ORCHARD PARK - You look at the Bills dominating 34-18 win against the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at the rainy Ralph, and you can't help but think where Buffalo woulda, shoulda, coulda been heading into the homestretch.
If only they had beaten either Tennessee or Indianapolis, or both, they would be in a good position to make a run.
But, alas, they didn't, so at 5-7 and with so many tiebreakers working against them, they have only a sliver of a hope of making the playoffs.
Sunday's game was the blueprint they should have been following many weeks ago.
They allowed the four-legged monster that is Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to carry the load.
They kept Ryan Fitzpatrick's throws to a minimum, and even allowed him to toss one down field. And, lo and behold, look what happened on that play? A 51-yard completion to rookie speed demon T.J. Graham.
And their defense, which really has come on the past three weeks, put the clamps on Jacksonville's Chan Henne, who entered the game as the league's hottest quarterback with six touchdown passes and a lofty 119 passer rating the previous two weeks.
All Jackson and Spiller did was eviscerate the Jags porous defense for 186 yards on 39 carries. Toss in wildcat quarterback Brad Smith's 28 yards on two carries and Fitz's five scrambles for 18 yards and you have a total of 232 yards and a nifty 10 minute advantage in time of possession.
Jackson was at the top of his game on this day, pounding out 109 yards on 25 carries - his first time above the century rushing mark in more than a year. Although I've been one of those lobbying for C.J. to start and recieve the lion's share of the workload, I'm happy for Fred. We all know his great story; how he came out of Division III Coe College, toiled in the indoor leagues and NFL Europe, before getting a shot with the Bills and making the most of it.
Spiller still deserves to be THE guy. His electrifying 44-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter put this victory away. But that doesn't mean Steady Freddie doesn't deserve plenty of totes, too.
Having both is indeed a blessing, and the fact they don't merely coexist peacefully, but genuinely root for each other, is essential for this quarterback-challenged team. With 907 yards rushing, Spiller is closing in on the first 1,000-yard season of his three-year career. He and Jackson have combined for 1,246 yards rushing, 540 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns this season. They are the heart-and-soul of this offense.
Fitz was only 9-of-17 for 112 yards and was picked off once - on a really smart interception by former Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny. But the beleaguered quarterback was efficient most of the day, tossing two touchdown passes, and picking up some crucial yardage with his feet. And give him credit for calling an audible on the long pass to Graham. Gailey had sent in a running play, but Fitz recognized a favorable matchup for Graham and decided to give it a shot.
Regular readers of these musings realize I've been a harsh critic of Mario Williams. Well, he is now deserving of high praise after another good game. His sack, strip and fumble recovery of Henne led to a score. It was his fifth sack in the past three games. The big guy is finally earning his humungous salary.
The special teams made some big plays, too. And the feel-good story here is Marcus Easley, the third-year receiver/kick returner who has persevered through injuries and superior competition. After Leodis McKelvin's back tightened up, Easley was sent out to return a kickoff. He sprinted 55 yards with it and picked up an additional 15 yards on the play when Jacksonville's Richard Murphy was flagged for tackling him after he was out of bounds. The monster play gave the Bills a drive-start at the Jags 15 and Fitz took advantage of the fortuitous field position, hitting tight end Scott Chandler with a touchdown pass that put Buffalo up, 14-10, late in the first half.
Admittedly, this was against a team that's now an NFL worst 2-10 (along with Kansas City.) But Henne had been on fire recently, putting up 37 points in a loss to a very good Houston team two weeks ago and 24 in a win last week against Tennessee.
Unfortunately, this appears to be a case of too little, too late for the Bills. If the defense had only lived up to its hype earlier. If Gailey had only relied more heavily on the run game and less on Fitz. If the Bills had not squandered golden opportunities in previous weeks.
If . . . if . . . if.
SCOTT'S REPORT CARD
OFFENSE: 232 yards on the ground. Two touchdown passes. Even a down-the-field completion for a change. Just one turnover. A 10-minute advantage in time-of-possession. Not a bad blueprint. GRADE: B-plus.
DEFENSE: They cooled off Henne's hot hand and did what they should do against a depleted running back corps that sorely misses Maurice Jones-Drew. Jacksonville rushed for just 50 yards on 18 carries, a 2.8-yards-per-carry average. GRADE: B-plus.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Marcus Easley (55 yards) and Brad Smith (38 yards) filled in nicely for Leodis McKelvin on kickoff returns. Rian Lindell hit a 50-yard field goal and is now 17-of-18 this year. Shawn Powell continues to be solid in place of Brian Moorman, booming a 61-yarder and pinning one of his four punts inside the 20. The only glitch was when Justin Rogers muffed a punt inside the five, setting up a Jags touchdown in the fourth quarter. GRADE: B-minus.
COACHING: I commend Chan for sticking with the run, especially in the second half when the Bills really wore down the Jags and iced the win. He also allowed Fitz to check out of a running play to hit the big pass that set up Buffalo's first score. Another good game by defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. GRADE: B-plus.
OVERALL: Still, a long, long way to go. They have to win out. Here's what remains: Home game vs. St. Louis Rams, followed by Toronto game vs. Seattle, followed by a road game at Miami, followed by a home game vs. the Jets. The Rams are vastly improved under Jeff Fisher (coaches really can make a difference) and beat San Fran today. Seattle beat Chicago. Miami played New England tough. And the Jets nipped Arizona. I still don't think the Bills are consistent enough to run the table, which is why those losses to Tennessee and Indianapolis now loom so large. GRADE: B.