AFC East: Buffalo Bills
By NFL Scout Staff
Don't look now, but the Buffalo Bills can gain sole possession of first place in the AFC East over idle New England with a victory over the Oakland Raiders in Oakland on Sunday.
Veteran linebacker London Fletcher called the 3-3 Bills an "average football team," but average is good enough to lead a division that has been wracked by injuries and no longer can boast of being the best in the NFL.
The two-time defending Super Bowl champion Patriots (3-3) are battling a litany of injuries on defense, the New York Jets (2-4) have lost starting quarterback Chad Pennington for the season and have turned to 41-year-old Vinny Testaverde, the Miami Dolphins (2-4) are in full rebuilding mode under Nick Saban, Ricky Williams or no Ricky Williams.
Doing their part to stir the pot of unpredictability, the Bills have lost star linebacker Takeo Spikes (Achilles' tendon) and pulled the plug on developing quarterback J.P. Losman in favor of the steady hand of journeyman Kelly Holcomb.
"It is what it is," Bills guard Chris Villarrial said of Buffalo's 500 record. "We'd like to be 6-0, but it is what it is at this point. We had to keep digging and clawing our way out of it, and now we've got to take it out to Oakland. But yeah, that's the way it's been here. It's going to be a year where this division is going to be close and it's going to be a matter of who slips up first. We can't let that happen right now."
The Bills, who started last year 0-4 before making a run at a playoff berth, stumbled out of the gate again under coach Mike Mularkey with a 1-3 record. But home victories over the Dolphins and Jets have quietly put things back on course.
Keeping the train on the tracks is another challenge.
The Raiders (1-4) are desperate for a win and last season beat the Bills 13-10 at McAfee Coliseum when Buffalo couldn't run the ball and allowed seven sacks.
After Oakland, Buffalo meets New England in Foxboro and the Patriots, off this week, not only will have had two weeks to prepare for Holcomb, they likely will be through the roof with emotion welcoming linebacker Tedy Bruschi back after it appeared his career was over after suffering a stroke.
The Bills, 9-7 a year ago, still believe they will end their five-year playoff drought but after everything they've been through already, sound a lot more humble.
"We're not thinking about first place, we're thinking about beating the Oakland Raiders," Fletcher said. "They're not handing out playoff tickets after six ball games. We'll see where we're at when the dust settles at the end of the regular season, and then we can talk about all of that."
Mularkey did take time this week to pat his players on the back for climbing out of yet another early-season hole.
"We started off slow, the thing we talked about not doing, but I've got to give these guys credit for what they've done, overcoming three tough losses and coming back," he said. "I think we're gaining confidence and they never let their guard down once, which is a big credit to them."
Is last season's experience helpful? Buffalo was 1-5 before winning eight of its last 10 games.
"I'm sure the experience of what took place last year crosses their minds," Mularkey said. "If that helps us take off and wins us some games, so be it. But I'm trying not to emphasize it and compare the two years."
SERIES HISTORY: 34th meeting, Raiders lead regular-season series 18-15, winning in Oakland last season 13-10. The teams have met twice in the playoffs with Buffalo winning both meetings, including a 51-3 win over the Raiders in the 1990 AFC championship game, sending the Bills to the first of their record four consecutive Super Bowls.
--Bills LB London Fletcher on playing at McAfee, formerly the Oakland Coliseum: "It's a tough atmosphere out there in Oakland but it's going to be exciting. Their fans are very intense. They're going to be saying all kinds of things to us about how happy they are to have us out there facing their team. But I love playing on the road. I feed off that energy the fans provide. I don't want to be a stadium that's all lovey-dovey. We're not expecting that - at all."
--The Raiders list star WR Randy Moss as doubtful with groin and rib injuries but the Bills are preparing as if he'll be in the lineup on Sunday. Moss has 19 catches for a whopping 24.5 yards per catch average and two touchdowns. In comparison, Buffalo's leading receiver, Eric Moulds, is averaging 8.4 yards on 24 catches. "I'm sure Randy will play," Bills FS Troy Vincent said. "We've seen this situation before and he's a tremendous competitor. The critics want to say he's not, but he's the truth. He's the real deal. When he's on the field, he's a tremendous threat. He can score anytime he touches the football and we're preparing for him to play."
--The Bills have scored on five of their six drives to start the game, thanks in part to special teams. KR Terrence McGee leads the NFL with a 34.6 average and the Bills own the league's best average drive start (33.2-yard line). "We script plays but I think it's the attitude we've gone into the game with," QB Kelly Holcomb said. "Special teams have given us good field position and that's big when you can come into the game and take the ball right down the field and score. It puts a little bit of doubt into the other team's defense and we've done a good job of it."
--The National Basketball Association has instituted a mandatory dress code. The Bills have a loose dress code for road trips - sports coats and dress slacks - but that's it. "I don't know if it would fly with us," CB Nate Clements said of the NFL mandating how they dress. "I mean, guys like to wear earrings, chains and watches. There's nothing wrong with that. You can make that look just as classy as wearing a shirt and tie." Coach Mike Mularkey, who once worked for IBM, said that company didn't mandate a suit. "But I wore one," he said. "Three out of the five days."
--The Bills, who had just two takeaways during their three-game losing streak, have eight in their last two games, both victories. On the year, Buffalo has 15 takeaways, second to Cincinnati's 21 in the AFC. Last year, the Bills led the NFL in takeaways.
