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Bills have to cash opportunity vs. diminished Patriots

Jerry Sullivan

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – So Sammy Watkins is out for the next eight weeks, quite possibly the entire 2016 season. This was hardly unexpected, considering the painful and protracted recovery often associated with Jones foot fractures.

The lingering question is, why did the Bills rush Watkins back into action so soon? How in the world could they justify sending him out for the Jets game on four days’ rest? Wouldn’t it have been wiser to shut him down for all of training camp and the first month of the regular season?

Desperation, perhaps? It has been the driving force at One Bills Drive ever since Doug Whaley came to power. Desperation to get a franchise quarterback; to reach for Watkins to help a failing EJ Manuel; to win with the team up for sale; to win to impress the Pegulas, desperation to save Whaley and Rex Ryan’s jobs.

Watkins was desperate, too. He was determined to play through his eighth injury in three seasons and show his critics he was tough enough. Of course, there was urgency to put up the kind of stats that his agent could present to management when Sammy pursued a fat contract extension a year or two down the road.

Now he’s gone for two months, and the Bills must carry on without him. On Sunday afternoon, desperately in need of a win, they take on the unbeaten Patriots in Gillette Stadium – without their most vital offensive player.

I’m sure the Bills’ top brass would love to toss the Watkins injury into the big basket of excuses, yet another pellet of woe and misfortune to trot out when it comes time to explain away another non-playoff season next January:

Whaley gets a break for the reckless trade that brought Watkins to Buffalo in the first place; Ryan has another injury excuse for not getting to the playoffs; Tyrod Taylor gets a pass because he lost his top receiver.

Sorry, but the time for excuses is past. As Robert Woods, the new No. 1 wideout, pointed out, Watkins missed the offseason, most of training camp and the preseason, and was barely a factor in the two games he played this season.

Rather than soften their approach, the Pegulas should take an even more critical look at the situation. Head coach and quarterback are the most important jobs on an NFL team. If the owners want to find out about Ryan and Taylor, they might as well judge them by their performance in a crisis.

The top coaches and quarterbacks succeed in the most trying of circumstances. Look across the field Sunday. The Patriots are 3-0 without Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and left tackle Nate Solder. Bill Belichick has won Super Bowls with marginal wideouts, patchwork offensive lines and street free agent cornerbacks.

You don’t hear any excuses from them. You didn’t hear Cam Newton whining when he lost his top receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, for the season a year ago. Brady persevered without Julian Edelman. The Packers didn’t shutter Lambeau when Aaron Rodgers lost his best wideout, Jordy Nelson, for all of 2015.

The Bills drop to 0-3 in the conference if they lose today. It’s a tough spot. The Pats haven’t lose a regular-season AFC home game that mattered since 2008. But they don’t have Brady. They might not have No. 2 Jimmy Garoppolo. This is a winnable game and one the Bills have to win if they hope to make the playoffs.

Taylor is supposed to be the best quarterback on the field Sunday. People should stop coddling the guy and hold him to the high expectations warranted for a player with a conditional $90 million contract extension on the table.

You pay quarterbacks elite money to win these games. That means being the first Buffalo QB to win a meaningful game in Foxborough since Hillary Clinton was in the White House – as First Lady. So what if the Pats have a strong defense and Belichick on the sideline. You don’t get $90 million for beating the Browns.

The standard is high, but I have little faith in Taylor’s ability to rise up to the moment. I watched Jimmy Garoppolo play two games and I’m convinced he’s better. As a passer, Taylor has done little to prove himself as an NFL starter.

Belichick and his defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, had their way with Taylor in both games last year. They contained him in the pocket and, to borrow a phrase from two opposing defenders this year “made him be a quarterback.”

The Bills will likely have to keep the score low to escape with the upset. That’s more plausible than Taylor lighting it up and throwing 30 passes for the first time in a win. Ryan, for all his recent failings, has been consistently good at putting together effective game plans against the Pats at Gillette.

Ryan has lost his last four in Foxborough, dating to his days with the Jets. But those losses were by 7 (last year with Buffalo), 1, 3 and 3 points, the latter in overtime. And Brady was the Pats’ quarterback in those games.

So there’s reason to believe the Bills’ defense will put on a good showing Sunday in the most important game of Ryan’s head coaching career. Yes, he had those four playoff wins in his first two years in New York, including an upset over the Pats in New England in 2011.

But this time, he goes up against The Hoodie with his reputation on the line and his head coaching career in jeopardy. Rex is on the hot seat. A win Sunday, after the rout of Arizona, would be a stunning turnaround from 0-2, lifting the Bills within a game of the Pats in the AFC East and back into the race.

Ryan promised that this year’s defense would be better. In two of the three games, he’s delivered. There’s less physical talent than a year ago, but the players seem more suited to Rex’s system, a more flexible and cohesive unit.

“I think we’re playing smarter and that could be a combination of a lot of things,” Ryan said. “I think the commitment from our players has been great. And I love the way that the players, coaches, everybody’s interacting. We have plans. We study. This group is studying a great deal.”

But the collapse against the Jets is still fresh in people’s minds. Ryan’s defenses have fluctuated wildly from week to week during his time in Buffalo, playing aggressive one game and then backing off the next.

Ryan has been given the defensive assistants he desired – most notably his brother, Rob – and the bright, adaptable veteran players he needs to execute it. They can’t follow a good performance with a bad one. If they flop in Foxborough, it’ll take a lot of the steam out of last week’s big win over the Cardinals.

“Yeah, definitely,” said linebacker Preston Brown. “We can’t have that roller coaster ride we had last year. We have to go out there and build on that momentum and keep getting better every week.”

They have a good chance to get to .500 with Brady serving the final game of his suspension for DeflateGate. It’s silly to suggest that it doesn’t matter who plays quarterback for the Pats. Brady is the best ever, and if Ryan could slow him down, he should be expected to befuddle any of his backups.

Winning in New England with defense and a strong running game would do wonders for Rex, creating a renewed belief that his football vision can still prevail in today’s NFL, a sense that the Bills have a fighter’s chance, even without Watkins.

From what I can see, they really have no other choice.


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