By Ed Kilgore
First let's start with the good stuff, and there is a lot of good stuff coming out of the Bills gutsy 19-16 overtime win at Arizona. Forget the style points for a moment, and focus on what the win actually means to a football team that had given up 1201 yards and 97 points in its last two games, both embarrassing defeats.
Yes, it means the Bills record is 3-3, which is technically tied for first in the AFC East with New England, the Jets and Miami, although the Bills division losses to the Pats and Jets put the Bills behind the 8-ball in tie breakers. No matter, with ten games left, it's like a mulligan.
More importantly though, this win shows - at least for another week - that Chan Gailey hasn't "lost" his team as many suggested after the meltdowns against the Pats and Niners. During their time holed up in an exclusive resort in the Phoenix area, Bills players suggested this was exactly what they needed to regroup and refocus. They were right, even though this game could just as easily been lost as won.
Sure, the Cardinals certainly are not the Pats and Niners offensively, but it's still a fact the Cardinals BEAT the Pats in Foxboro and had won 8 straight at home. The Cardinals have one of the most physical defenses in the NFL, and they are very tough to beat at home, especially in close games. So hats off to the Bills for staying mentally and physically tough on the road, even after things went badly.
The defense, led by Mario Williams up front, eventually knocked Kevin Kolb out of the game and sacked him five times, two coming from (for one game anyway) Super Mario.
But what can you say about safety Jairus Byrd, who missed some practices and wasn't 100 per cent? He reminded us of the Pro Bowl Byrd of his rookie season with his two interceptions that literally stole back a game the Bills had tried to give away. Its not always just about interceptions, its WHEN you get them, and the game was on the line when Byrd made his plays, including the final pick in overtime to set up Rian Lindell's game winning field goal.
Props also go to a banged up offensive line, which did allow a couple sacks but helped find enough holes for 182 rushing yards. Chris Hairston did an especially good job at left tackle in place of injured rookie Cordy Glenn.
Now the bad. No way to put this nicely, but Ryan Fitzpatrick is strongly making the case this will be his final season as the Bills starting quarterback. Fitz was 18-32 for 153 yards, but the stats don't begin to tell the story. It's a plus he didn't turn the ball over, because even one pick from Fitz probably would have meant the game. But with the game on the line, Fitz was awful. The signature moment was a third down pass in overtime to a wide open Fred Jackson in the flat that was horribly thrown and incomplete, forcing the Bills to punt when they would have been in field goal range with the first down.
There's little doubt the coaching staff kept Fitz on a short leash, especially with C.J. Spiller looking healthy again with 88 yards on a dozen carries and Jackson chipping in with 53 on 16. Fred did cough up a fumble on the Bills first offensive play, but he was solid after that. Because the defense was getting stops, the pressure wasn't on Fitz to win the game, but rather keep from losing it much like he did in the win at Cleveland.
Sadly, that formula has to work over the final 10 games, because Fitz looks incapable of leading any kind of fourth quarter rally. Those mechanics we kept hearing would be improved, seem worse if anything. Do not wonder why backup Tavaris Jackson isn't playing; he still doesn't know the offense, and Tyler Thigpen? Please. As long as he's healthy, this is Fitz' team the rest of the season (sorry) but there is no almost no doubt the Bills' top priority in next year's NFL draft is the qb. Period.
Contrary to what most Bills fans and media are saying, I LOVED the call by Gailey to have Brad Smith hopefully catch the Cardinals napping and hit them with a knockout blow late in the fourth quarter when the Bills were nursing a 3-point lead. But the call only works if the Cards are asleep, and talent cornerback Patrick Peterson wasn't fooled and made a great play. Smith knows enough to know the ball should never be thrown unless he's certain he has a man open down there. Gailey made the call to WIN the game right there, and I doubt if any Bills players disagreed with the call at all, just the execution of the play.
Make no mistake, this team has a lot of work left, but I honestly feel gm Buddy Nix has upgraded the talent overall compared to when he arrived on the scene, even if it isn't showing up as quickly as everybody hoped. It's not clear how much longer Nix will stay on, but from everything I've heard Director of Player Personnel Doug Whaley, who did an impressive job at Pittsburgh, is well qualified to take over.
Whether its Nix, or Whaley, or somebody else, this much we know:
The head coach and quarterback still have ten games to show us why they can and should be a part of the improvement process.