The Bills had every reason to tank. If they had decided to take off for Christmas early, no one would've blamed them. Dick Jauron's team had every reason not to care anymore.
Rumors swirling about Jauron's contract extension took new twists by the day.
A quarterback that everyone knows will not even be on the team next season lost the Bills three straight games.
Playoff hopes? Oh, those vanished a long, long time ago.
And most of all, the bruise from last week's punch in the gut was still fresh.
But somehow, somewhere the Buffalo Bills mustered the motivation the play Sunday --- and play well. Against a Denver Broncos team that simply needed a win to secure a postseason bid, the Bills fought harder. Buffalo's 30-23 win is not a cop-out for Jauron in contract negotiations. Maybe his hot seat dimmed a few degrees, but by no means should he be off the hook.
No, this win wasn't justification for that mysterious contract. Buffalo played inspired football. That's it. Yeah, they echoed that "win one for the gipper" message afterward. The team mobilizing to earn a win for its leader would seem to be the overlying theme to this upset. But I'm not buying it. Just give credit to a batch of young players that grew up in a big way. This game is critical for the future. It was as if the Bills treated the game as a second-tier bowl game --- an opportunity to learn, grow and take a giant step toward something bigger.
New heroes emerged throughout.Four straight wins to start the season don't say much when those opponents prove to be cupcakes. But Sunday screamed a message loud and clear: there are some young keepers on this team. From the big picture (Buffalo's monumental collapse) and small picture (drastic in-game ebbs and flows), the Bills faced major adversity.
This time, they overcame it. Each challenge was defeated by a new hero. When you're outgained 532 to 275, there better be some herculean efforts at crucial times.
One fourth-quarter series should have tilted this game into the bin with the rest of oh-so-close losses. When Marcus Stroud was penalized for holding --- huh?? --- negating a Leodis McKelvin interception, the Bills should have deteriorated. The pick would have given Buffalo the ball at Denver's 27-yard line with the 30-23 lead. Instead, the Broncos kept possession. The next play, Brandon Marshall "caught" a pass for 19 yards up the left sideline. It appeared he bobbled the ball, but the officials ruled it a catch. Marshall, like a sheepish child that just stole candy from a store, signaled to Cutler to hurry up and run a play before the Bills could challenge the catch. Denver did, and essentially dodged two major bullets.
The drive continued. Cutler, like a surgeon, completed passes of 15, 8 and 11, moving closer into striking range. But on 3rd down from the Bills' 15-yard line, Kawika Mitchell stepped up. Mitchell stepped in front of Brandon Marshall to pick off Cutler and halt a drive destined to break Buffalo's back.
Mitchell, denied a big-money contract by Kansas City two years ago, is a keeper. Just like Donte Whitner, who jarred the ball loose from Marshall for a key fumble. Just like Paul Posluszny, who had a team-high eight tackles. Just like Reggie Corner, the little-known rookie from Akron that dislodged the ball from Brandon Stokely's grip on the game-clinching incompletion.
On offense, Josh Reed proved he isn't a cap casualty. Reed's nine receptions kept the chains moving. He's not fast, but wow does he have a knack for always getting open. Fred Jackson relieved Marshawn Lynch to total 103 yards, including the two biggest plays of the day for the offense. His 65-yard snag and 8-yard touchdown run won the game.
But in a flurry of individuals stepping up under duress circumstances, nobody was more clutch than Trent Edwards. He needed this…bad. It was Edwards' midseason plunge that demoted Buffalo from contender to pretender. Battling ailments all season (concussion, groin, scardicatedness), Edwards never took the giant leap forward the Bills expected to see in the quarterback's sophomore season. But yesterday he went toe-to-toe with the best gunslinger in the NFL --- his way. Edwards controlled and managed the game in a way J.P. Losman will never comprehend. He had a handful of ugly passes in the first half. After one quarter, Buffalo had minus-2 yards. Gulp. But once he shook off the rust of missing 2 ½ games, Edwards made his case for being the franchise quarterback.
Right before the half, after an inexplicit field goal attempt by Mike Shanahan (Doh!), Edwards constructed a season-defining drives. He hit Lee Evans and Josh Reed twice each for 38 yards. Marshawn Lynch punched in a short touchdown, and suddenly a game in which Denver should've been up by three touchdowns was 13-10.
In the 2nd half, Edwards stayed cool when Cutler (359 yards) kept baiting him into a shootout. Rather than force a deep ball to Evans, Edwards mechanically went through his progressions on each attempt. His balls had zip and were placed perfectly, like his touchdown pass to Steve Johnson's outside shoulder.
Through his 17-of-25 day, Edwards was cooler than ZZ Top. He practically had sunglasses on out there. The frigid conditions (it was the 2nd coldest game ever at Mile High) didn't rattle him. A defense in desperation mode didn't rattle him. His career in limbo didn't rattle him.
Nothing was going to stop a Bills team on an absolute mission. With every excuse not to play hard, Buffalo punched in its best effort of the season.