Buzz-Worthy Bills D Keeps Playoff Hope (Faintly) Alive
by Dave Staba
Here’s something you don’t hear very often: “You do not want to play the Bills in the playoffs right now.”
That line came from a Bleacher Report post clumsily headlined “The 1 NFL Team That No One Wants to See in the Postseason,” one of a flurry of Buffalo-praising pieces that flooded the national football media following the Bills’ stunning 21-13 win over Green Bay last Sunday.
For the past decade, Buffalo has been easy for the rest of the league to ignore, annually floundering out of contention by Thanksgiving and offering little in the way of national relevance at any point.
When you disarm Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers in consecutive weeks, though, it gets people’s attention.
“In today’s NFL, the idea that a defense could hold Manning and Rodgers each without a touchdown in consecutive weeks sounds crazy,” wrote Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports. “Except that the Bills did it.”
By doing so—and generating enough points, despite another feeble offensive performance, to beat the Packers a week after keeping it cosmetically close against the Broncos—they also kept themselves in somewhat realistic playoff contention heading into the final two weeks of the regular season for the first time since 2004.
Of course, to finally get there, they need to beat the 2-12 Raiders late Sunday afternoon in Oakland. That is fair to call a modest, achievable goal.
Then comes the annual visit to New England. Where they will have to find a similar solution for Tom Brady, who is playing at least as well as Manning or Rodgers. At Gillette Stadium, where they have never won. Ever.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Kansas City and San Diego have to lose one or more of their last two games in specific combinations in order for Buffalo’s most-feared-playoff-opponent to become more than theoretical.
Which is a shame. Because this is as good a defense as the Bills have ever fielded.
While it may seem like sporting heresy to make comparisons to the defenses that reached four straight Super Bowls back in the early 1990s, those units were complemented by a revolutionary offense operated by Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and featuring fellow Canton honorees Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and James Lofton.
The other side of the ball featured very big names, as well, but the defenses featuring Bruce Smith, and Cornelius Bennett were built to absorb opposing comeback bids, not win games by themselves. Those Bills could be run on, as in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, and occasionally melted down entirely, as in the other three Roman-numeraled defeats.
The Bills also fielded highly rated defenses, in terms of yards and points allowed, in 1999—the last time they reached the playoffs—and 2003 and ‘04, but none of them ever delivered the sort of dominance on display last Sunday.
Balance was key to Buffalo’s playoff seasons of 1980 and ‘81, with an efficient offense led by Joe Ferguson at his peak nicely complementing The Bermuda Triangle.
You have to go back to the AFL championship teams of the mid-1960s to find a Buffalo defense that so thoroughly stuffed opposing attacks as consistently. Those squads also had the likes of Cookie Gilchrist, Elbert Dubenion, Jack Kemp and Daryle Lamonica putting up plenty of points. Also, subsequent rule changes, almost always designed to create more scoring and protect the safety of marquee offensive players, as well as the evolution of both training methods and strategy, make comparisons to a half-century ago pretty shaky.
Statistical analysis has taken a huge leap forward since any of the defenses mentioned above roamed the turf. The site Football Outsiders ranks defenses according to a stat called DVOA (Defense-adjusted value over average), which takes into account the opponent and game situation, as opposed to the traditional rating system of simply adding yards and points.
After the win against Green Bay, Buffalo’s current defense took over the No. 1 position in the entire league.
The offense, meanwhile, has sputtered along, scoring just four touchdowns in its last five games against teams other than the dysfunctional and demoralized New York Jets, with two of those coming too late to make any difference in Denver.
While the Bills moved up one spot in the defensive DVOA rankings, Kyle Orton’s crew dropped to No. 26. By this measure, the only less threatening offenses belong to Washington, the Jets, Oakland, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. It is not a coincidence that those teams are a combined 14-70.
Playoff teams should dread facing a Buffalo defense that belongs with a Super Bowl contender. Thanks to an offense worthy of a contender for the first pick in next spring’s draft, though, odds are no one will have to worry.
Dave Staba has been writing about the team, among other topics, for local and national publications since 1990. Follow him on artvoice.com and wewantmarangi.blogspot.com.blog comments powered by Disqus
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