The Buffalo Bills team that started the season 5-2 showed up on Sunday - or, at least the healthy portion of it showed up. For the first time since playing in Toronto, Buffalo moved the ball on offense, played well enough to win on defense, and showed up with a physical, tough mindset. The results weren't optimal, but it was nearly enough to win.
The Butterfly Effect. I don't know if I've witnessed a stranger series of events in 24 years of watching Bills football. By the time Stevie Johnson scored Buffalo's second touchdown (against Darrelle Revis, no less), the Bills had established a few things. Foremost, Buffalo wasn't going to sit back and let the Jets punish them again. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Johnson were going after Revis successfully. C.J. Spiller had been part of the offense, and Mark Sanchez looked bad. Then the butterfly effect kicked in.
Johnson did his dance, and Buffalo kicked off from the 20 after the penalty. The coaches called a squib kick that Dave Rayner hit poorly, giving the New York Jets the ball at Buffalo's 36-yard line. Marcell Dareus was called for roughing Sanchez. Three plays later, with the Jets facing 3rd-and-10, Drayton Florence and Da'Norris Searcy communicate the coverage to each other, which they still mix up, allowing Plaxico Burress - the subject of Johnson's touchdown dance - to score easily. Just like that, Buffalo's 14-7 lead is a 14-14 tie going into halftime
The Bad Stevie Johnson. I'll keep this short and sweet to avoid beating a dead horse. Johnson has to grow up fast, or risk turning into another prima donna distraction at receiver. Teams usually get rid of those types of receivers. Ask Randy Moss. Or Chad Ochocinco. Or Terrell Owens.
Errors. Buffalo committed nine penalties for 85 yards, many of which placed Fitzpatrick and the offense in long distance situations. With the type of defense that Buffalo currently fields, the team cannot afford mistakes. The offense must sustain drives, and the defense must get off the field. In both cases, the penalties are having an effect. Buffalo also went 6-for-15 on third down. Along the same line of reasoning as the penalties, Buffalo has got to sustain drives, but this type of performance on third down would have John Elway proclaiming that he wasn't sold on Fitzpatrick as the team's future at quarterback. Buffalo must do better.
Play Calling. Somewhere along the way to getting dominated by the Jets again, Chan Gailey decided to do something different. Just as my faith in his offensive ability was beginning to waiver, Gailey put in the right offensive game plan. Buffalo decided to diversify the offense in ways that the Jets struggled to counter. A double-tight end, one-back set gives 3-4 defenses problems, especially a 3-4 built the way the Jets' defense is constructed. The Jets don't have a force off the edge to apply pressure, and need exotic blitz packages to get the the quarterback. This often leaves the linebackers in coverage with tight ends. Two tight ends in the game doubles the problem. Gailey called upon Lee Smith to join Scott Chandler, and the results were good. The move helped Chandler break free, partly, to a six-catch afternoon.
While the running game wasn't dominant, it had its moments. Most importantly, the Jets had to start backing away from their blitz packages into a more conventional defense to avoid these problems. Brad Smith replaced Donald Jones and gave Buffalo a deep threat. Buffalo held the ball for over 36 minutes, mostly by having Fitzpatrick regularly run the play clock down, which protected the defense and helped prevent the Jets from playing ball-control. If not for some butterflies, this approach would have worked.
The Good Stevie Johnson. The impact of Johnson's performance shouldn't get lost in his antics. When was the last time a receiver matched up against Revis and caught eight balls for 75 yards and a touchdown? Add in the drop during the last drive, and it's pretty clear that Johnson, and the coaching staff, have something about Revis figured out. As Buffalo played mostly a horizontal timing offense on Sunday, Johnson got open using double and sometime triple moves that seemed to put Revis' feet into cement. While the moves only opened up a small space for Johnson, that's more than anyone else has gotten on Revis. At some point, all great players get figured out. This statement may be bold, but I think Johnson figured out Revis on Sunday.
The Kids Are Alright. When a team relies on the draft to re-build, they take the good with the bad, with more bad initially. Eventually, the bad decreases and the good increases. Sunday wasn't the type of game that marked a turning point, but Buffalo's young players performed well against a team that absolutely destroyed the Bills over the past three meetings. Aaron Williams showed real signs of becoming a starting boundary corner. Justin Rogers played with athleticism, particularly when diving to stop a second quarter touchdown pass to Patrick Turner. Searcy played well against the run. Kelvin Sheppard and Arthur Moats got beat at times, but they also made some good plays. David Nelson, Chandler and Smith are a good trio of interior pass catchers. Chris Hairston held up well. Even Spiller showed signs of bigger things. This group of youngsters may be worth waiting around for.
Buffalo's playoff chances are on life support, and while moral victories don't count in the standings, Buffalo has a lot to hold their heads up about. Gailey's offense has had the life sucked out of it in previous meetings; they scored 24 on Sunday. The Jets pounded the Bills into submission in the past; Buffalo hung in the fight and took it to the Jets at times. Johnson beat Revis on a regular basis. Fitzpatrick played his first good game against the Jets. It's probably about the right time to think about these games in terms of next year. Buffalo shouldn't even watch the tape of the first Jets game. If they watch this game, they'll see that the boogeyman isn't real, and the Jets are beatable by this franchise.
Back to 2011: Buffalo plays its first game in Ralph Wilson Stadium since October 9 on Sunday versus the Tennessee Titans. If Buffalo's slim playoffs chances are to be realized, the need to run the table and win their last five games, starting on Sunday at 1 PM.