For the first time since the 2008 season, the Buffalo Bills have managed to win seven games in the regular season - and it only took them 12 games to do it. Sitting at 7-5 as the regular season moves into December, the Bills are very much in the AFC playoff conversation - but face a brutal stretch of games this month, playing three of four against legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
But we'll get to the big games in due time. For now, let's talk about the 26-10 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday that moved them into the position they currently hold. This was a must-win game in their return to Ralph Wilson Stadium, and for a half at least, the Bills took control of their own destiny. Five observations:
No. 1: For more than a half, that game was as ugly as the infamous 6-3 finish between these two sides from the 2009 season. It looked and felt like the same Bills-Browns games we'd watched when the teams were league cellar-dwellers, even though both versions this season were above .500 and in contention for the playoffs. It was a brutal game that was always going to change based on one run, and luckily for the Bills, that run came in the form of two fast touchdowns early in the third quarter. The team on the opposite side of that run was never going to mount a comeback, and Cleveland didn't.
No. 2: That said, give the Bills credit - they made the plays in that run; it was not a situation in which Cleveland rolled over. Kyle Orton played terribly most of the day, but made an excellent play and throw to hit Robert Woods for a 34-yard fourth-down conversion. (Buffalo scored on a Chris Hogan touchdown one play later.) Then, on the first play of the Browns' ensuing drive, Jerry Hughes stripped the ball from rookie runner Terrance West, recovered the ball while managing to stay inbounds, and then raced into the end zone. The Woods and Hughes plays were two excellent individual performances, and it's all Buffalo needed to take command of an ugly game.
No. 3: This team is built to play with a lead, and yesterday's win epitomized that. Buffalo's defense was good in the first half, particularly with making plays to keep the Browns' lead to just three, but once the team went up 14-3, that unit really kicked it into high gear. With previous versions of the Bills, it was always a nightmare to watch them try to protect a lead in the fourth quarter. That angst will be ever-present for fans (and is justified against elite passers), but this defense seems to get better - perhaps even significantly so - in those situations. They just need more leads to protect.
No. 4: Speaking of that defense, they have a tall task ahead of them this coming Sunday in Denver, particularly with one streak they have going containing opponents' passing attacks. Buffalo has allowed just one 100-yard receiver this season (Golden Tate in Week 5), and they largely held Josh Gordon in check on Sunday. The 241 yards through the air that they allowed to Cleveland was the most allowed, by far, since Tom Brady and New England lit them up in Week 6. Only two teams - Chicago and New England - have surpassed 300 passing yards against the Bills this season. They did their jobs to beat the Browns, recording two picks and missing out on a few more. Next up: Peyton Manning.
No. 5: In the nearly 24 hours it's been since Bills-Browns kicked off, I've received several requests to contextualize what, exactly, went wrong offensively for the Bills in this game. Fans continue to be frustrated by Buffalo's offense, and with good reason, but I can't possibly imagine what context I can offer that hasn't been drudged up and beaten to death repeatedly over the past 13 weeks. The quarterback play is average at best, and bad at worst. The offensive line is shaky. The receivers are young and inconsistent. The running game lacks a big-play element. The play-calling can be suspect for stretches. We all know this. Buffalo's offense is their offense, and if the team is going to capitalize on their positioning and stay relevant through to the end of the calendar year, they're going to have to win in spite of the guys trying to score points.
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