The Buffalo Bills reverted back to their September form on Christmas Eve. In thrashing the Denver Broncos by 26 points, Buffalo ended their seven-game losing streak, showed that their confidence wasn't destroyed, and gave Bills fans some hope for 2012.
The Good: C.J. Spiller. I toyed with the idea of putting "disciplined play" in this category. Ultimately, Buffalo committed too many penalties, converted too few first downs, and didn't play well enough in the red zone to earn any sort of honor for discipline, though the team as a whole was more disciplined than in past weeks. Despite three combined scores from the defense and special teams, it was Spiller that played the engine role for the Bills. Spiller touched the football 18 times for 138 yards and a scored a touchdown, with 111 yards coming on the ground on only 16 carries. Spiller rushed eight times in the first half for 49 yards, including a 38-yard run in the first quarter that set up Dave Rayner's first miss. Two runs in the third quarter for 35 yards, including a 25-yard run, set up a Rayner field goal. This kid is the real deal. Given a sliver of room, he's off to the races, giving Buffalo an explosive element that they haven't had since Fred Jackson during the season's first seven games. Spiller is proving with each week that the only thing holding him back is the number of times Chan Gailey is calling his number.
The Bad: Red Zone Offense. Denver fans can complain about the officiating, and are justified in some cases, though a change in calls wouldn't have made up for 26 points - and Buffalo left at least six points off the board. Rayner's missed field goals should be enough to convince Buddy Nix that Rian Lindell should be brought back. Four Buffalo trips to the red zone ended with Rayner chip shots. That's 16 points Buffalo let go of. If the offense converts at its early season clip, three of those field goals are touchdowns. If Lindell isn't hurt, add his six points off Rayner misses to the 12 points from red zone production mentioned above, and we're looking at a 58-point outburst by the men in blue. Unfortunately, Buffalo won't play teams that can't score next year, or even next week. They've got to play better in the red zone and put touchdowns on the board.
Let's Not Overreact: Defensive Play. I didn't see any long-term improvement from Buffalo's defense coming out of this game. They contained Tim Tebow. I saw defensive linemen struggling to beat blocks, and therefore staying in their lanes. Tebow had all day to throw on most passes. It wasn't until he'd gone through his progressions that his blocking broke down. Better passers chew the pass defense up. The run game held, but George Edwards had his defense playing outside shoulder-in, and contained a simply-designed running attack. Plus, Tebow didn't run the option all day, and therefore didn't attack Buffalo's defense where it was weakest: on the edges. The Bills played stout and spirited, and there's plenty to be excited about regarding the young talent on the defense, but it wasn't an elite performance. Their warts just weren't exposed.
Outlook. I hosted "Ask a Bills Fan" on the Mile High Report this week. I mentioned some things that, if they went Buffalo's way, Denver fans should worry about:
- If Spiller was given any room, he would do some damage. Denver didn't contain him, and he ran for over 100 yards, scored, set up two red zone trips, and gained 6.9 yards per run.
- Ryan Fitzpatrick got rid of the ball quickly, Denver would have trouble rushing him, and Stevie Johnson was capable of beating Champ Bailey. Check on all.
- Buffalo's defensive strength was forcing turnovers. Denver has been careful with the football, and needed to continue that versus the Bills. They didn't, and Buffalo made them pay.
I don't mention this as a pat on the back, but to illustrate that Buffalo's got some good things going for them. They've got a dynamic back, a good short passing game, and an opportunistic defense. If Santa could come late - say maybe April - and drop off a couple of pass rushers and a vertical threat at receiver, Buffalo would be very dangerous in the near-term.
Buffalo's young team wasn't that far off in four of their losses, and their six wins - combined with the glimpses of greatness in the early season - is enough to give this writer a lot of hope. There's one last challenge for the 2011 season: Buffalo heads to Gillette Stadium to play the Patriots on Sunday. New England is nearly unbeatable at home, and they have home field advantage to play for. A win, or even a good showing, would be an immense step in the right direction for 2012.