ORCHARD PARK — The numbers are appalling.
Five games into the season, the Bills are surrendering an average of 421 yards a game ... one of the worst totals in the league.
Heading into Sunday’s game with Philadelphia and Michael Vick, the NFL’s most elusive quarterback, the feeling was that the Eagles would put up 500 yards against Buffalo.
They didn’t, of course.
The Bills held Vick & Company to 489.
Over the last four games Buffalo hasn’t surrendered under 454 yards and is giving up an average of 474 in that span.
And, oh yeah, the Bills, after holding off Philadelphia 31-24 at “The Ralph,” are 4-1 and tied for the best record in the AFC.
So how does that happen?
Well, Buffalo’s once puny offense — averaging over 20 points only once in the past six seasons — is scoring 33 a game, third-best in the NFL pending Detroit’s performance tonight.
But there’s another factor.
In five games, the Bills have a league-leading 16 takeaways — 12 interceptions, four fumble recoveries — and only Baltimore, third in fewest yards surrendered but with a bye this week, has a better average per game.
At this rate — three-plus per start — Buffalo would have 51 on the season. By contrast, last year, the Bills generated only 22 turnovers.
YESTERDAY, they intercepted Vick four times — two on tipped balls — the exact numbers they had against Tom Brady in the upset of New England two weeks ago.
The Bills — free safety Jairus Byrd, specifically — also tore the ball away from Eagles’ wide receiver Jason Avant, for a fumble recovery.
Two of the interceptions — one returned 31 yards for a touchdown — went to Buffalo linebacker Nick Barnett.
He admitted, “We’re giving up too many yards as a defense. The one plus is that we are causing a lot of turnovers and we’re getting after that ball. We’re going to continue to work and try to fix the mistakes that we’re making and the things that are giving up those big plays (Philadelphia had 10 of 15 yards or longer).
“But we keep pulling up that ball (taking it away) and we’re going to win some games ... guys are doing a good job making plays on the ball.”
Sunday’s five takeaways produced 17 points.
AND, A YEAR after opening the season with eight straight losses, Buffalo is 4-1 and one of the NFL’s unexpected feel-good stories.
“We’re putting ourselves in a tremendous opportunity ... that’s all it is,” said running back Fred Jackson. “It’s still early. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to be. We’re happy where we are right now, but we’re not going to settle.”
Strong safety George Wilson, who had an interception in a third straight game, a game-high 11 solo tackles plus three defensed passes, noted, “We started 0-8 a year ago. To come here and work eight straight weeks and not see any rewards for your time and effort, that’s a hard thing to take. I remember that vividly ... when nobody talked about us, everyone expected to win against us. And we helped them by beating up on ourselves with turnovers, penalties, faulty plays on defense, not getting off the field on third down and not converting first downs.
“We had to sit with our record for almost eight months. We couldn’t wait to go back to work early (but) we had to take this all through the spring and the summer. When we got back to training camp, the first thing (coach Chan Gailey) said to us was. ‘Expect more of yourself, demand more of yourself and let’s be accountable.’”
AND DESPITE the fast start, the Bills haven’t convinced many NFL observers.
“We were a 3-1 team and a home dog against a 1-3 team, “an incredulous center Eric Wood said of Sunday’s game. “It’s not something you put a lot of stock into, but you talk about it and it ticks you off.
“Keep picking us to lose ... that keeps the chip on our shoulder. We don’t need to be the media darling that we were two weeks ago before we lost.”
He added, “We’re 4-1 now and people will probably be all over us again. (But)) people are quick to write us off. If we had a big-name guy like Tom Brady it wouldn’t be as easy. But we’ve got some talented players and a great quarterback to go behind and we like our chances.”
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)