Two evenly matched teams slugged it out Sunday with playoff dreams hanging in the balance. The St. Louis Rams started the day two games out from the sixth playoff spot in the NFC, competing with Washington and Dallas for the final spot. The Buffalo Bills also started the day two games back of the sixth seed, trailing Cincinnati and Pittsburgh for the final playoff spot. This game was nearly a must-win for both teams, and a late touchdown by the Rams continued their playoff hopes while essentially ending those same hopes for Buffalo.
The Good. Buffalo's defense played well again. The St. Louis offense isn't very good - they entered the game with the league's 28th-rated unit - but it does include the league's 14th-best running game. The Rams rush for about 115 yards per game, and the weather conditions looked ideal for pound running back Steven Jackson against the Bills defense. That never materialized.
Jackson carried the Rams to a win over San Francisco just last week running and receiving, gaining 117 yards combined. He got 64 yards on the ground Sunday, and added nine more through the air. Overall, Buffalo kept the Rams 35 yards under their rushing average - and the the Rams ran the ball 27 times, essentially their per-game average (26.5 carries per game).
Sam Bradford drove the Rams to the win late in the game, but the Rams passing game was also held at or below their average. While not playing against a juggernaut, Buffalo's defense did what it needed to do for all but the last drive. The Rams were held to 15 points. For most teams, that's more than enough points to win.
To put some perspective on this, note that over the past four weeks, Buffalo has held their opponents, mostly weak to average teams, to 16.8 points per game, while only managing 19 points per game themselves. The defensive number puts Buffalo amongst the league leaders in terms of points allowed, which one would expect against weak opposition. The offensive number places the Bills 25th, even behind Cleveland and their rookie backfield. It's pretty clear that the defense held their portion of the bargain. If you hold your opponent to 15 points, you should win.
The Bad. I'm going to reverse my position from last week. Against Jacksonville, Buffalo ran Fred Jackson more than C.J. Spiller, and I agreed with the move. Jackson ran better than Spiller last week, and Chan Gailey rode him to the win. That formula is not a cookie-cutter solution for rainy days, and Gailey erred in not playing Spiller more yesterday.
Neither Buffalo runner had an exceptional first half. Gailey ran Jackson five times for one yard and added four catches for nine yards. Spiller ran four times for 10 yards, and added 15 more yards on a screen pass. With Jackson mostly ineffective, Gailey opened the second half with Spiller, who responded with two runs for 26 yards. Spiller's got the hot hand, right?
Apparently not. Gailey followed up by running Spiller exactly one more time for one yard the rest of the game. He ran Jackson four more times for 14 yards. Jackson did catch one pass for seven yards, gaining an impressive leaping first down, but why wasn't Spiller in the game more? I can understand starting with the same philosophy as last week, but the situation changed, and Spiller played better. The Rams didn't need to stop Buffalo's best weapon. Gailey did.
Let's Not Overreact. Folks, everyone knows I'm not a Ryan Fitzpatrick fan, but this game wasn't on him. Gailey's game plan clearly limited the offense in the weather, emphasizing high-percentage passing and trying to focus on the run game. Fitzpatrick did his part. He completed 75 percent of his passes, didn't make any huge "bad Fitz" errors - his shoulder was hit on the interception - and generally ran the offense effectively.
Fitzpatrick was asked to be more of a game manager than usual - running out of run packages, working play action, and throwing into the seams. That's exactly how Gailey managed Fitzpatrick in the Miami game, and nearly the same way he managed Fitzpatrick agains the Rams. Spiller's use, or lack thereof, was the difference. Fitzpatrick did what he was asked to do.
Outlook. Buffalo's playoff hopes are hanging by the thinnest of threads. For Buffalo to get into the playoffs, they need to beat Seattle, Miami, and New York to close out the season. Either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh needs to lose all the rest of their games, while the other needs to lose two of three, and avoid a tie in their matchup. New York need to lose two games, and Cleveland and San Diego need to lose a game. According to PlayoffStatus.com, the chances of all that happening are one percent.
It's time for Gailey and company to start leaning towards 2013. Buffalo has some younger players that are playing great - Stephon Gilmore, Marcell Dareus, Alex Carrington and Kyle Moore, for starters - and they need to give their young players as much time as they can. The Bills also have some young players that the team needs to learn as much as possible about: Aaron Williams, Da'Norris Searcy, Nigel Bradham, Arthur Moats, Ron Brooks, Lee Smith, David Snow, and possibly Marcus Easley. They need to play.
Most of all, Gailey needs to realize that Spiller needs to be the lead sled dog in the running game. It's fine to spell Spiller with Jackson, or replace Spiller on long passing downs with a better pass blocker. But Spiller is the best player on the offense. The C.J. Spiller era needs to start in Toronto on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks