We Want Marangi: First Place, For Now
by Dave Staba (@DavidStaba) - posted 12:05 pm, October 7, 2014
It took the longest game-winning field goal in Buffalo’s football history, made possible by one of the worst days ever by any modern National Football League kicker.
And another stifling performance by the best run defense the Bills have mounted since the last time they made the playoffs, 15 years ago, an effort eased by an opponent lacking its top three running backs for most of the day.
And the team’s first quarterback to take the field wearing a pure mustache since this blog’s namesake spending much of his debut producing results remarkably similar to his immediate predecessors before hitting on a few big throws at the end.
Each element was required for an improbable 17-14 win over Detroit that leaves Buffalo in an uncustomary position — sharing first place in the AFC East with their co-occupants coming to town on Sunday.
(Facial-hair note: Ryan Fitzpatrick wore an increasingly full beard through most of his stint in Buffalo. Early 1980s backup David Humm had upper-lip growth appropriate to the era, but thankfully never started a game for the Bills. You have to go back to We Want Marangi’s patron saint to find the last Bills starting quarterback to take the field looking like he just stepped out a men’s clothing ad from 1974 before Orton on Sunday. And since Gary Marangi was 0-for-7 as Buffalo’s starter, you could certainly make the case that Orton is already the greatest mustachioed quarterback the Bills have ever had.)
Dan Carpenter’s 58-yard field goal with four seconds remaining capped the slow-motion comeback, giving the Bills their only lead of the day, as well as a 3-2 record with New England due for its annual visit to Orchard Park.
Carpenter’s game-winner was the second-longest in franchise history to Steve Christie’s first-half-ending 59-yarder in 1993. He probably never would have had the chance if his Lions counterpart, Alex Henery, could have managed to make even one of the three shorter kicks he botched, the last just 40 seconds earlier.
The single biggest play came on the snap following what may well be Henery’s final attempt as a professional (he was cut by the Lions on Monday), when new Buffalo quarterback Kyle Orton — in his first outing since replacing E.J. Manuel — threw a little too quickly and slightly behind Sammy Watkins. The rookie showed that he may well be worth at least one of the two first-round picks the Bills gave up to get him by doing this:
The Lions would reach Buffalo’s end of the field just twice more the rest of the way, thanks to a Buffalo defense anchored by Marcell Dareus, the third overall pick in 2011. Despite the absence of Kyle Williams at the other tackle, the mammoth tackle terrorized the Lions by sacking Matthew Stafford three times, snuffing two runs behind the line and generally disrupting whatever game plan Detroit had in mind.
Future Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush both departed after early injuries, leaving Stafford with Golden Tate as his only viable weapon. That was almost enough, as they connected seven times for 134 yards, including a 55-yard catch-and-run with a minute left to set up Henery’s game-loser.
The rest of the Lions produced a total of 129 yards, while succeeding just once on third down in 11 tries.
With Orton looking very much like a quarterback who took the spring and summer off before signing with Buffalo days before the regular season opener, the Bills weren’t any better for the first three quarters.
C.J. Spiller’s trademark lateral moves against the league’s top-ranked defense yielded all of seven yards on nine carries, and his whiff on blitzing linebacker Ashlee Palmer nearly got Orton hospitalized on Buffalo’s second series.
Fred Jackson could not do much more in the first half, but picked up 25 yards on five third-quarter touches as the Bills moved into field-goal range twice. Carpenter bonked an upright from 50 yards out on the first try, but hit from 25 with a minute to go in the third to pull Buffalo within a touchdown and two-point conversion.
To that point, Orton had shown little to justify the switch from Manuel. Besides locking in on Watkins on Mathis’s touchdown pick, his completions had been almost exclusively the sort of check-down dumps that got Buffalo’s top pick in 2013 benched and Ryan Fitzpatrick and his old-timey beard exiled to Tennessee, then Houston. After the Bills failed to get a snap off before the play clock expired in the first quarter, the television camera panned to Manuel, whose expression read, “I could do that.”
One of the biggest knocks on Manuel had been his ineffectiveness on third down, with the Bills going 5-for-16 in his last start, the previous week’s 23-17 loss in Houston. Through three quarters in Detroit, Orton’s offense was 2-for-11.
Just when Doug Marrone’s quarterbacking decision was looking increasingly irrelevant, though, Orton warmed up. He delivered a third-and-6 toss to Watkins, who twisted just beyond the marker. After hitting Robert Woods down the middle for 17 yards, Orton went for it all on third-and-10 and almost got it, dropping the ball perfectly into the hands of Marquise Goodwin for 42 yards.
After a flip to wide-open backup tight end Chris Gragg for Buffalo’s lone touchdown, Orton audibled out of a pass call, allowing Jackson to tie it up with a two-point conversion run through the middle.
The tenuous nature of the victory suggests one of two possibilities for Buffalo’s upcoming first-place showdown with New England, whose 43-17 evisceration of Cincinnati on Sunday night should put to rest any thought that the Patriots are not still the team to beat in the division.
Having beaten a playoff contender on the road, regardless of the aesthetics involved, could give Orton and the offense confidence that they are at least competent enough to avoid wasting dominant efforts by what is shaping up as a very special defense.
Or it will turn out to be as fluky as it looked and, despite everything that is new about these Bills, nothing has really changed.