Last week, while milling around the Bills’ locker room, I paused to chat with Nick Barnett. The veteran linebacker is one of the more sensible players on the roster. He’s equally attentive, too, which he proved when I asked him how he spent Monday after, you know, he was a few hours removed from the loss in Arizona.
“Win," Barnett said, looking up from his stool.
Did I really say loss?
“You said loss," Barnett said.
Pardon my slip, which made for a quick, if not uncomfortable, laugh. I was in Arizona for the Bills’ overtime victory over the Cardinals. It wasn’t as if the game was forgotten. Am I getting old and showing signs of wear? Or did the Bills’ game still feel like a loss three days after they escaped from University of Phoenix Stadium with a 19-16 win?
The encounter with Barnett, a good sport, summed up the first six weeks of the season. The Bills have a 3-3 record and are locked into a division-wide tie for first in the AFC East. Another win today over Tennessee would leave Buffalo tied atop the division with either New England or the New York Jets going into the bye week.
Is it just me or is that difficult to fathom?
In Buffalo, it takes a dozen years to tear down a decrepit sports arena, a generation and counting to get a bridge built and several lifetimes to develop a waterfront. Our economy is a mess, our city schools need an overhaul and let’s not waste any time haggling over red tape and local politics.
One thing people in this region do know, at least the 35-over crowd that remembers the Super Bowl years, is the difference between good and bad football. The Bills fail to pass the eye test. If fact, they look more like one of the teams that missed the playoffs for a dozen straight years than a first-place team.
Buffalo is 31st in total defense, last against the run, second-last in points allowed, 21st in total offense, 29th in passing yards per game. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the 21st-rated passer in the league. The two games against New England and San Francisco were pitiful. The win over Arizona easily could have gone the other way.
And yet they’re tied atop the division. Amazing.
“There are different ways to look at all kinds of different stats," defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “The main thing is, I don’t care what you’re giving up as long as you’re winning. The last two out of three, we haven’t [won]. It really doesn’t matter. Winning cures everything."
The Bills could, and should, win today in Ralph Wilson Stadium and slide into the bye week with a 4-3 record. The Titans actually have been worse than the Bills this season. Tennessee is ranked in the bottom third in almost every meaningful statistic on offense and defense. It’s first in punting and punt returns.
Tennessee (2-4) has struggled for most of the season. Its two wins came over Detroit and Pittsburgh, both of which have underperformed based on preseason predictions. Both victories came by a field goal. The Titans have been dreadful in defeat, losing to New England, San Diego, Houston and Minnesota by an average of 24 points.
In a conference in which only two teams have winning records, including the AFC South-leading Texans (5-1), Tennessee is somehow in the hunt for a playoff spot. The Titans are yet another example of how mediocrity or worse is darned near good enough in the NFL.
“A lot of it doesn’t make sense," coach Mike Munchak said. “One team beats another team and then loses badly to another team. You try to figure it all out. I think that’s the fun part for the fan bases. I’m sure the people of Buffalo say, ‘We’re 3-3,’ and they’re in first place. We’re 2-4 and a game out of the conversation for maybe a wild card."
Matt Hasselbeck, in his 14th season, will start today for the Titans in place of injured Jake Locker. Hasselbeck is nowhere near his prime, when he was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and led Seattle to the Super Bowl in 2005. Still, he threw for 290 yards and led the Titans on two scoring drives in the final 4:19 last week to beat Pittsburgh.
The Bills’ defense, which showed up in Arizona after being MIA in back-to-back games, should have an easier time this week. Hasselbeck has been sacked eight times and thrown four interceptions in limited action. At age 37, he’s not expected to run wild into the secondary the way Kevin Kolb did last week.
Buffalo would be wise to stick with that time-tested formula, which calls for running effectively and stopping the run. The Bills are more effective running the ball even though the NFL is a passing league. The Titans’ best weapon is running back Chris Johnson, who ran for 153 yards in a 23-17 win over Buffalo last season.
If the Bills become the fifth team this season to hold him to less than 25 yards rushing, they will win the game. Wait, they should win the game.
Of course, it comes with the assumption that Bills coach Chan Gailey will adhere to a responsible game plan rather than a bunch of Mularkey. Last week, Gailey sabotaged an effective running game with ill-advised pass plays, punted when he should have kicked and had a backup wide receiver throwing deep when he should have, well, called any play other than the backup wide receiver throwing deep.
Yes, now I remember.
It explains why, for three days, it seemed like a loss.