ORCHARD PARK – It appeared early on as if it was going to be a long, long day for the Bills last-in-the-league run defense.
A day filled with them being pounded to a pulp by Peyton Hillis, the Cleveland Browns 6-foot-1, 240-pound sledge-hammer of a running back.
On Cleveland’s first drive of the game, Hillis went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season, easily smashing through Buffalo’s “D’ for 49 yards on seven carries as the Browns took a 3-0 lead.
Bills coach Chan Gailey was not a happy man because all week long he had stressed the importance of stopping Hillis and the team had not responded.
An irritated Gailey stomped over to the bench after the inauspicious start and told his battered defenders: “We knew this is what it was going to be. You’ve got to stop the run because I don’t think they threw it once the whole drive. We knew this is what it was going to be. Come on! Let’s get it going out there.”
The tongue-lashing apparently worked because the Browns managed just 51 more rushing yards and were limited to only 133 yards in total offense the rest of the way as Buffalo’s defense saved the day in a 13-6 victory in front of an announced crowd of 50,861 at the rainy, chilly Ralph.
These two Lake Erie teams have a penchant for bringing out the worst in each other. In the past four meetings, they’ve played three games in which they combined for just one touchdown. Sunday, they played true to recent form. A year after Cleveland defeated Buffalo, 6-3, in one of the NFL’s all-time snooze-fests, the Browns and Bills combined for seven fumbles, eight punts, an interception and just one touchdown.
But unlike last year when Roscoe Parrish’s botched punt return resulted in Cleveland’s winning points, the Bills were able to close the deal because of their defense and the fourth-quarter running of Fred Jackson.
With roughly 11 minutes remaining and the Bills clinging to a 10-6 lead, linebacker Arthur Moats nailed scattered-armed quarterback Jake Delhomme, forcing a fumble that Bryan Scott recovered at the Cleveland 23. The officials ruled the fumble was an incomplete pass, but Gailey challenged the call and the on-field ruling was over-turned. Rian Lindell cashed the takeaway in for three points on a 19-yard field goal with 7:56 to go to put the Bills up by seven.
Later in the period, cornerback Leodis McKelvin made two huge plays, back-to-back. First, he separated Cleveland receiver Chansi Stuckey from the ball and his senses with a perfectly timed hit. Then, McKelvin intercepted a dying quail of a pass from Delhomme and returned it 10 yards to the Buffalo 42.
Jackson took it from there, carrying nine times for 54 yards to run out the clock and ice the win. He finished with 112 yards on 29 carries as the Bills rushed for a season-high 192 yards – impressive when you consider it was behind a patch-work offensive line that boasted two new starters (Eric Wood at center and Cordaro Howard at guard).
Ryan Fitzpatrick bounced back with an efficient outing, completing 14-of-23 for 142 yards, including the game’s only touchdown on an 11-yard strike to David Nelson, who made a great lunging catch at the back of the end zone. Fitz also burned the Browns by scrambling four times for 49 yards.
The win improves the Bills record to 3-10, while Cleveland drops to 5-8.
With just three games remaining, it’s unlikely the Bills will have any shot at Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who’s projected to be chosen No. 1 overall by the Carolina Panthers, who are 1-12 and aren’t likely to win another game this season.
Still, the Bills are in position to land a top-five pick. Unless, they are enamored with Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton or Ryan Mallett or Jake Locker, they’re better off drafting a game-changing linebacker (someone, who, hopefully, is the real deal and not another Aaron Maybin.)
Buffalo has three games left this season – at Miami next Sunday, home against the Patriots the day after Christmas and on the road against the Jets in the season finale.
SCOTT’S REPORT CARD
COACHING: The Bills made good defensive adjustments after being gouged by running back Peyton Hillis during the Browns first possession, and the offense, while not hugely productive, was efficient. Chan Gailey won a crucial challenge. Most importantly, the team rebounded from last week and finished the deal. Grade: B
OFFENSE: Fred Jackson got stronger as the game progressed and finished with 112 yards behind yet another different offensive line combo. Ryan Fitzpatrick did a good job of managing the game and David Nelson made a great catch for the only touchdown. Grade: B-minus
DEFENSE: Forced five fumbles, two of which they recovered, and Leodis McKelvin made a key interception late in the fourth quarter to put the issue to rest. Hillis did rush for 108 yards, but fumbled three times and Jake Delhomme threw for just 86 yards. Grade: B-plus.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Did a good job limiting dangerous punt returner Joshua Cribbs to one return for seven yards. Rian Lindell connected on field goals from 30- and 19-yards and Brian Moorman averaged 43.5 yards per punt and put one inside the 20. Grade: B
OVERALL: Well, they rebounded from last week’s debacle and didn’t let this one slip away. They are playing for pride and draft position these last three weeks. Grade: B
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills since 1985 and has written five books about the team, including the recently published, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons, which is available at any book store, the Bills team stores and Amazon.com. You can read more by Scott at www.scottpitoniak.com . He will be signing copies of his recently published books at the Borders in Henrietta, Friday, Dec. 17, from 6-8 p.m.; at the Pittsford Barnes & Noble, Saturday, Dec. 18, from 2-4 p.m. and the Bills Team Store at Eastview Mall, Saturday, Dec. 18 from 6-8 p.m.