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Bills Overcome Themselves, Outlast Vikings

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Too bad somebody had to win.

Yes, Buffalo did finally lull Minnesota into a 17-16 final on Sunday, keeping them in second place in the AFC East for at least one more week.

And, yes, for the second time in three starts since replacing E.J. Manuel, Kyle Orton directed the Bills to the decisive points in the final seconds.

But, geez. If ever a tie would have been the just and proper outcome of a football game, this was it. I’ve seen or heard just about every Bills game since 1975, and I can’t remember one in which they played worse for longer, and still won.

Even the final Buffalo possession — it feels wrong to call a series involving two sacks and two offensive penalties a “drive” — looked like something patched together at the end of an exhibition game.

Somehow, thanks to Orton catching the Vikings in disarray on fourth-and-20, along with redemptive efforts by Scott Carpenter and Chris Hogan, as well as the emerging brilliance of Sammy Watkins, the Bills managed to cover the 105 yards they required of themselves.

Before the last three minutes, Buffalo’s biggest offensive play ended with C.J. Spiller writhing in agony, his collarbone broken and his season, along with his Bills career, likely over.

Before the last three minutes, facing a defense ranked in the NFL’s bottom half against both the run and pass, the Bills could not keep the ball for more than six plays at a time, with four possessions ending in turnovers.

Before the last three minutes, Orton had completed 23 of 31 passes, but for just 183 yards — a highly non-threatening 7.9 yards per completion. Even with those 105 yards at the end, the Bills averaged 5.2 per pass play when factoring in sack yardage. For the season, the Jets rank last in that category — at 5.8 per attempt

Before the last three minutes, disarray along Buffalo’s offensive line — compounded by the absence of Fred Jackson, lost with a groin injury three series before Spiller went down — led to four sacks of Orton.

(Note: It does not help that the 10-year veteran shows a faint awareness of the pass rush and no ability to escape it when he does notice. I’m trying to think of a less-mobile Buffalo quarterback. Jim Kelly in his final season? Vince Ferragamo?)

On the scoreboard and in the standings, of course, those final 180 seconds of game time are all that really matter. As for the rest of the schedule, the Bills have plenty of problems to fix in order to keep the next 10 weeks from looking remarkably like the last 14 years.

As Doug Marrone said of his team’s mistakes during an appropriately glum post-game press conference, “The list goes on and on.”

— Buffalo’s run defense, the league’s stingiest entering the day, gave up 158 yards — more than double its previous average. Even more troubling, Minnesota’s Jerick McKinnon gained more than half his game-high 103 yards after bouncing off the first Bills defender to hit him.

— Even the least-talented offensive lines tend to get better over time, with improving unit cohesiveness compensating for a lack of individual dominance. Not so with Buffalo. Besides collapsing repeatedly around Orton, the Bills did not exactly shred Minnesota on the ground. Otherwise-banished wide receiver Mike Williams delivered the key block on Spiller’s 53-yard run. Buffalo’s runners managed all of 65 yards on 18 attempts. Not to belabor the point, but this was against the Vikings.

— The Bills committed four turnovers and permitted six sacks in total, the first time they have won despite hitting those milestones since a 37-35 win against Indianapolis in 1997. (OK, now I recall a game in which they played as badly as they did Sunday and still won. The Todd Collins-era Bills fell behind 26-0 at home to the pre-Manning Colts, then staged perhaps the least-riveting comeback in NFL history.)

— So other than blocking and tackling, protecting the football and avoiding penalties (getting nabbed with 12 men on the field is never recommended, but doing so on fourth-and-1 is an especially bad look), the Bills looked terrific.

Of course, there were enough positives to produce one more point than a team whose quarterback looked to be about 12 years old while wearing a purple toque during second-half sideline shots.

The passing-game plan finally centered around Watkins, whose nine-catch, 122-yard, both-Buffalo-touchdowns performance showed why general manager Doug Whaley was willing to spend two first-round picks to land him. Watkins’ break-out day helped create space on the final drive for Scott Chandler, whose grab on fourth-and-20 atoned for a drop on the previous play, and Hogan, who made up for his first-quarter fumble with the catch that made Watkins’ game-winner possible.

The defensive line was again the best unit put on the field by either team, with three of the four starters recording sacks, led by two from Marcell Dareus and 1.5 by Jerry Hughes. The biggest came early in the fourth quarter, when each got to rookie Teddy Bridgewater on consecutive plays after the Vikings had earned a first down at Buffalo’s 7-yard line, limiting Minnesota to a field goal that kept it a one-score game.

Orton’s late-game antics (again, “heroics” seems way too strong a word here) have Buffalo at 4-3 heading into Sunday’s trip to to play the 1-6 Jets.

The Bills have attained such mediocrity four times during their 14-year playoff-free skid, getting to 4-3 or better at this point during the 2002, ’03, ’08 and ’11 seasons. Having conjured visions of potential postseason runs, those four teams promptly disintegrated, going a combined 6-28 from their respective high-water marks.

This edition looks perfectly capable of doing the same, even with the second of six straight games against teams possessing worse records ahead Sunday in New Jersey. Winning by scoring 17 points, which Buffalo has managed twice in three weeks, is not a sustainable route to success in today’s NFL (last season’s four conference finalists won a total of two games while posting 17 or fewer).

Of course, it is also possible that succeeding despite themselves for the second time in three weeks will imbue Orton — who has now been in Buffalo for nearly two months and will be making his fourth start in New Jersey — and the rest of the Bills with improved self-esteem, and that Watkins’ emergence as a game-changing force will offset the loss of Jackson and Spiller, while the defense and special teams continue to do their parts.

In the historically unlikely event all of that happens, it may even start to look and feel like they deserve their victories.

  • Sean Danvers

    A word to Kyle Orton – There’s this thing called a forward pass, where you throw the ball ahead of you and not to the side. When properly executed, it can result in gains exceeding 4 yards! Whoa!!

    I fear the Jets are going to beat the Bills like a gong. Even if they don’t, the schedule doesn’t get much prettier from here on out.

  • UncleBluck

    The Bills are not the only mediocre team this year. Just look at the stats. There is a LOT of parody in the league this year as most teams are mediocre….most of the teams with winning records have only beat “mediocre” teams. By the way the Bills are 3-0 against the NFC north this year….