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From Dareus To The Donald: Two Months Of Ups And Downs

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With the Bills preparing to face equally 5-3 Kansas City in the first of a series of games against fellow AFC playoff aspirants, We Want Marangi presents its prestigious Half-Season Awards:

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER/DEFENSE: Last summer, the off-field misadventures of Marcell Dareus had fans and some media demanding the Bills cut ties with the third overall pick in the 2011 draft.

Good thing the Bills didn’t listen.

Turns out the massive defensive tackle’s pair of arrests — first for felony drug possession, then for drag-racing defensive end Jerry Hughes near Ralph Wilson Stadium — within a 19-day span, and subsequent entry into the league’s substance-abuse program, were not signs that Dareus was yet another disastrous Buffalo first-round selection, after all.

After showing flashes in his first two season and earning a Pro Bowl berth in his third, Dareus emerged as one of the NFL’s dominant interior linemen through the first eight games of 2014, leading a unit that has Buffalo leading the league in interceptions and sacks per game while largely stifling opposing running games.

Having recorded a career-high 7.5 sacks last year, he already has seven through eight games, as well as four stops of opposing runners for losses and a forced fumble. When not ending plays himself, he occupies multiple blockers and disrupts both run-blocking and pass-protection schemes, creating openings for the rest of Buffalo’s defensive front.

Playing next to Kyle Williams helps, but Dareus showed he can cause havoc all by himself, taking down Detroit’s Matthew Stafford three times with Williams sidelined by a knee injury, while blowing up the middle of the line on what seemed like every Lions run.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER/OFFENSE: Sammy Watkins gets this one over Kyle Orton, in part because Orton has started four of Buffalo’s eight games, and was pretty lousy for at least three-quarters of the first three.

Buffalo’s first-round pick in 2014 (and, in essence, 2015) had a decent first quarter of the season, despite dealing with bruised ribs and E.J. Manuel’s accuracy issues, but has fully weaponized since Orton took over, piling up 21 catches for 393 yards and three touchdowns over the last month, including the game-winning score against Minnesota and a pair of morale-shattering bombs in Buffalo’s 43-23 destruction of the New York Jets.

Those numbers would be even more impressive if offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett had not apparently forgotten Watkins was on the roster during the lone loss during that stretch, the 37-22 hammering by New England. Or if Watkins had not gotten a little carried away on what should have been an 89-yard touchdown against the Jets.

No question, the veteran quarterback has helped make the rookie receiver better, but the reverse is also true.

LEAST VALUABLE PLAYER/OFFENSE: Name an offensive lineman. Any offensive lineman.

When Cordy Glenn is your best linemen, you have problems. Two 2014 draft choices, left guard Cyril Richardson and right tackle Seantrel Henderson, have looked lost. Veteran guards Erik Pears and Kraig Urbik have looked shot. Center Eric Woods may have been marginally better, but it’s pretty tough to tell with all the chaos around him.

Marrone says another rookie, second-round selection Cyrus Kouandijo, may join the rotation at guard. The young blockers should get better the longer they work together, particularly given Marrone’s reputation as an offensive line coach.

It’s unpleasant to imagine them getting much worse.

LEAST VALUABLE PLAYER/DEFENSE: Tough choice given how well the defense has performed and the lack of a consistently weak link, but Duke Williams’ unprovoked assault in lieu of pass coverage on New England’s Julian Edelman deserves special recognition.

The worst part of the infraction that set up the Patriots’ first touchdown was not the two-handed shove, though that was both pretty bad. The worst part was that the penalty was totally unnecessary, as he was in good position to at least deflect Tom Brady’s pass, had he simply turned and looked for the ball.

Williams has made some nice special-teams stops, but clinched the LVP/D award later in the same game by getting himself totally lost on both of Brandon LaFell’s fourth-quarter touchdown catches, the second of which sealed the game for New England.

BEST WIN: It may not have been a complete aesthetic success, and it came against a team actively disintegrating, but a 6-0 turnover advantage, four touchdown passes in 10 completions by Kyle Orton and Watkins’ 157 yards on three catches added up to a 43-23 win against the Jets, sending the Bills into their bye week at 5-3 and preserving the chance to make the second half of a season mean something for a change.

WORST LOSS: Manuel’s confused performance in Houston not only derailed his professional career, it cost Buffalo a game it should have won and could really use heading down the stretch.

Other than J.C. Watt’s usual transcendent afternoon, the Texans were terrible. But Manuel’s afternoon, particularly his game-turning misfire to Watt, made Ryan Fitzpatrick look halfway decent by comparison.

Subsequent events have proven otherwise. The 4-5 Texans at long last became the fifth NFL team to realize the immensely likable Fitzpatrick simply is not good enough earlier this week, benching him for longtime Tom Brady caddy Ryan Mallett.

BEST LOSS: None of the three have been what even someone who believes in such things would call a moral victory. But the Bills started strong against New England and should have been up by a couple of scores at halftime, but for a couple of Orton turnovers.

Of course, that was the game in which the Patriots became self-aware and began laying waste to the rest of the league, so past performance is no guarantee that the Bills can hang with them for even two quarters when they visit Foxborough in the season finale.

WORST WIN: Tough one. Neither the Lions or Vikings games were particularly pleasant to watch for the first 58 minutes of game time or so, and both should have been much more comfortable scores than 17-14 and 17-16, respectively, given the state of the opponents involved.

The survival against Minnesota gets the nod, though, because Buffalo lost C.J. Spiller for the season and Fred Jackson for at least a month.

BEST PLAY: Dan Carpenter kicked the longest game-winning field goal in team history to beat Detroit.

Spiller’s 102-yard kickoff return broke open the win against the Dolphins.

And Fred Jackson’s 39-yard romp through and over the Bears set up Carpenter’s overtime winner in the season opener.

Orton’s 28-yard throw to a leaping Chris Hogan at the Minnesota 2-yard line, setting up the decisive slant pass to Watkins, takes the honors, though. If not for that play (and the Orton-to-Carpenter fourth-and-20 conversion moments earlier), the Bills would have lost to a team with a struggling rookie quarterback and without its franchise running back. At home. And this post would certainly have a more cynical flavor.

WORST PLAY: How could E.J. not have seen J.J.?

BEST OFF-FIELD DEVELOPMENT: Terry and Kim Pegula’s purchase of the Bills from the estate of Ralph Wilson spared everyone additional years of speculation about the team’s future in Western New York.

It also returned Jon Bon Jovi and Donald Trump to their rightful place as C-list celebutantes to be mocked and scorned, rather than carpetbagging vultures to be feared and loathed.