The hype has faded. Within the division, the Bills have already been relegated to lame-duck afterthoughts. Their alluring story in September of last-minute, cardiac wins has been downgraded to soft turbulence in a division packed with more intrigue.
Matt Cassel – a quarterback not even good enough to start in high school – is putting up Tom Brady-numbers.
The Miami Dolphins – last year's universal punch line (to Family Guy proportions) – have set a football-wide trend with the hip "Wildcat" formation.
In September, the Bills were the darlings that rose above all this. At 4-0, nobody could touch ‘em. Trent Edwards had the moxie. The defense was the best it's been since Corny and Talley and Bruce and Conlan. Dick Jauron's oft-labeled blasé persona was being called calm, cool craftsmanship.
Ah, those were the days.
After four straight losses, Edwards has no moxie, he's erratic. The defense isn't intimidating, it's sackless and hapless. And Jauron isn't "cool" at all, he's the same boring coach that Chicago ran out of town.
Buffalo's 54-31 thumping of Kansas City, convinced me though: Buffalo is far from finished.
Sure, the AFC Wild Card picture is more congested than the Galleria Mall on Black Friday. Yes, many of the Bills' problems are permanent and unfixable at this point (the pass rush, slew of injuries, no No. 2 WR, yada yada yada). But at 6-5 with San Francisco coming to The Ralph Sunday, Buffalo is.
Last week, the Bills rediscovered their swagger. If last year taught us anything, it's that attitude is good enough. The New York Giants won on attitude, not sheer talent. Another thrashing like last week would send the Bills into their second AFC East round robin confident and hungry.
Here are five reasons to think that, yes, the Bills will end their eight-year playoff drought this year:
1. Good Trent/Bad Trent took its last turn--- Edwards really couldn't have played much worse during Buffalo's four-game losing streak. But last week, he was back. In the pocket, he went through his progressions and made the right decisions – 24-of-32 is 24-of-32, no matter who you're playing against. When he's on, Edwards is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league, as evident by his 67.3 completion percentage (sixth-best in the NFL). Above all though, Edwards' two touchdown runs exemplified his total eclipse – from the scared puppy that refused to throw the ball beyond 10 yards to the gutsy scrambler hurling his body into three Chiefs players at the end of the first half. Expect "Good Trent" to stay strong in Buffalo's final five games.
2. Lynch/Jackson overload--- Finally, Buffalo's offensive line is playing to its potential. In the last two weeks, the Bills' high-priced trio (Derrick Dockery, Langston Walker and Jason Peters) gashed some big holes. Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson have led a rushing attack that has totaled 357 yards and four scores against Cleveland and Kansas City. More importantly, offensive coordinator Turk Schonert is fully committed to the ground game. The Bills have 38 rushes in each of those contests. We're beyond Halloween. There's no more masking who you really are. The Bills are a below-average passing team, yet boast one of the best 1-2 punches in the AFC at running back. Schonert is finally rolling with what works. To upset New England and New York, Lynch and Jackson need to spearhead a game of keepaway.
Leodis McKelvin may be the Bills' most valuable weapon.
3. Leodis like no other--- Buffalo's edge in the AFC East. No other team in its division boasts such a sudden, explosive talent. Out of kick returners with at least 20 takebacks, McKelvin is first in the NFL. The rookie is averaging 29.2 yards per return, ousting New York's Leon Washington by less than a yard. Even better, last week McKelvin proved that his speed isn't inclined to runbacks. His 64-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Chiefs won't be his last. In the nickel role on passing downs, look for McKelvin has more opportunities at ball-hawking. He's a talent that simply cannot stay on the sideline. Expect more big plays from Buffalo's first-round pick. Meanwhile, Arizona's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was on the other end of that whole Donovan McNabb Awakening last night. Good choice.
4. Healing up--- There's reason to believe that the worst is over. Defensive end Aaron Schobel began light workouts this week. Schobel (foot), Keith Ellison (ankle) and Jabari Greer (sprained knee) did not practice Wednesday, but they should be back soon. If not Sunday, then soon. Schobel may pump a little life into Buffalo's pass rush, while Greer was in the midst of a career year at cornerback. With pass-happy quarterbacks Matt Cassel, Brett Favre and Jay Cutler lurking on the schedule, Greer's return comes at the best time. Buffalo would be wise to let him rest against San Francisco, to prep for the big guns in December.
Overall, Buffalo is gradually getting much, much healthier. Josh Reed's void was felt significantly in the passing game during the four-game losing streak. He's back. Offensive guard Brad Butler is back and playing well. Terrence McGee's nightmare game against Ted Ginn Jr. is a distant memory now. Marcus Stroud, for all of the injury baggage, has remained healthy. When it matters most, the Bills are healing up. That can't be underestimated.
5. Attitude adjustment--- The mood was different last weekend. As the points piled up, it's as if we were watching the Bills regain their swagger piece by piece. Rather than methodical game management, Buffalo is reliant on game-breaking plays, playing on emotion and riding momentum. Against the Chiefs, the gut-wrenching plays resurfaced and Jauron's team was having fun again. Another blowout against the 49ers would send the Bills into the stretch run on fire.
Last year, the Giants knocked off the three best teams in the NFL strictly on attitude and swagger. The Bills have shown similar characteristics sporadically this season. Last weekend was a tease that this mindset has set back in.