Bills squish the Fish to continue their late-season roll
Reported by Scott Pitoniak
The turning point, said rookie linebacker Arthur Moats, came six weeks ago when the Buffalo Bills were 0-8 and seemingly on their way to joining the 2008 Detroit Lions in the Hall of Shame as the only teams in history to complete a 16-game NFL schedule without a win.
That’s when he and his teammates considered their alternatives. “We can either pack up and go home,’’ Moats recalls saying. “Or we can start making some plays and turn this thing around.”
After beating the Miami Dolphins, 17-14, Sunday afternoon for their fourth victory in their last six games, it’s pretty obvious the Bills opted for the second alternative.
Yes, I know. Buffalo’s four victories have come against the Lions, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Dolphins – four teams with a combined record of 19-37. But the journey from rock bottom to respectability has to start somewhere. And it should be noted that this team is a dropped touchdown pass (vs. Pittsburgh) and a missed field goal (vs. Baltimore) from being 6-6 with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback.
“I said back when we were 0-8 we need wins,’’ Fitz said. “We need to get one win then they’ll start coming.”
Well, Chan Gailey’s boys got that first win against the Lions on Nov. 14, and since then the wins have indeed been coming.
Fitz may not be the long-term answer at QB, but I would be comfortable with him over the next few years (unless, by some miracle, Stanford’s Andrew Luck were to drop into the Bills laps.) Against the Dolphins sixth-ranked pass defense, Fitzpatrick completed 16-of-26 passes for 223 yards and two scores, then let the improving Buffalo “D” protect the 10-point lead.
Despite not having the services of injured wide receiver Lee Evans, who over the past two years has become less and less relevant, the Bills promising young receiving corps was able to burn the Dolphins secondary. Stevie Johnson snapped out of his two-game funk with six catches for 69 yards and one touchdown and David Nelson continued his improvement with three catches for 61 yards and one TD. Toss in the contributions of Donald Jones and Buffalo product Naaman Roosevelt and the Bills wideouts combined for 12 catches for 194 yards and two TDs. Not bad production from a group that features a seventh-round draft pick and three undrafted free agents.
Give the Bills patchwork offensive line its due, too. Eric Wood, who was making just his second start at center, tackles Mansfield Wrotto and Demetrius Bell, and guards Andy LeVitre and Chad Rinehart did a good job of protecting Fitpatrick, who was not pressured a great deal and sacked just twice. Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake entered the game with an NFL-leading 14 sacks was held sackless and managed just two tackles.
For the second consecutive week, the Bills defense turned in a solid effort. The Dolphins managed just 65 yards rushing – 100 below Buffalo’s league-worst average yield. Miami quarterback Chad Henne did finally heat up a little in the fourth quarter and finished with 276 yards passing. But, in the first half, his interception problems continued as safety George Wilson picked him off, setting up the Bills first score.
Moats had another solid outing with five tackles, including 1 1-2 sacks. Keep this up and he’ll be known for something other than being the guy whose hit ended Brett Favre’s Iron Man streak.
The Dolphins play-calling on their final possession was abysmal. They were trailing by three with the ball on their 20 and just 41 seconds and no timeouts remaining. Inexplicably, they didn’t attempt to work the sidelines to get into field goal position. And they totally mismanaged the clock.
Of course, the way the day was going for poor Dan Carpenter, Miami probably would had missed a field goal attempt that could have sent the game into overtime. The Dolphins kicker entered today’s game with two five-field goal games to his credit, and wound up missing three-pointers from 48, 61, 53 and 48 yards.
Gailey, to his great credit, has kept his team playing hard throughout this challenging season. The Bills seem determined to end this campaign on a high note and take full advantage of these opportunities. The same can’t be said for Tony Sporano. Despite facing elimination from the playoffs, the Dolphins looked listless at times. How they could not play with more urgency is beyond me.
The Bills hope to continue to be spoilers next Sunday when they play the AFC East division-leading New England Patriots and their boiling-hot quarterback Tom Brady at the Ralph. Then, it’s on to the Meadowlands to close the season against the New York Jets.
The games will have post-season ramifications for both the Pats and Jets, which means we won’t see a repeat of last year’s finale, when the Bills clobbered what essentially amounted to the Indianapolis Colts JV team.
A win in either of these games would enable Buffalo to close the campaign with an above-.500 record for the second half of the season. It also would give them some momentum for the off-season and next season – providing there isn’t a lockout.
SCOTT’S REPORT CARD
COACHING: They played hard and smart. Another testament to Chan Gailey’s coaching abilities. Grade: B-plus
OFFENSE: The Bills weren’t able to establish the run, but Fitzpatrick’s accurate passing and a solid effort by the wide receivers provided enough offense to win the game. The offensive line, which featured only one player in the same position he held opening day, did an excellent job of protecting the quarterback. Grade: B
DEFENSE: They completely shut down the Dolphins run game and kept the easily confused Chad Henne off stride most of the game. George Wilson’s interception was huge, setting up the Bills first score and making Henne gun-shy. The Bills have yielded just 20 points the past two games. Grade: B-plus.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Brian Moorman had an off day, but boomed a 60-yarder that put the Dolphins in a position of having to go 50 yards to get into field goal position with just 41 seconds remaining – something they didn’t even come close to doing. Grade: B
OVERALL: Hey, four out of six isn’t bad. If they could somehow upset Tom Brady and his Patriots this Sunday at the Ralph that would really be something to shout about. 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 . Also, you can check out his weekly Syracuse basketball columns at this website.