Two pivotal plays in Buffalo’s partially electrified win over San Diego on Sunday showed why anything short of the Bills’ first playoff appearance of the millennium will be a crashing disappointment.
Trailing by four points with a little more than five minutes left in the first half, moments after the first balloon-forced blackout, an efficient drive following an unforced fumble by Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers had Buffalo two yards away from a touchdown.
(The Season Ticket coverage team would like to take this opportunity to categorically deny any involvement in the release of metallic-tailed helium balloons in the vicinity of Ralph Wilson Stadium, which team officials have blamed for the power outages that denied ticket holders their right to high-definition highlights on the stadium’s Jumbotron. Besides causing tremendous embarrassment to NYSEG, the mishap also triggered immeasurable cursing among local television viewers who had spent the morning trying to hook up archaic antennae, thanks to the stunningly dumb standoff between the local cable company and Buffalo’s CBS affiliate, only to lose their hard-won signal for extended periods twice. Like the power company, we’re blaming this one on the kids.)
The call sent in from the sideline was a run to Marshawn Lynch, a pretty safe call considering the second-year running back’s propensity for carrying opposing tacklers into the end zone.
But the recently concussed Trent Edwards displayed the acuity that makes him the fastest-developing quarterback in professional football, spotting Lee Evans in single coverage on the right side.
Edwards changed the play at the line and delivered the ball to Evans high and outside.
The throw itself would have been perfect, had Evans enjoyed the availability of both of his hands. Evans’ left was occupied fending off San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer’s mauling coverage, leaving only his right with which to haul in the ball.
And his helmet, that is. Evans clutched the ball to his head firmly enough for the officials to rule he had full control of it when he left the playing surface.
A remarkable athletic feat, to be sure, but more impressive was the acumen involved.
Edwards—who would go on to record the most-accurate passing day in team history, completing 25 of 30 throws—read the coverage, adjusted the play call and put the ball where only his receiver could catch it. Evans had the presence of mind to lock in on the ball while engaged in hand-to-hand combat with one of the game’s most physical cornerbacks, secure the reception with one hand and get both feet down inbounds.
The play that iced the Bills’ 23-14 win and secured sole possession of first place in the AFC East was equally cerebral.
After San Diego drove to within nine yards of reclaiming the lead with more than half the fourth quarter gone, Buffalo linebacker Kawika Mitchell anticipated the play perfectly, drifting to his left, just out of Rivers’ field of vision, then cutting off the throw before it reached its intended target, Chargers tight end Antonio Gates.
Having thwarted the other team’s scoring bid, Mitchell set about putting his own offense in better position, following his blockers on a 32-yard return that preceded an Edwards-directed drive to the 44-yard Rian Lindell field goal that closed out the scoring.
Both Edwards’ touchdown throw and Mitchell’s interception resulted from them making the right decision, as well as game-planning that put them in position to do so.
Starting the season 5-1 would be encouraging under any circumstances, particularly for a franchise that has a bleak recent history of starting dismally, then improving just enough to delude itself and its fans into postseason fantasies.
These Bills are beating quality teams—the Chargers were their third vanquished opponent who reached the playoffs a year ago—by out-thinking and out-coaching them, then following thought with action.
The next few months should be something to see, NYSEG and balloon launchers willing.
Dave Staba has covered the Bills since 1990. He welcomes e-mail at email@example.com. A full report on Sunday’s game will appear in the October 23 issue of Artvoice.