The Buffalo Bills came off their bye week today, and headed to Baltimore to face the Ravens. The Ravens are widely considered one of the league’s best teams, with a fearsome defense, and an offense that combines a punishing running attack with a significantly-improved passing game. The Ravens are also coming off a very tough loss last week in New England, an overtime defeat that left them angry and needing a win to keep pace with the Steelers in their division. The Bills, on the other hand, headed into today boasting one of the NFL’s only two winless records, and a defense that would have a sieve saying, “Who are you calling ‘porous’?” So the scene was set for a big loss and another pie in the face of Bills fans everywhere.
But…as Chris Berman likes to say, “That’s why they play the games.”
The Bills hadn’t had a quarterback — any quarterback — throw for more than 300 yards in a game in something like four years; so Ryan Fitzpatrick today threw for almost 400. The Bills hadn’t taken a big lead at all this year, so today they jumped out to a 24-10 lead in the second quarter. The Bills’ offensive line had looked horrific on a depressingly common basis, so today they only gave up a single sack, provided decent pass protection, and made for a productive, if not explosive, running game. The Bills hadn’t put up a strong rally from a late-game deficit, and yet today they bounced back from being down 34-24 to tie the game with seconds left to force overtime.
Unfortunately, the Bills’ defense had not protected a lead in any game this year, and they still haven’t. That 24-10 lead quickly disappeared to become a 34-24 deficit, with the annoying announcers — seriously, these guys were terrible — pronouncing in the third quarter that with a mere ten-point lead, the Ravens had the game “well in hand”. The Bills tied it, sending it to overtime. But, as usual this year when the Bills score a nice number of points, the defense can’t stop anybody else from scoring, either. In the NFL, scoring 34 points should mean a win. But so far this year, the Bills have lost games in which they scored 34, 30, and 26 points.
Looking at that, however, I see continued reason for potential optimism for the team’s future. Everybody around here — especially Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan — thinks that it will take three or four years to get the team respectable again, assuming the current brain trust is even up to the job. But here’s the thing: right now, the offense is pretty good, and will probably be even better if the Bills can add a stud quarterback with their more-certain-every-week high 1st-round draft pick. That means that what really needs fixing is the defense, not the entire team. If the Bills can start to address that, and do so convincingly, then I think that maybe they’re only one or two years away from being good, not three or four.
Yeah, I know. “If.” But all of football is “if”, isn’t it?
Oh, and overtime? The Bills turned the ball over in Ravens territory, on a stripping of the ball from Shaun Nelson. Now, I expect when I listen to some day-after radio tomorrow on this game, some Bills fans will insist that Nelson’s forward progress had been stopped on the play and therefore it should have been whistled dead before Ray Lewis was able to strip the ball, but I’m not sure that’s what happened. It looked to me like the Ravens defenders (a) surrounded Nelson, (b) held him up so he couldn’t get down to the ground, and (c) kept pushing him forward to keep forward progress alive until someone could get the ball out of there. That’s how it looked to me, anyway — a smart play by a smart defense where everyone thinks as a team. I don’t really blame Nelson for that.
I do blame Bills center Geoff Hangartner, though, who got really stupid at that moment. Instead of keeping his cool and hoping the defense could make a stop and prevent a game-winning field goal (granted, a tall order for the NFL’s crappiest defense), Hangartner got frustrated and threw his helmet to the ground. Bills fans all know (thanks to Andre Reed in Super Bowl XXVI) that this is a 15-yard “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” penalty, which put the Ravens in field-goal range before they even ran a play. A couple of snaps later, in came their kicker, boom went the kick, and splat went the pie.
I don’t think today’s game was very discouraging, really; it shows that there’s a lot more to the Bills that we can be optimistic about for seasons to come. Yeah, it’s still a loss, but there are worse fates than being pied.
Next week, the Bills face the Chiefs, who last year were awful but are quickly improving. Bring ’em on!