Sal Maiorana Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
ATLANTA - For at least the next six days, long-suffering Bills fans are going to wake up, look at the NFL standings, perhaps rub their eyes, and revel in the fact that their beloved team is in first place in the AFC East.
Not the despised, defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. No, it’s the 3-1 Bills, the team currently riding the longest active playoff drought in any of the four major pro sports, who are leading the way. That’s right, the Bills, a team some thought was tanking this season, but who are now qualified as one of the NFL’s surprise stories one-quarter of the way through 2017.
We should start a pool to predict which national NFL correspondent will be first on the scene at One Bills Drive this week, now that the Bills are back on the map.
It’s going to be a fun week for the fans, but not so much for the players, at least according to several I talked to Sunday in the happy, but measured, locker room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It’s cool, but the playoffs don’t start tomorrow,” said linebacker Preston Brown, seemingly speaking for all of his teammates, many of whom know better than to get too excited by fast starts, be it from their NFL or college careers.
Naturally, the man who is making sure the Bills don’t get too full of themselves, coach Sean McDermott, kept it on an even keel as well. “It feels good. The guys work hard,” he said of being in first place. “There is still a long way to go. We're not where we need to be, and anyone who thinks we are in this building, they're not being honest with themselves.”
He’s right, but enjoy the week, Bills fans, you haven’t had many like this during this lost century.
Upon Further Review, here are some other thoughts I had about the victory.
1. The defensive backfield. This is back-to-back weeks in this category for the Bills’ most surprising position group. It was another huge day, and this time it came against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. True, Julio and Jones and Mohamed Sanu didn’t play in the second half, but that shouldn’t take away from a sublime effort. CB Tre’Davious White had a 52-yard fumble return TD that showed how sharp he is, because many guys stopped on the play, thinking it was a dead ball. He also allowed only four catches worth 18 yards. "The success he's had is not a mistake, it's not happenstance," McDermott said. SS Micah Hyde made two superb, athletic interceptions, the kind of plays we just haven’t seen from too many Bills’ safeties in recent years. Jordan Poyer was solid again as he and Hyde each had seven tackles. And when E.J. Gaines got hurt, Shareece Wright stepped in and played fine.
2. Charles Clay. The TE remains an inconsistent player — one week he’s up, the next he’s nowhere to be found. This was one of his “up” weeks, with five catches for 112 yards including gains of 34 and 44 yards, both of which led to Bills’ scores. Clay’s importance really ramps up moving forward because WR Jordan Matthews’ thumb injury and expected four-week absence will hurt an already lagging passing game, so Clay has to continue to come up with big plays when the ball comes his way.
3. Dion Dawkins. The rookie OT had an excellent game according to Pro Football Focus, the analytics site that gave him the highest grade of anyone on the Bills’ offensive line Sunday. He was particularly effective in the run game, and I have to be honest, I haven’t missed Cordy Glenn one bit. Here’s what has to happen when Glenn is ready to play. He regains the LT spot, and Dawkins becomes the starter at RT in place of turnstile Jordan Mills.
Three things I didn't like
1. Injuries. This was the first game where the Bills suffered some attrition, and it’s a concern. It’s no secret that while this team has certainly surprised us with the 3-1 start, part of their success has been due to good health. Glenn (two games), DT Marcell Dareus (one) and DE Shaq Lawson (one) have been the only key guys out. The depth on the roster is not great and it can’t sustain a rash of injuries. Now, Matthews and LB Ramon Humber will be out multiple weeks as both are undergoing surgery for broken thumbs. Gaines left early with a groin injury and McDermott said he's day-to-day, while special teamer Colt Anderson broke his forearm and is also having surgery, so he's done for a while. Not a good day. "We've got some adversity with injuries," McDermott said.
2. Offensive consistency. The offense scored only one touchdown and outside of the one epic 19-play drive to a field goal in the second half that consumed a whopping 11 minutes, 20 seconds, there were only two other possessions out of nine (not counting kneeldowns at the end) where the Bills strung together more than one first down. Five of the possessions produced zero first downs. In all, 14 of the 15 first downs came on just three drives.
3. Instant replay. Don’t get me wrong, it worked out great for the Bills as two of the biggest calls of the game went their way. But honestly, I thought both were going to go against the Bills, and probably should have. I thought Ryan’s arm was going forward and the ruling was going to be an incomplete pass, but it remained a fumble and White scored a huge TD. And on Hyde’s second pick, it looked clear to me that the point of the ball hit the turf and it should have been incomplete. Again, good for the Bills, but what bugs me is that instant replay continues to be such a crapshoot from week to week.
15 — Consecutive quarters without committing a turnover, which is a new franchise record. The only turnover this year came on the very first possession of the season against the Jets, a Taylor interception. It’s the first time the Bills have ever gone three full games without a giveaway. Hard to believe.
4 — Times in team history that the Bills beat a team on the road that was 3-0 or better.
The other wins came against the Chiefs (3–0) in 1966, the Chargers (4–0) in 1980, and the Patriots (3–0) last season. This is also the first time in team history the Bills have won back-to-back games against undefeated opponents as Denver was 2-0 last week.
2008 — That was the last time the Bills have been alone in first place in the AFC East through at least four games of a season. That year, they were in first through Week 7.
Snap count analysis
► Falcons WR Julio Jones: The superstar played only 15 snaps due to a groin issue, and that was a vastly important development in the game. As well as the Bills’ defense played, let’s be honest, the task got a little easier without Jones on the field, not to mention the other starting WR, Mohamed Sanu. He played only 31 snaps before a hamstring injury felled him. Without their top two wideouts, the Falcons were compromised, especially on the final possession when they were at the 10 and couldn’t get into the end zone.
► Bills FB Patrick DiMarco: I’ve been questioning his usefulness for a few weeks, and I still don’t see much from him, though he did play a season-high 30 snaps Sunday, exactly half of the Bills’ offensive plays. He carried once and lost two yards, and had no pass targets. The Bills did run the ball a little better, but DiMarco’s contributions remain light.
► Bills CB Shareece Wright: Coming into the game, Wright had played only 14 defensive snaps, but because of Gaines’ groin injury, Wright had to play 26 snaps and he held up pretty well. He was in on three tackles, one for lost yardage.