If you didn’t watch the Bills comeback win against the Panthers on Sunday, you missed out on a game for the ages. After being down 23-17 with just over a minute and a half left in the fourth quarter and with no timeouts, quarterback EJ Manuel did something that Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kelly Holcomb or even Drew Bledsoe couldn’t do in their time in Buffalo: take a few risks to win the game. And he did it on his father’s birthday, too. Manuel led the team down the field and capped off an 80-yard drive by hooking up with wide receiver Stevie Johnson for a two-yard touchdown.
The past two weeks, Manuel has shown us that he can play in the NFL at an efficient level. If it wasn’t for that last drive the offense had against the Patriots in Week One, the Bills could be at 2-0 right now. In the first two weeks, Manuel has had only one interception and one fumble. The thing that I would like to see coach Doug Marrone utilize in the Bills offense a little bit more is Manuel’s ability to run the football out of the pocket, and to throw a couple of deep passes here and there because I believe he has the ability to do both of those things efficiently and successfully.
Another key element for this team has been running back C.J. Spiller. Spiller, who had more than 1,000 yards rushing last season, didn’t have the performance he wanted to have against the Patriots (9 carries for 41 yards), but he was able to bounce back with his 16-carry, 103-yard performance against the Panthers. In Week One, the offensive line didn’t give Spiller any holes to run through, but this week, they gave him some room and let him do his magic. If the offensive line can continue to give Spiller room and if he can continue to rack up the yardage he has been getting, Spiller could easily be a candidate for most valuable player.
When Spiller was out for those few games last season, the running game struggled, which put more pressure on former quarterback Fitzpatrick and the wide receivers to succeed. Fred Jackson, who has a lot more left in the tank than everyone thinks, was a nice replacement for Spiller, but I think that the running game is more efficient when he and Spiller share the carries. Comparing the two, Spiller is a speedy running back and is able to make quick cuts but sometimes loses some yards when he tries to do too much. But I like how Spiller doesn’t give up on the play either. Jackson on the other hand isn’t as fast as Spiller but is still one of the best third-down running backs in the league and is able to turn a third and 1 into another offensive possession. What I’d like to see is Marrone continue to use both Spiller and Jackson in passing schemes just like he did on Sunday (8 catches combined for 56 yards.) If they can continue to do that, Spiller and Jackson could become the best running back duo in the game. Let’s face it, which other team has an efficient running game from both running backs like the Buffalo Bills?
Another positive for the Bills is the production out of Johnson and Robert Woods. Johnson, who has had three straight seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards, had an amazing game against the Panthers with eight catches for 111 yards and the game-winning touchdown. To me, Johnson is a No. 1 wide receiver and should be getting more recognition from the national writers and the national stations, especially ESPN. (Just once, I would like to see ESPN not compare Manuel to Geno Smith of the Jets!) If he can continue to get the ball from Manuel, Johnson could reach nearly 1,500 receiving yards this season. Since Day One, I have been a fan of Woods, and it was great to see him get drafted by the Bills because he fits in perfectly with the offense. On Sunday, when they needed him, the University of Southern California alum turned a two-yard catch into a 15 or more yard catch. If Woods can continue to make those kind of plays, he could be another great element to the offense.
The Bills defense has improved immensely compared to last year. Mario Williams had 4.5 sacks against the Panthers, a single game record in franchise history, and Kiko Alonzo has been strong early on as the team’s middle linebacker. Alonzo is usually in the middle of the pile by either rushing the quarterback or making plays, including his nice interception early in Sunday’s game. The secondary also has been strong even with Jairus Byrd still on the sidelines with his foot injury as Leodis McKelvin, who recently signed a four-year extension, was able to lock down Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith in the second half Sunday. If defensive coordinator Mike Pettine can continue to get the defense to come up with big plays, and the front four of Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Alex Carrington can continue to rush the quarterback, the Bills can turn into a top 10 defense.
With all those things to consider, I think the Bills will make it to the Wild Card round and end the 13-year playoff curse. Looking at the rest of their schedule, the only bumps in the road I see for the team are the Ravens in Week 4 (at least on the offensive side, with Joe Flacco and his weapons, running back Ray Rice and wide receiver Torrey Smith, but Buffalo will come out with a win), Week 8 against Drew Brees and the Saints and Week 13 against the Falcons (it will be hard for the secondary to cover both Julio Jones and Roddy White). With that in mind, the Bills should go 13-3 on the season and win a Wild Card spot as the Patriots will somehow find a way to win the divisional title.
It’s going to be a fun season to watch, and as Chris Berman always says, “No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills!”
Joseph Kraus is a sophomore at North Tonawanda High School.