ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25: Drayton Florence #29 of the New England Patriots celebrates a touchdown on an interception with Jairus Byrd #31 in NFL game action against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
The streak is over! Amidst the jubilation, here's three areas that the Buffalo Bills need to work on, and three areas that they need to remain strong on. Similar to last week, the good and bad nearly split by first half and second half.
Going down early. Spotting 21 points to the opponent is an underutilized motivational strategy. Next week, Chan Gailey's plan may be to give the Cincinnati Bengals 21 points after the coin flip. Seriously, while Buffalo's comeback ability speaks to their character, this can't keep happening. Good teams get up early and make their opponent one dimensional while they retain the ability to run and pass. Buffalo's defense is improved, but can't be asked to continue to defend short fields early in the game. This type of stress will eventually catch up to the Bills.
Pass Rush. Buffalo pressured Tom Brady four times. Aside from Shawne Merriman apprehending Brady's foot once, the rush never truly affected Brady. Some of this is Brady's release speed and pocket presence; some is the Patriots' offensive line; and some of this can be accounted for by a defensive scheme that deliberately tried to get hands into Brady's passing lanes. Patriots linemen were rarely beaten off the snap by Buffalo defenders. Maybe Merriman's burst was a sign of things to come. Right now, Buffalo doesn't have anyone that can consistently get to the quarterback.
Short zone pass defense. Buffalo is struggling in the short-area zones. George Wilson, Bryan Scott, Reggie Corner and Aaron Williams are not elite change-of-direction athletes by NFL standards, and it showed Sunday. Wes Welker had a career day, and Rob Gronkowski was impossible to cover. Wilson's interception of Brady was a bad throw, and Buffalo had to have Jairus Byrd drop down into the shorter zones to clog things up and eventually get stops. As time goes on and Williams gains experience, Buffalo may be served well by switching him and Leodis McKelvin. McKelvin is an elite change-of-direction athlete and breaks better on balls in front of him. He might be a better candidate for the slot back. As for covering Gronkowski, Buffalo has one more crack at trying to figure that out.
Three quarters of offense. Gailey is onto something. I thought that the two tight end, smash-mouth offense was coming back as the most effective offense. Gailey thinks otherwise. He's spreading the field horizontally and vertically. Bill Belichick, the NFL's grand wizard of defensive minds, couldn't figure out how to stop the Bills. When Buffalo wanted to run, they did. Screens worked. Horizontal timing route combinations worked. Vertical timing routes worked. Donald Jones finally had his coming out party. Buffalo's offense is St. Louis 1999 red-hot.
Offensive line. Ryan Fitzpatrick has been sacked once all season. That's the fewest of any starting quarterback. He's also seventh in the league in quarterback rating, ahead of some pretty big names. Fred Jackson is the league's fourth-leading rusher with an insane 6.4 yards per carry average. Stevie Johnson and David Nelson are tied for seventh in the league with 20 receptions each. On Sunday, Buffalo snapped the ball 60 times. The Patriots did not sack Fitzpatrick, hurried him twice, and recorded two tackles for loss. None of this happens by accident. Buffalo's line is doing its job.
Mental toughness. The Patriots were more of a mental roadblock than a physical roadblock. They're a really tough out. The team plays as a reflection of their head coach. They do their job and what's necessary to win. Sometimes, the Pats have been called a cheap team. It's hard to play a team that you can't retaliate against. Adding to that frustration is Brady, who leads the team on time-consuming scoring drives where he makes no mistakes. Teams find themselves down by two or three touchdowns in no time. As a package, that's a lot to overcome. Buffalo did.
To paraphrase a favorite player of mine, a lot of good came out of last season. Buffalo is a physical, mentally tough team. They don't know when they're beaten. They work hard and never quit. Streaks and situations don't phase them. How else can you explain throwing a go route in the last few minutes to win a game? Most teams are throwing safe routes trying to get into field goal position. Buffalo's throwing caution to the wind and trying to win.
Every great team has a coming of age moment. For the Bills of the early 1990s, it was the back-to-back comebacks against Denver and the L.A. Raiders. The "tuck rule game" and the Super Bowl itself could have been that point for the Patriots. Sunday felt a lot like one of those times: a young team stood toe-to-toe with their tormentor and won.
The Bills still may not make the playoffs. They could flop on their collective faces like the 2008 team that started 5-1. There's still a lot of work left to do for this team to break the second terrible streak this team owned coming into the season. Buffalo has come a long, long way though. To even think of the Cincinnati game as a classic trap game speaks volumes. Hopefully, more progress to that end will be made Sunday at 1PM.