From the time the 2010 NFL schedule was released, if a fan wanted tickets for a game that would be the most likely to be a guaranteed win, most would have chosen Sunday's matchup with the Buffalo Bills. For the most part, they would be right. The Bills started the season 0-8, but after winning two of the last three games, they still have the worst record in the AFC. The Bills are an improving team that has a rather impressive track record despite their dismal record.
They have played eight of their 11 games against teams that would currently be in the 2010 playoffs, including the Patriots, Jets, Steelers, Ravens, Packers, Bears, Chiefs and Jaguars. Only two of their opponents have losing records and they have tied a league record with three overtime losses – at Baltimore, at Kansas City and home vs. Pittsburgh. They are a team that, with a couple of breaks, could have a record better than the Vikings. They are a young team that is improving under first-year coach Chan Gailey and a team that can't be taken too lightly.
The Bills have the 25th-ranked offense and the 26th-ranked defense, so it's no surprise that they have a win-loss record that is at the bottom of the league. But there have been several surprises on both sides of the ball, as they are a team transitioning on the fly, not during the offseason.
Heading into the season, the quarterback position was supposed to be the domain of Trent Edwards, but, after grumbling about his position with the team after a 0-2 start, not only was Edwards taken out as the starter, he was released. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick got the promotion and has made the most of it. Since coming off the bench in Week 3 against New England, he has at least one touchdown pass in all nine games he has played, including five multi-TD games (two with two, one with three and two with four). He has 220 passing yards in all but two games and has topped 300 yards twice. On the flip side, he has thrown 10 interceptions and has two picks in four different games – three of them coming in four road games. If he can be pressured, he will make mistakes. He has bad memories of the Metrodome – a five-interception game – and is prone to making the drive-killing play that can cost them against a team like the Vikings.
Just as Fitzpatrick was supposed to be the backup at quarterback, Fred Jackson was supposed to give way at running back. The Bills used the ninth pick in the draft to take C.J. Spiller, a speedster who was supposed to be the man from Day One. However, injuries and ineffectiveness have held him back. In the first nine games, he never had more than seven carries in a game and has been inactive the last two. He has just 41 carries through 11 games and has as many rushing yards (164) as Marshawn Lynch – who was traded two months ago. Jackson has been the primary rusher, but has just 141 carries in 11 games. With your lead dog averaging just 12.5 carries a game (while the Bills average 30 passes), it would seem that, if the Vikings can shut down the run game early, the Bills may be more prone to abandon it. Given the Vikings' improving run defense over the last few weeks, making Buffalo one-dimensional offensively would be huge.
The Bills have been led for years by speedy wide receiver Lee Evans, who excelled as a No. 2 receiver, but never truly panned out as a go-to guy. He remains a dangerous deep threat – he leads the team with a 14.7-yard receiving average, but he is on the wrong end of the stick as it pertains to being the primary passing target. He had more catches than third-year man Steve Johnson in two of the first three games and has been replaced midstream as the go-to receiver. Over the last four games, Evans has been targeted 28 times, catching just eight passes for 163 yards and no touchdowns. In that span, Johnson has been targeted 48 times, catching 29 passes for 387 yards and three TDs. Evans still holds the title as the No. 1 receiver, but Johnson is Fitzpatrick's true go-to threat at this point of the season. With Roscoe Parrish on injured reserve, depth at wide receiver is painfully thin. The starting duo will be asked to carry almost the entire load. Undrafted rookie David Nelson is an imposing target at 6-5, replacing the role that James Hardy (also released earlier in the year) held, and has assumed the role of not only third wide receiver, but de facto leading tight end. The Bills have five tight ends on the roster, but they have combined to catch just 16 passes.
The Bills are young all over the offense and the line is no exception. Sixth-year center Geoff Hangartner is the greybeard of the group. Right tackle Mansfield Wrotto, claimed off waivers from Seattle, starts at right tackle, third-year pro and part-time starter Demetrius Bell starts at left tackle and a pair of second-year guards – Andy Levitre and Eric Wood – were the starters all season at guard. Wood is out for Sunday's game with an ankle injury, which likely means second-year man Kraig Urbik, who was on the Steelers practice squad last year, will get the start. This is a group that should be able to be overpowered by the Vikings front four. They will likely be the foundation of what the Bills hope becomes a dominant offense that grows old as a group, but the cement is still wet on the Bills O-line at this point and the Vikings should be able to take advantage.
On the other side, the Bills have the worst run defense in the NFL and opponents are running 36 times a game against them, which explains why they have a 5-minute, 24-second average disparity in time of possession. It all starts up front and the biggest flaw in the Bills is their inability to stop the run with their 3-4 front. As bad as the line has been, it took a hit this week when starter Dwan Edwards was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. It's one of the few areas on the team with experience, but they haven't lived up to it. Ten-year veteran Marcus Stroud is at left end, with former Viking Spencer Johnson replacing Edwards at right end. In the middle, fifth-year pro Kyle Williams is all but on his own with backup Torell Troup down with a fibula injury. Williams has quietly put together an impressive season, registering five sacks from the nose tackle position – a near impossibility since he sees constant double-teams. The Bills have young pass-rush ends in Aaron Maybin and John McCargo, but neither have lived up to their pre-draft hype and they remain works in progress.
The linebackers have been a position of hope and promise, but ultimate disappointment. Injuries have taken a toll. Reggie Torbor is out with a shoulder injury, waiver pickup Shawne Merriman injured his Achilles tendon, and starter Andra Davis and part-timer starter Keith Ellison were both placed on injured reserve earlier in the year. The team has patched together a group of eight-year pro Chris Kelsay and sixth-round rookie Arthur Moats on the outside, and journeyman Akin Ayodele and fourth-year man Paul Posluszny on the inside. Posluszny is a big hitter and Ayodele brings some veteran savvy, but at times is a liability in pass coverage. The team has some depth, with Maybin getting some reps, but depth has been pulled taught and there isn't much more margin for injury before this becomes a glaring weakness.
The Bills secondary isn't immune from criticism in its own right. The team is last in the league with four interceptions – a league-worst 1.2 percent interception rate. It is supposed to be the strength of the defense – with Donte Whitner and Jairus Byrd at safety and Drayton Florence and Terrence McGee at the corners. McGee was the best read-and-react corner on the team, but hasn't practiced all week with a knee injury and likely won't play, he will be replaced with former first-rounder Leodis McKelvin, who has been plagued by injuries the last two seasons. Whitner, another former first-rounder on the defense, is a big hitter, but not the playmaker he was advertised as being when taken with a premium pick in the 2006 draft. Byrd became an immediate starter as a rookie last year, but he hasn't been the aggressive centerfielder the Bills had hoped. To date, neither has an interception. Former starter George Wilson provides depth at safety, giving the Bills depth at the position. This is the gold star of the defense, but, given its lack of takeaway ability this year, it has become its own form of a liability.
The Vikings have a lot of advantages playing in their favor Sunday, but the Bills have found a way to stay in road games for teams expecting to run them out of the building. They have vulnerabilities that have contributed to their 2-9 record, but the Bills have the building blocks in place to become an upwardly mobile franchise in the near future, much like the Lions of the NFC North. Put enough high draft picks together and you will get success. The Bills are a work in progress and one the Vikings hope is a little longer in coming.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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