BY THE NUMBERS: 60 - Carries for RB Willis McGahee in the past two games, both wins by the Bills.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I guess we all need to get on him and ride him. I have no problem with that." - QB Kelly Holcomb when asked about RB Willis McGahee's end-zone celebration against the Jets when he pretended to be a jockey, whipping a horse across the finish line.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This could be the week rookie WR Roscoe Parrish, the Bills' top draft pick, returns from a broken right wrist suffered in training camp.
Parrish, a smallish but electrifying receiver out of the University of Miami, was enjoying an impressive training camp at the time of his injury and would've opened the season as Buffalo's No. 3 slot receiver.
His return would be a huge boost for a Bills' passing attack that has been much improved under veteran QB Kelly Holcomb but is still lacking a spark and ranks 31st in the NFL. Holcomb is good at distributing the ball and getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers quickly. Parrish, who has 4.2- to 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash, could do some damage on quick slants or receiver screens. He also will have an impact on special teams returning punts.
Parrish, playing with a soft cast, has been practicing for two weeks but the coaching staff, after initially thinking they would use him last Sunday against the Jets, have now decided to take it slow with their prized rookie, who will need time to get up to NFL speed.
"I think we had higher hopes early in the week (last week) and I got to start thinking about it," coach Mike Mularkey said. "It's really the first time he's caught passes and punts in eight weeks and we haven't tested him being hit, falling on the ground, all of those things. I said 'Let's wait a week and see if next week's better and test some of those things out.'"
Parrish, who can do pushups, declared himself ready to play on Wednesday.
"My first day with the pad on and the tape, I only dropped one ball," he said. "I really have not had a problem catching the ball at all. I'm ready to play. I've been waiting for this moment since I was a kid, my first NFL game. So I'm ready, I'm really ready."
--RB Willis McGahee has started 16 games and has topped 100 yards 10 times. The Bills are 9-1 in those games.
--QB Kelly Holcomb faces his first road game for the Bills Sunday in Oakland. In six career road starts, he is 133 of 201 for 66.2 percent with 10 TDs.
--WR Eric Moulds has 14 catches in his last two games but is averaging just 8.4 yards a catch and hasn't had a catch of more than 30 yards in 16 games.
--TE Tim Euhus, who missed the season's first five games with a shoulder injury, saw his first game action last Sunday against the Jets on special teams. The Bills hope to involve him more in the offense this week at Oakland. As a rookie, Euhus was a red zone threat with two TD catches before tearing an ACL.
--WR Roscoe Parrish, the team's top draft pick who broke his right wrist in training camp, could see his first action Sunday at Oakland. Parrish showed uncanny speed and moves in camp.
GAME PLAN: When the Bills lost at Oakland a year ago, they rushed 24 times for a mere 67 yards. Without the support of a running game, QB Drew Bledsoe was sacked seven times. That can't happen to Kelly Holcomb if the Bills are to win this tough road assignment. Unlike a year ago when Buffalo ventured to the rowdy coliseum, Willis McGahee is now the Bills' starting ball carrier, not Travis Henry, and he's into a serious groove with 60 carries for 229 yards his last two games. Oakland has a big-name front wall (Ted Washington, Warren Sapp, Bobby Hamilton) but it's crumbling from age. If persistent, Buffalo should be able to hammer away and control the football against the NFL's 28th-ranked defense, a perfect recipe for winning on the road. Meanwhile on defense, the Bills can't let this be the week the Raiders get on track on the ground. Free agent RB Lamont Jordan, who did some damage against Buffalo while with the Jets, has gotten only 87 carries so far (310 yards, 4 TDs) and is begging for more work against Buffalo's porous No. 30 run defense. Bills catch a break if WR Randy Moss (groin/ribs) can't go, but Jerry Porter has to be respected and QB Kerry Collins loves throwing to Jordan (team-high 26 catches). The Raiders have played a difficult schedule with their losses by margins of just 10, 6, 3 and 13 points. This is a must-win game and the Bills need to match the desperate Raiders' intensity from the opening bell.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Bills OL, which dominated last week against the Jets, vs. Raiders DL, which is giving up 117.4 yards rushing per game. LT Mike Gandy must control backup DE Derrick Burgess (5.0 sacks) in pass protection.
--Bills RB Willis McGahee, third in the AFC in rushing with 604 yards, vs. Raiders LB Danny Clark, who has 38 tackles.
--Bills run defense, which has allowed 27 runs of 10 yards or better, vs. Raiders RB Lamont Jordan, who is averaging 3.6 yards per carry and is looking for a breakout game.
--Bills CB Nate Clements, Bills top cover man, vs. Raiders WR Jerry Porter or Randy Moss, if he plays. Moss is averaging 24.5 yards per catch.
INJURY IMPACT: If the Bills activate WR Roscoe Parrish (wrist) for the Raiders game, they will face a difficult decision on who to sit.
It's unlikely that Buffalo would dress six receivers when Parrish comes back because it would leave them short at another position. Special teams considerations are a big factor. Smith returns punts and Aiken is a top coverage man. That could leave Reed out, unless Parrish takes over Smith's punt return chores. After Moulds, Reed is Buffalo's most experienced pass catcher and it would be nice to have his presence on the field at crunch time.
More Buffalo Bills articles: http://bills.scout.com
More New York Jets articles: http://jets.scout.com
More Miami Dolphins articles: http://dolphins.scout.com
New England Patriots: http://patriots.scout.com