By Bucky Gleason
Looking back now doesn’t do much good because it’s probably too late to reverse the damage. The Bills have six games remaining, which isn’t likely enough for them to climb back into playoff contention. They’re left sifting through the rubble and grabbing anything of value before moving along.
For the most part, given their expectations and optimism back in July, it has been a disastrous season. Another loss to the Dolphins in a rare appearance on prime-time television would have invited 10 days of mounting frustration and second-guessing and, well, you know how it’s been around here for the past two months.
Suddenly, amid the debris, with the light shining just right, they stumbled across a jewel in a 19-14 victory over the Dolphins. And the closer you looked Thursday, the more it came into focus. Ten games into the season, the Bills’ defense played the way many expected when they opened the vault for Mario Williams.
The Bills are hardly fixed, but the victory Thursday pointed toward better days ahead. Then again, it couldn’t get much worse than the days behind them. Buffalo had lost four of five games, save an overtime win in Arizona. The Bills still haven’t beaten a team that currently has a winning record.
At least they gave reason to pause, to rethink where they could be going if enough falls into place, to consider how different their season could be if their defense showed up the way it did Thursday night.
The Bills gave up only 50 total yards in the first half, 75 through three quarters and 184 in the game. It was the much-maligned defense that showed them the way.
In the fourth quarter Thursday, after the Dolphins drove 81 yards for a touchdown but with the Bills still in command, you couldn’t shoo away thoughts about an inevitable collapse. Not until Bryan Scott’s interception with 41 seconds remaining could the sellout crowd draw a deep breath and start heading for the exits.
Perfect? No, it was far from perfect, but the Bills’ defense was better than it had been during any game this season. They allowed one scoring drive, which ended when rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill found Davone Bess for a 2-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. For the most part, a defense gashed all year swarmed to the ball.
At times, Williams showed he could be a dominant defensive end. He sacked Tannehill near the Miami goal line late in the first half after running over rookie tackle Jonathan Martin. You can bemoan the fact Williams has only picked on rookies this season, but at least he’s picking on someone.
Shawne Merriman surfaced for a key sack late, just before the two-minute warning. Jairus Byrd made a diving interception a play later. The Dolphins were left needing to travel 84 yards for a touchdown in 84 seconds. They stumbled after Brian Hartline was called for offensive pass interference and Tannehill threw the final pick.
The Dolphins aren’t the Patriots, of course. Heck, they aren’t even the Jets.
Miami had the greater disadvantage Thursday night given the short week and being forced to travel to Buffalo. The Dolphins didn’t do their homework. If they did, they would have called more running plays before putting the game into the hands of their inexperienced quarterback.
Buffalo had some help from its special teams. Leodis McKelvin ran back a punt 79 yards for a touchdown. The Bills were in danger of giving the Dolphins a chance to come back in the final five minutes before Shawn Powell punted inside the 1-yard line. The only thing that could prevent victory was a colossal collapse on defense.
Buffalo held Miami to only 184 total yards in the game, most of which came in the fourth quarter after the Bills led by two possessions.
The Dolphins had only 60 yards rushing, a total that too often resembled the first quarter against Buffalo.
Chan Gailey can’t help but outsmart himself, of course.
The Bills already had a 7-0 lead on McKelvin’s punt return for a touchdown when they took the field on offense. Spiller picked up 4 yards on his first carry, 5 on his second. Gailey figured it was an ideal time to unleash the Wildcat. Tashard Choice was stopped for no gain, and the drive stalled.
Spiller gained 31 yards on his first seven carries, but it wasn’t enough for Gailey to call for a simple handoff on a third-and-1 play. Instead, he dialed up a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass that should have been returned for a touchdown. Fortunately, Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby has hands like feet. The Bills settled for a field goal.
Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll was the Bills’ best player on another drive in which he was whistled for two pass-interference penalties for 46 yards. The Bills kicked another field goal for a 16-7 lead. Gailey, in his infinite wisdom, had Spiller on the bench after the Bills had first-and-goal from the 4 just before halftime.
You could say the Bills won in spite of their coach. The defense shut down an opponent for the first time all season. Buffalo had allowed 46.5 points per game against its previous four division opponents going back to last year. Rather than revisit the details, let’s gloss over the season and say Buffalo has been horrific on defense this year.
And maybe it was just one night. Perhaps Williams will fade back into the backdrop, and the linebackers will disappear and the secondary will return to its previous form.
Finally, the Bills found something valuable.