By Ed Kilgore
All week long the big story in Buffalo was the health of running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, and it turns out they weren't part of the story at all in the Patriots 52-28 mauling of the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Oh, and it was supposed to rain, too, and that didn't happen either.
Having watched a ton of games in Orchard Park over the years, I can truly say I've never been more surprised - actually baffled - at how the total structure of the game changed in the 2nd half after the Bills had forged a 21-7 lead. Oh, I knew the fumble at the one just before the half by Spiller would be costly against a team that will score points like the Pats can, but it turns out that probably didn't matter either.
The Bills talked about how they had to put pressure on Tom Brady, etc., or he'd pick them apart. What they forgot to mention I guess, was that if you can't even slow down a running game, any chance you have to pressure a qb goes right out the window. The Bills spent a lot of money in the off season to improve their d-line as we all know, and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt was to be the guy to put the 4-3 to good use.
It looks like Wannstedt totally outsmarted himself by inviting the Pats to run using Bryan Scott as a linebacker, since his linebackers really can't cover receivers very well, but it was a disaster.
How's that working out now that the Bills have given up 100 points in two AFC East games? Ok, not the whole hundred was against the d, but the illusion the Bills would improve against the run is now exposed for all to see. Mario Williams had two assisted tackles and no sacks and was a non factor, and his counterpart Mark Anderson on the other side was just as invisible against his former team.
With a 21-7 lead, the Bills were in great position to force Brady to throw more than he'd like to, but with Brandon Bolden and Steven Ridley slashing through the Bills d-line and linebackers at will, Brady's job became almost too easy. Add to that the Bills tried to cover Wes Welker with cornerback Justin Rogers, which was a total matchup nightmare Wannstedt either didn't recognize or couldn't do anything about. Welker had 9 catches for 129 yards and appeared to be wide open on virtually every play. Tight end Rob Gronkowski continued to torture his former home with 104 yards and a touchdown, but you'd expect that from him.
What you don't expect, or at least I certainly didn't, was that the Patriots running game would be virtually unstoppable. Criticize Ryan Fitzpatrick all you want, and we'll get to that, but if your team can't stop the other team's running game, you lose. Add the turnovers, and you get blown out.
Those who think high draft picks are wasted on running backs can point to this game as a perfect example. Bolden and Ridley racked up 243 of the Patriots 247 yards rushing in this game, and if you've never heard of either one of them join the club. Ridley at least was drafted in the 3rd round out of LSU - how'd Buddy miss him? - and his 106 yards were not a total surprise. Bolden? Undrafted out of Ole Miss (another SEC guy) who entered the game against the Bills averaging 2.2 yards per carry. He had 137 yards against the Bills, and the two averaged over 6 yards per trip.
Even at that, you have to marvel at how after the Bills had the 21-7 lead, the Pats scored touchdowns on six straight possessions in the second half. They scored 45 points, in the 2nd half!! Utter and total collapse. There's no doubt the Bills caught the Pats at the worst possible time, coming here with a 1-2 record and actually trailing their favorite cousins in the division. But the Bills were 2-1 and in front of a fired-up sellout crowd in the Ralph, and appeared to be up to the task - for a half.
Back to Fitz. It surprises me, and shouldn't, that so many fans and even media people would come away from this 52-28 fiasco talking about Fitz "has to go", as if HE'S the problem. Oh no, I'm not saying Fitz didn't make mistakes. He misfired on several passes and had four interceptions, including a badly underthrown ball that could have been a touchdown to speedy rookie A.J. Graham early in the 2nd half.
We, and the Bills, know what Fitz is, and what he is not. He is not Brady, (who oh by the way had four int's against the Bills here last year) or any other elite NFL qb. The problem is, all the elite qb's have jobs, and if one is available, it's because somebody else doesn't want him. If you are really bad and get the #1 or #2 pick, you get RGIII or Andrew Luck or Eli or Peyton Manning, etc.
What Fitz is though, is gutsy, smart and unafraid to throw it downfield. His 12 td passes put him on a pace for 48 td passes this season, and he's still only been sacked four times. His two td throws to tight end Scott Chandler were perfectly thrown balls. One of his picks was a tipped pass, and the last one came with a pitch and hope throw downfield in the final minutes with the game over. He threw for 350 yards, which is a positive.
Because the Bills know what Fitz is and what he isn't, they know they need to establish a strong running game around him, and that didn't happen against the Pats. The Bills thus became one dimensional, and that almost always leads to trouble.
Want some good news? The Bills next two games are at San Francisco and Arizona, two of the best defenses in the NFL, and the Bills will have to shake up their o-line with promising rookie left tackle Cordy Glenn out and right guard Kraig Urbik out with ankle injuries.
Next week's game against the 49ers, who totally embarrassed the Jets 34-0, will tell us a lot about whether this will be another wasted season or something worth at least paying attention to.