It may not have been perfect, but it was still a win for Buffalo.
Thursday night at a chilly Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills welcomed in longtime rivals, the Miami Dolphins, and came away with their first victory in the division this year, 19-14, stopping a three-game losing streak and putting Buffalo in a tie with said Dolphins in the AFC East.
It didn’t scream, “We’re back!” with any authority.
It didn’t instantly assuage all the fears Bills fans have had about their supposed playoff-caliber team. It didn’t even get them above .500 (they’re now 4-6), but Buffalo at least got to chalk one up in the win column.
It’s about time.
Sure, there was some bad last night. Really bad. First, Buffalo didn’t score an offensive touchdown, as Leodis McKelvin’s punt return stood as the lone trip in to the end zone for the Bills. In fact, they were also 0-4 on red zone trips, 2-12 on third down, and just couldn’t seem to stop committing stupid penalties en masse, getting 10 for 100 yards just a week after getting penalized 14 times for 148 yards at New England.
Bad? Yes, but the sellout crowd of surprisingly rabid Bills fans got a little dose of feel-goods Thursday night when Buffalo displayed some of the truly dominant aspects of their team in areas many were patiently longing to see explode since the preseason, or even before (we’ll get to Spiller).
To begin with the obvious, I’d like to personally welcome Mario Williams and the Bills’ new look, 4-3 defense to the season. Sure, it’s Week 11 and you’ve been in the bottom five in nearly every defensive category to this point, but after the performance Thursday night, it was nice to see that what looked good on paper could also look good on the field.
This was, no question, Buffalo’s best defensive performance of the year, perhaps in the Chan Gailey era. Granted, Miami wasn’t setting offensive records with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill this season, but he’d had some nice games against St Louis and Indianapolis.
Similarly, runners Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas seemed a solid one-two punch for the Dolphins, with a combined 10 TDs on the year. Even fourth-year receiver Brian Hartline is playing decently, on pace for his first 1000-yard season in the NFL.
Now add in that, since their last playoff appearance in 1999, the Bills have been 11-13 against the Dolphins and are just 1-3 in the Chan Gailey era. In two games last season, Miami beat Buffalo a combined 65-31 and, just a few weeks ago, they were second in the AFC East at 4-3 heading into a fantastic showdown with the Colts.
Two losses later and that same overblown Dolphins team that was so recently thinking Wild Card were just dominated by one of the NFL’s worst defenses, the Buffalo Bills.
As a team, the Bills’ defense held a Miami team that was averaging just over 100 yards rushing per game to a lowly 60, containing Bush to the tune of just 22 yards on 10 carries and Thomas to 33 on 12 attempts. The Dolphins’ passing game didn’t fare much better, as Tannehill only managed 141 yards through the air and, in fact, only had one decent drive the whole night against Buffalo’s swarming pressure.
Miami’s rookie quarterback looked rattled and rushed the whole night, went down three times, and gave up two key interceptions in the fourth to essentially hand Buffalo the win when their offense sputtered.
Individually, the entire front four for the Bills played inspired, maniac defense. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus owned the middle, Super Mario got one of those three sacks on one side, while Shawne Merriman and Kyle Moore each got one on the other side, as both played extremely well in relief of the injured Mark Anderson and Chris Kelsay.
The Bills also grabbed three turnovers, with two alone by Jarius Byrd, who had a head’s up fumble recovery early in the first quarter and then the play of the game with his diving interception late in the fourth to seal the win.
Though the front four played exceptionally as a unit, the ball-hawking Byrd was the standout performance of the night, adding two tackles and ending up as the clear MVP on a great defensive night.
Again, it’s about time.
The Dolphins managed just 184 total yards, were 3-10 on third downs, and had the ball a measly 24:57. Dave Wannstedt may not have his unit playing like advertised quite yet, but this was the most promising step Queen City residents have seen all year, well above their 30-ish rankings across almost all categories in 2012.
On the offensive side of things, the best thing you can say is that C.J. Spiller has shown he’s the definite future of the Bills running attack and can more than handle the full workload of a starting NFL back. Though he didn’t score any TDs on the night and was sorely underused on third downs, as Gailey opted for a bonehead Wildcat with Tashard Choice one time and an empty backfield on 3rd and 1 in another instance (both failures), Spiller was consistently explosive and looked just one step away from breaking off a huge gainer the whole night.
Spiller gained a combined 130 yards on 25 touches Thursday, 91 of it on the ground. It was very similar to his performance last season against Miami, when he also broke off 91 yards rushing as well, though the difference was in that he added two scores on that day in the loss, but was held scoreless in the win this year.
The Dolphins’ ninth ranked rushing defense looked much more like the Buffalo Bills’ 31st ranked unit Thursday (and vice versa), as they had to do all they could to keep Spiller contained and just barely did that. C.J. averaged 4.1 yards per carry, 13 yards per reception, and was the only true consistency on a quiet offensive night for Buffalo.
Not to take a single thing away from kicker Rian Lindell, who had Buffalo’s only offensive points in the game, hitting all four field goals (including a 42-yarder) when the team proved unable to get six in the red zone on those trips inside the 20.
Also, you have to be encouraged by Buffalo’s zero turnovers (the second time they’ve done that all season), but other than that, the offense looked plain and adequate, still not showing they can score late in the game when it matters.
Gailey will need to work on those play calls on this long week off; they’ve become too conservative and need to start utilize their strengths on the field (i.e. lean on the run).
Put simply, this was a division win, one which the defense finally showed up for and one that saw the Bills’ running game looks even stronger with Spiller leading the way rather than sharing the load with Fred Jackson.
Sure, the wasted red zone trips and third downs are concerning, but this was a win fans can find a little solace in after a season of unmet expectations.
Now we wait ten days to see if the feel-good story of the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts, can be the start of a win streak next Sunday when the welcome the Bills.
At least it’ll ten days Bills fans can finally enjoy…
Joshua Bauer is a writer with Football Nation