The Buffalo Bills grew up last Sunday.
A second-year quarterback. A second-year running back. A defense littered with unproven, yet potential-rich prospects. All of them can outstretch their belts another notch after a statement, 23-14 win over San Diego. Comeback wins against St. Louis, Oakland and Jacksonville hinted resiliency, that maybe the Bills had that late-game sparkle that seems to always separate the good teams from the great teams.
Now we know. We know the 2008 Bills mean business. Forget the Cali-to-Buffalo-to-London travel excuse. Based on pure talent, the San Diego Chargers are one of the five best teams in the league. But with a calm assurance through four quarters, Buffalo remained undaunted through the ebbs and flows and earned a win that should springboard into the meat of the schedule.
What defines this team is that it makes play when they need to be made – crucial junctures that build character one way or the other.
--- Kawika Mitchell's fourth-quarter interception inside the red zone is the A-prime play of the Bills' season thus far. His pick triggered a 10-point swing. Instead of San Diego taking a 21-20 lead, Buffalo was able to melt clock and extend it to a two-score game. Trent Edwards engineered the game-icing seven-play, 43-yard drive to set up a Rian Lindell field goal with 3:17 left and San Diego's weaponry was rendered useless.
---The image of David Tyree surely zapped into everyone's mind when Lee Evans used an imaginary abrasive on his helmet to secure the Bills' first touchdown. That is, if they saw it. Power issues had Bills and Chargers fans coast-to-coast chucking smashing remotes into walls. Unlike last season, the Bills are finishing drives this year. With the ball at San Diego's 2-yard line, Buffalo punched it in. By air, not foot. By a deep threat, not a possession receiver. Such a scenario was impossible in past years. Now defenses must account for anything inside the 5 against the Bills – not simply an off-tackle run by Marshawn Lynch.
Between big plays, the Bills are filling in the gaps too. LaDainian Tomlinson had nowhere to run Sunday. Maybe we're finding out week-by-week that LT is slowing toiling down an Emmitt Smith path. But LT is still LT. Holding the advertising extraordinaire (that commercial with Troy Polamalu is in my top 5 – mostly for the dramatic background music) to 2.9 yards per carry is an incredible feat.
Tomlinson was the ultimate mid-season litmus test for Marcus Stroud, Paul Posluszny and a re-tooled defense. But the Bills closed off his cutback lanes, swarmed to the ball and gang-tackled on nearly every play. The Chargers' high-octane offense that zapped New England for 30 points and 404 total yards just one week prior could never find a rhythm. The Bills defense limited big plays (San Diego only had two 20+ yard plays) and got their ball-control offense back onto the field. Philip Rivers looked lost, his borderline cocky/confident swagger tarnished amid three turnovers.
Maybe the most glaring indicator that the Bills have matured beyond their years is their performance at home. The Bills have been a different team at The Ralph in sheer attitude, winning each game in a different, take-that fashion. Dick Jauron's game management – often criticized during his lethargic days in Chicago – has been steadfast and deliberate. Buffalo never appears to be in desperation mode. The personnel (Edwards' mistake-free football, run-committed offense, swarming defense) fits perfectly with the fabric of a Jauron-led team.
And with each win, the Bills' hairline recedes a little more. This young bunch of raw, unknowns is growing up fast.