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A must-win? In Week Two? Believe it

During Tuesday’s weekly press conference, I asked Bills coach Rex Ryan if he remembered the last time he started a season 0-2.

“No,” Ryan said.

“You haven’t,” I said.

“Gosh, I hope that trend continues,” he said.

Ryan hasn’t been 0-2 through two weeks in his seven seasons as an NFL head coach. Until last Sunday, in fact, he had won five consecutive season openers (and didn’t finish with a winning record in any of them).

It’s understandable if Rex wants to maintain the trend of being at least .500 after two games. He’d rather not contemplate the idea of 0-2. That would be a troubling beginning for a season that held such promise, and could put a combustible team on the verge of a crisis.

Ryan and most of his players were issuing the usual platitudes on Media Day. It’s only one game. A season is a marathon, not a sprint. Tailback LeSean McCoy has been chanting the same mantra since the embarrassment in Baltimore: Their goal wasn’t to go unbeaten, anyway.

“We can’t panic,” said McCoy, who admitted he did not play well against the Ravens. “I feel like a lot of people are panicking. ‘Oh, we lost the first game!’”

Panic is too strong a term for what skeptical Bills fans are thinking. But there’s certainly cause for alarm after that sorry performance in the opener. It’s not panicking to suggest the Bills could be looking at 0-4 if they lose to the Jets at home Thursday night. It’s a reasonable deduction, and one I’ve been hearing all over town the last few days.

A loss at home to the Jets would be a bad sign, indeed. They have beaten the Jets five straight times. They beat their division rival twice last year in Ryan’s first go-round as Buffalo’s head coach and prevented his former team from making last year’s playoffs.

The last time we saw our old pal Ryan Fitzpatrick, he was tossing three interceptions in the fourth quarter of last year’s blustery, season-ending loss to the Bills in the stadium formerly known as The Ralph. If the Bills allow Fitz to come back here and earn his redemption, getting the Jets to 1-1 in the process, fans will heaving themselves off the bandwagon in droves.

So this nationally televised game seems bigger than the typical Week Two contest. It has a desperate feel to it. After all, everything is amplified where Ryan is concerned. He has a big personality and creates outsized expectations. So his troubles get magnified, too.

This team seems fragile right now, and I’m not talking only about Sammy Watkins’ foot. It starts at the top. Ryan’s reputation is on the line this year, and perhaps his job. Whatever the Pegulas have in mind, most national experts are listing Ryan as one of the NFL coaches on the hot seat this season. Those perceptions have a way of becoming reality.

Ryan is in danger of becoming only the fourth head coach since the 1970 merger to miss the playoffs in six consecutive seasons. He’ll be in a big early hole if the Bills lose two in a row against opponents that were seen by the optimists as probable wins on a tough schedule – and against AFC foes who might wind up battling them for wild-card berths.

So while this game won’t pack the same emotional wallop as Rex’s return to New York on a Thursday night a year ago, it’s hardly just another football game, as Ryan suggested. With Arizona and the Patriots looming the next two weeks, there’s an undeniable urgency to it.

“Yes,” said defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman. “Yes, yes, yes. The urgency is there. You can feel it from the players. You can feel it from the coaches. This is a must-win. This is a must-win. We’ve got to get this win.”

OK, so Robey-Coleman has a tendency to dramatize on occasion. When you play defense in the NFL at 5-8, 165 pounds, every week is Armageddon. But after that debacle on Opening Day, you can bet the Bills feel a collective need to prove they’re a lot better than they showed in Baltimore.

The Bills talk a good game, but you have to wonder if their belief is a bit flimsy. The roster isn’t very deep, which happens when you overpay for your supposed stars. They have a lot of marginal players in important positions, and it figures to get worse when the injuries start to hit.

Watkins says he’ll play against the Jets, but that doesn’t mean he’s 100 percent. I suspect his injured left foot will be an issue for awhile. It’s always something with Sammy. And it won’t be long before Tyrod Taylor goes down if the offensive line – which will be compromised by Cordy Glenn’s absence with an ankle injury – doesn’t get its act together.

Last Sunday, Taylor was tentative and unsure of himself. He played like a rookie. The coaches want him to allow pass plays to develop, to hang in the pocket and scramble less, but they have to be careful about stifling his most dynamic quality. It’s his running ability that makes him special. It’s bad coaching to overmanage an athlete’s instincts.

Taylor might not have a choice against a Jets defensive front that’s among the very best in the NFL. Last week, they got seven sacks against the Bengals’ Andy Dalton, who was sacked 20 times all last year. And that was without star defensive end Sheldon Richardson, who missed the opener while serving a one-game suspension for violating the league’s Personal Conduct Policy.

And if things start to go south, I can imagine the tenuous relationship between Ryan and Doug Whaley will become even more strained. In a crisis, people point fingers and direct blame, generally at another part of the operation.

It would be no surprise if we began hearing mutterings of discontent from within the building at One Bills Drive. Just imagine if Taylor gets hurt and Whaley’s pet, EJ Manuel, has to start games at quarterback.

So yes, Ryan and Co. had better hope the trend continues and they even the record at 1-1 Thursday night. Things can unravel in a hurry in today’s NFL. It could get very ugly if they keep losing. That offseason would seem like the good old days by comparison.


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