted an ingenious game plan, using play action and moving Taylor around to confuse the Dolphins’ defensive front and create favorable matchups in the passing game.
“Yeah, we had all those scripted,” said wide receiver Percy Harvin, who had seven catches for 66 yards. “The game was to get those guys moving and get Ndamukong Suh and those guys running up front, get them running sideline to sideline and try to get them tired and help our O line.
“And it seemed to work.”
Taylor was flawless on the opening drive, completing five straight passes for 77 yards. On the second drive, he threw a gorgeous 39-yard bomb to Sammy Watkins to get into scoring range and finished it with the TD toss to McCoy.
“We got a lot of talent on offense,” Wood said. “We got to keep working hard and getting better. We know that. But we’re tough when we get rolling.”
They have exactly 100 points after three games. If the Bills can sustain anything near that pace, and the defense performs near its level of the past two seasons, they ought to make the playoffs.
For much of the playoff drought, the Bills have been compromised by mediocre offense and subpar quarterback play. Too often, the defense would play a fine game, but the offense couldn’t keep up its end of the bargain.
That seems to be changing now. We’ve come a long way from the days of “wasted defense.”
“Yes, we have,” said wideout Robert Woods. “Our defense is still the same defense, being consistent and getting turnovers. I feel we’re finally stepping up to the party.”
The party is just getting started. Circumstances can shift wildly in a season. Taylor has played three games. But the money that Doug Whaley invested in his offense is starting to pay off.
Clay showed why the Bills would invest five years and $38 million in his services – a deal the Dolphins didn’t think was worth matching – with a spectacular catch and run for his 25-yard TD. He looked harder to knock down than Cassius Clay.
McCoy, still nursing a sore hamstring, didn’t do much in the run game, but his TD catch showed his toughness and skill as a receiver. Harvin, who has quickly developed a chemistry with Taylor, had another fine game in his attempt to show the NFL that he’s a good player and teammate.
Rookie Karlos Williams rushed 12 times for 110 yards and a 41-yard touchdown. Ryan was effusive in his praise for McCoy, who had 11 rushes for only 16 yards, as if trying to fend off any running back controversy before it begins.
Add a solid quarterback to that mix and you have an offense that can finally strike fear into opponents. Taylor’s teammates have been gushing about his poise and nerve for months. On Sunday, he backed it up in his first road start.
I said that Taylor needed to be mistake-free. It was setting the bar way too low. Roman trusted him to play aggressively, to attack through the air from the start. Taylor is a confident QB, and his teammates feed off it.
“Oh, absolutely,” Harvin said. “Since he was named the starter, we all had full confidence in him. He has a composure about him. It’s hard to rattle him. He speaks very clearly, commands the huddle.”
Taylor’s stats aren’t misleading now. He’s among the NFL’s passing leaders, making a case to be the long-term starter and much more than a game manager.
So the Bills are 2-1, which is better than most skeptics anticipated. They have dominated the Colts, who went to the AFC title game last year, and the Dolphins, a chic pick to make the playoffs after ponying up $114 million for Suh, who was invisible.
It’s a little early for statement games. But Ryan’s arrival spiked expectations for this team. Fans are looking for signs that this year’s team is different. This win says the Bills are more the team we saw in the opener than the one that lost to the Pats.
A team with a legitimate chance to play in the postseason.