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Bills failing schedule, divisional tests

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Greer, Bills face uphill climb (Associated Press)

Back on October 13, as the Buffalo Bills were coming off of a much-needed bye week with a 4-1 record, I wrote a piece proclaiming that the team's next four games would be the most critical stretch on the team's schedule.  My rationale?  It had a lot to do with what we like to call "controlling your own destiny".

The Bills failed in just about every way during that four-game stretch.

Sure, the Bills started the stretch off with an impressive home win over the San Diego Chargers.  Things were looking golden for the Bills - at 5-1, the team sat alone atop the standings in the AFC East, and controlled their own destiny with three straight divisional games.  The Bills had their division by the proverbial cojones.

Then the Bills promptly lost all three of those divisional games.  They didn't even lose three divisional games in 2007, a year in which they finished 7-9.  They're 0-3 in the division, every other AFC East team has at least two divisional wins, and the Bills - in just three weeks - have gone from first to worst in their division.  The ultimate stinger, however, is that that whole "controlling your own destiny" thing has gone straight out the window.  The combined records of the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins over the past three weeks?  8-1.

Bills now facing uphill climb
Prepare yourself to hear a barrage of "we're not out of it yet" arguments from the most optimistic of Bills fans and reporters.  In a sense, it's true - the Bills are in a huge hole in the division, but they're still only technically a game out of the division lead, and their schedule is "favorable".  The only issue is that each of their division rivals' schedule is just as "favorable".

The problems have gone beyond wins and losses over the past month, as well.  In going 1-3 in that crucial four-game stretch, Buffalo's opponents exposed a lot of weaknesses that the Bills had covered up during a 4-0 start to the season.  We've been over a lot of them ad nauseum - offensive predictability; poor play in the trenches; turnovers, penalties and crucial mistakes; terrible coaching.  It's all there.  Those aren't going to magically disappear just because of the "favorable" schedule the Bills play.  When those issues can't be erased from within, any NFL team will beat you.

In short, LB Kawika Mitchell has it right - the team needs an attitude adjustment.  Jerry Sullivan of The Buffalo News is quite correct in pointing out that the poor play of Trent Edwards has shaken the Bills' foundation.  These, folks, are the same old Buffalo Bills; 2008 has just added a dash of unyielding optimism to wrench our guts a little harder than usual.

What needs to change
I'm expecting a few chuckles at this headline, because in order to save time, we should probably be talking about what doesn't need to change.  There are three issues, however, that can be addressed right now that may actually allow the Bills to, at the very least, regain some respectability:

#1: Play calling - This is a topic I plan on exploring further tomorrow morning.  Buffalo's offense has become as easy to read as a Dr. Seuss limerick.  Formationally, the Bills are giving away their intentions on about 90% of their plays - and that was as of two weeks ago; nothing has changed since.  They've abandoned the run too quickly, despite not losing any of their last three games by more than 10 points.  The predictability is, at least in part, responsible for the bad play of the offensive line - it's hard to block defenders who know what's about to happen.  It's gotten so bad that I have officially begun to refer to the Bills' offensive coordinator as Turk Schonert-Fairchild-Mularkey.  So if you see "T S-F-M" around these parts, thats who I'm referring to.  (What's more, Mularkey is now mentoring the best young QB in the game, Atlanta's Matt Ryan.  The football gods hate us.)

#2: Turnovers - I don't care how confusing an opponents' defense is.  Edwards was befuddled by Bill Belichick and the Patriots on Sunday; that doesn't excuse his two interceptions.  You can expect to see the Bills continue to employ their "hang in there" approach, practiced so inefficiently in New England, until Edwards proves he can take care of the ball - something he did so well early in his career that it led to the expulsion of J.P. Losman.

#3: Play to win - I'm not an advocate of the approach outlined above.  Good teams overcome mistakes, and the Bills did it earlier in the season on more than one occasion.  Why?  The Bills were balls to the wall those weeks; in short, they were playing to win.  The losing streak has caused Buffalo's coaching staff to scale back the aggressiveness; this is the wrong approach.  You have to show confidence in your young guys.  Only confidence will allow them to overcome mistakes and continue to mature into good, young football players.  Right now, Buffalo's coaching staff isn't showing a lot of confidence in their players, hence they're not playing to win.  They're playing to survive.  If that doesn't change, the losses will continue to pile up.

Consider this your "open gripe thread".  We don't need the negativity spread across the whole blog when we can contain it in one, oh-so-happy gripe fest, right here.  Share your thoughts on Buffalo's misfortune, and anything else you'd like to get off your chest, right here in what is now an open gripe thread.