7) What has been the most surprising thing to happen to the Bills in the second half of the season?
Tyler Dunne: When Buffalo was waxed by each team in the division midway through the season, you could see a shift occurring. The Bills offense was slowly eroding into a shell of its former self. This has to be the most surprising development. Maybe the concussion Trent Edwards suffered at Arizona in week five was a factor, but upon returning he wasn't the same steady hand leading a team that had oozed with confidence. Over the first four weeks of the second half of the season, Edwards rekindled memories of Rob Johnson: 3 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 0 wins, 4 losses.
Even though Edwards' early season success came against bad teams, it appeared that the quarterback had turned the corner in his sophomore season. The continuous criticism of Edwards is that he is terrified to push the ball downfield (see: only four completions to wide receivers in 29-27 loss to Cleveland). But in September, Edwards seemed to defeat this demon. He had a pass of 34 yards or longer in each of the Bills' first four wins. Hooking up long-distance for Lee Evans with regularity (Buffalo's No. 1 wideout averaged 24 yards per catch), Edwards was on the fast track of transitioning from serviceable-to-dangerous.
He has crumbled since. His gritty performance in Denver offers some hope. Though his play was inspiring late, it did come against a weak Broncos pass defense. An even stronger showing against New England --- the team he threw a measly 120 yards against in November --- would be a much, much bigger step for Edwards' career.
8) Do you think Buffalo fans will turn out en masse for Sunday's game against the Patriots and will it help them with home field advantage?
TD: I think the Bills have really lost all homefield bravo against New England. The Patriots have won the last 10 games of this series --- since Sam Adams was taking up 95 percent of a Sports Illustrated cover in '03. There should be a pretty vibrant group. Last week's win at Denver revived this area a little more, and the fans would love nothing more than to spoil the Patriots' playoff hopes. Still, I don't see how any combination of weather, decibel level or jersey color could impact this game. Matt Cassel and co. just humiliated playoff-bound Arizona in a blizzard one week after doing the same thing in hostile Oakland. Unless some 400-pound, beer-gut in the nosebleeds can play next to Marcus Stroud, the fans probably won't be a major factor Sunday.
9) The Patriots considered drafting cornerback Leodis McKelvin in this year's draft, but opted to go for linebacker Jerod Mayo instead. How has McKelvin's rookie season gone, and how did he fare compare to the team's other rookies?
TD: Oh yes, I think all of us in Buffalo penciled in McKelvin to New England all along. Be default, I expected Buffalo to settle with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Fortunately, it appears both scenarios have worked out. While Mayo anchors the Pats' defense, McKelvin has been arguably the single-biggest playmaker on the entire Bills team. He is averaging 28.7 yards per kick return (2nd in NFL), making a game-changing return seemingly every game. The Bills boast the best average field position in the league.
McKelvin's the sole reason why. His combination of speed and burst is something this team hasn't seen a long time at any position. His ascension in the return game has also allowed Terrence McGee to focus solely on cornerback, where he has blossomed into an above-average shutdown corner. The team held McKelvin back from nickel duty on defense --- even when Ashton Youboty (season-ending) and McGee (for three games) were out with injuries. But that all changed in Kansas City. McKelvin beautifully stepped in front of Mark Bradley for an interception and took it 64 yards to the house. Since then, with Jabari Greer sidelined, he was grown into a decent starting cornerback --- a bonus at this point.
Last week he picked off Jay Cutler deep in Denver territory midway through fourth quarter, a play that all-but would've clinched the win for Buffalo. But a holding penalty was called on Marcus Stroud (a defensive tackle!?), negating another year-defining play for McKelvin. (Side note: This had to be the most bogus call since Henry Jones' alleged 'pass interference' penalty against the Pats in that wildly insane '98 Pats' 25-21 win. Sorry guys. That penalty was absurd.)
Compared to the Bills' other rookies, McKelvin is clearly the crown jewel of the class. Second-round pick James Hardy is a bust so far. Chris Ellis wasn't the immediate boost the pass rush the team expected. Fourth-round corner Reggie Corner started slow, but is now a mainstay in passing situations. Last week he won the game for Buffalo, stripping the ball out of Brandon Stokely's hands in the back of the end zone. Tight end Derek Fine could grow into a decent pass-catching tight end and 7th round receiver Steve Johnson has caught touchdowns the past two weeks. But obviously, McKelvin was the home run hit for the Bills.
10) What injuries will play a factor in the Bills performance on Sunday? Is there anyone we should keep an eye on (And why)?
TD: The big question is whether Marshawn Lynch will play. He didn't play in the second half last week with a bum shoulder. Lynch did return to practice Thursday, which is obviously a good sign. I'd expect him to play for at least part of Sunday's game. Lynch is a gritty guy that won't want to miss Buffalo's final game. Also, Roscoe Parrish and Jason Peters both missed practice Thursday with their knee injuries. Peters' absence could prove devastating. The team's lone Pro Bowler has improved throughout the season to protect Edwards' blind side. If he can't go, Edwards could be under constant pressure Sunday. If Parrish can't go, the aftereffect shouldn't be as bad. Fred Jackson has stepped into punt-returning duties at different points this season and played nearly as well as Parrish, who leads the NFL in punt return average.
New England will need to keep an eye on Jackson, wherever he's playing as a running back as a receiver as a returner. Wherever. Buffalo's backup running back just makes plays. Though he's been wrongfully ignored at points this season, Jackson is as opportunistic as they come. He has a knack for gaining the corner on runs, and last week he burnt Denver's back with a 65-yard reception. Jackson is a playmaker on a Bills' offense that has few of them.
11) What has been the best (most interesting) storyline in the Bills season this year?
TD: It has to be Dick Jauron. He reportedly reached a contract extension with the team prior to this massive collapse. And now, the Bills are backed into a corner. Team owner Ralph Wilson --- cheaper than Scrooge --- surely does not want to buy out Jauron's contract. After Jauron's mind-blowing decision to pass when the Bills were icing a win against the Jets, this dilemma reached its apex. Wilson said this week that he'll make his decision within the next two weeks. Chances are, Jauron will stick around and assistants will absorb the blame for the collapse (i.e. Turk Schonert). It's probably not right. Jauron's coaching was atrocious through Buffalo's seven losses in eight games. But as AC/DC eloquently once put, "Money Talks." Even more than results.
12) Top three things the Patriots must do to win on Sunday?
1. Finish drives. Jay Cutler went wild against the Bills last week, nearly chucking 400 yards. But he couldn't dot the i's and cross the t's. The Bills 'D' has stifled offenses with their backs against the wall. The Pats will need to punch in for six points every chance they can.
2. Keep a rover on Jackson. Buffalo will almost certainly give Action Jackson a bigger role after his knockout game against the Broncos. The Patriots should have a set of eyes isolated on him play-to-play.
3. Harass Edwards. Buffalo's quarterback is at his best when he has time to dissect a defense --- he has the 2nd best single-season completion percentage in team history. New England will need to disrupt his rhythm.
Prediction for game and why
TD: Patriots 35, Bills 24. New England is playing exceptional right now. I don't see Buffalo slowing down Cassel. Unlike last week, the Pats should be able finish drives with a bang. Look for the Bills to play well, just not well enough to top a hungry Patriots bunch.
Tyler Dunne covers the Buffalo Bills for BuffaloFootballReport.com