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by Dave Staba
Can Bills Sustain Opener's Rexiness Against Patriots
Now we know what Rex Ryan’s Bills can do when just about everything goes their way.
As for how things might go when confronted with adversity, which was in remarkably short supply for the home team Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, well, we’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s take a moment to appreciate Buffalo’s most comprehensively dominant Week One performance against a quality opponent in nearly as long as the franchise has avoided the National Football League playoffs.
The first game of Ryan’s tenure as Buffalo’s head coach and football spokesman, which ended with the score a deceivingly close 27-14 over Indianapolis, went about as well as anyone could have hoped.
Tyrod Taylor clearly showed himself to be the correct choice as starting quarterback, even if Matt Cassel took the first snap, with Taylor split out wide on one of those tricky plays that no National Football League team has fallen for in a very long time. Indianapolis certainly didn’t, dumping LeSean McCoy—also making his Buffalo debut—for a 6-yard loss.
Not much else went wrong while the game’s outcome was still in doubt.
Taylor hit almost every one of his throws, completing 14 of his first 16 attempts, including a 51-yard strike to Percy Harvin, who Rex brought with him from the New York Jets. It was a throw that Cassel could only imagine making if he were using a control pad while playing Madden 16, giving the Bills a first-quarter lead they never relinquished.
Taylor nimbly avoided the rush on the occasions the Colts were able to mount one, not taking so much as a hit, much less a sack. He showed his speed on a 31-yard sprint to convert a third-and-4, setting up rookie Karlos Williams’ 26-yard touchdown run just before halftime.
Given an early lead to protect by Taylor’s bomb to Harvin, Ryan’s defense took over. After setting up that first touchdown with rookie cornerback Ronald Darby’s first career interception of an underthrow by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the Bills blitzed Indianapolis into submission from there.
Even without Pro Bowl tackle Marcell Dareus, who was serving his one-week suspension stemming from a May 2014 arrest for possession of synthetic marijuana, Buffalo swarmed Luck for most of the first three quarters. While the Bills only sacked Luck twice, they kept him from establishing any sort of rhythm until things were pretty well out of hand, while brutalizing his receivers when they did get their hands on the ball.
Darby’s interception started the rout, with another by safety Aaron Williams closing it out.
The rain helped, as did deafening noise from an understandably hyped sell-out crowd. The combination kept Indy off the scoreboard until Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman largely called off the blitz after taking a 24-0 lead on Boobie Dixon’s 1-yard touchdown run to cap an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive early in the third quarter.
The defense’s performance was not a surprise, given the success of the same group of players under former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in 2014. Taylor’s offense, though, surpassed the most optimistic expectations.
And that was with McCoy, who cost Buffalo the services of linebacker Kiko Alonso, managing just 41 yards on 17 carries. Shady did contribute 46 yards on three catches, though, including a 22-yard catch-and-run to spark that third-quarter touchdown drive, having a 12-yard touchdown run of his own called back by a holding penalty three plays before Dixon took it in. Williams found the holes McCoy could not, leading all rushers with 55 yards on just six carries in his first game as a professional.
Besides Harvin’s team-high five catches for 79 yards, Buffalo’s other offensive free-agent pickups also chipped in. Tight end Charles Clay caught four of Taylor’s throws, including a 26-yarder down the seam that led to Dan Carpenter’s 41-yard field goal in the second quarter. And Richie Incognito showed why the Bills were willing to bring him back, despite the locker-room unpleasantness in Miami that kept him out of football for a season-and-a-half, with both his run-blocking and pass protection.
Buffalo’s special teams also did their part. Second-year linebacker Randell Johnson recovered a fumbled punt-return, helping snuff the Colts’ faint comeback hopes in the fourth quarter. Four plays later, beleaguered kicker Dan Carpenter’s 45-yard field goal put Buffalo up by 19 points with 8:14 remaining.
All of the above took place amidst a roaring din that began before kickoff, reaching a crescendo each time Indianapolis took possession, with the crowd drawing praise from Ryan and several players for its contribution.
Now, about this Sunday, when New England pays its annual visit to Orchard Park ...
Indianapolis entered the season as one of the top contenders to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50 (the first NFL championship game to eschew the traditional Roman numerals, for marketing reasons) largely because the Colts reached the conference title game last year. Where they were demolished by the Patriots, in a game remembered less for New England’s complete domination than the skullduggery involving the inflation level of the footballs, which led to an investigation more intensive and well-publicized than most murder inquiries, as well as an international proliferation of testicle jokes.
But 45-7 is 45-7, and there is little reason to think the Patriots have suffered much, if any, drop off since last winter. Especially since Tom Brady will still be throwing what figure to be very closely monitored footballs after a judge overturned NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s attempted four-game suspension last month.
And if there is any one thing that characterizes New England’s 14-year reign over the AFC East under Brady and Bill Belichick, it is the ability to force opponents to face the sort of adversity the Bills avoided against Indianapolis. The Patriots could try to pressure Taylor with one of Belichick’s dastardly rush schemes, or they could strive to confuse him with a variety of complex coverage packages. Most likely, they will bring a combination of both.
For his part, Brady has shown a knack for quieting the loudest Buffalo crowds with short passes thrown before the rush arrives and long scoring drives that sap even the most well-lubricated enthusiasm.
Since Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe in 2001, his teams have won 11 of 13 road games against Buffalo (Cassel was at quarterback for New England’s 13-0 win in 2008), with eight of the victories coming by at least two touchdowns.
Beating Indianapolis, particularly in the fashion they did, was a nearly perfect way for Buffalo to start the season, and a new era.
Taking out the defending champions would show that the opener probably was not a fluke, and that Ryan and his Bills might really be on to something.
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