ORCHARD PARK — The odds-makers see this as a closer game than many of the fans do.
When the Ravens (2-1) invade “The Ralph” this afternoon to face the Bills (1-2), Baltimore is a mere 3-point favorite (WIVB-TV, WROC-TV, 95.7 FM, 100,1 FM, 101.9 FM, 550 AM, 1 o’clock).
It’s an odd spread for the defending Super Bowl champion meeting a franchise that has been absent from the NFL playoffs for 13 years.
Yeah, the Ravens have lost eight starters from that Lombardi Trophy-winning team (six to free agency, two to retirement), were destroyed, 49-27, in the opener at Denver, and have made All-Pro running back Ray Rice (hip flexor) a game-time decision.
But the Bills are starting a rookie quarterback in his fourth game as a pro and their vulnerable secondary looks like an ad for Blue Cross & Blue Shield.
Still, Buffalo’s biggest problem has been persistently losing the time-of-possession battle by wide margins, due to an inability to generate time-consuming drives.
In losses to New England and the Jets, and a last-second victory over Carolina, the Bills lost the time-of-possession edge by 15 1/2, 8 1/2 and 7 1/2 minutes, respectively.
And much of that blame falls on Buffalo’s running game, which ranks fifth in the league in yardage, but via a very misleading number.
The Bills are averaging 135 rushing yards per game, but if you take out a 59-yard run by Fred Jackson and a 46-yarder by C.J. Spiller, Buffalo is averaging a mere 3.3 yards per carry.
And while new coach Doug Marrone is a bit defensive about that stat — “If I’m not mistaken we’re fifth in rushing yards (405) and eighth in rushing average (4.4 per carry)” — he concedes there are too many carries for zero or negative yards.
“I don’t disagree with that,” he admitted. “I would disagree with the overall thing because (the yards) all count. But we do have to be more consistent. We have to do a better job of running ... do a better job up front.
“We have to do a better job of game-planning strategically, getting more looks, running the ball more.”
And quarterback EJ Manuel, who got an inordinate amount of blame for last Sunday’s 27-20 loss to the Jets, despite being sacked eight times and hit on 16 other occasions while trying to throw, agreed.
“We continue to stress in our offensive meetings, ‘We have to get this running game rolling and make it more consistent,’” he said. “Its inconsistent (now). I think once that gets on the ball with everything else, we’ll start to roll more as an offense, start to get more of those third-down plays. Instead of being 3rd-and-8 and 3rd-and-9, it will be 3rd-and-2, which is a lot more manageable.”
BUT WHILE that might be true, Buffalo’s real problem has been on the other side of the ball.
Even there, though, Manuel and his offense take a share of the blame.
“Our offense moves very fast, but if you don’t get the first downs and you’re going three-and-out, that definitely hurts the defense,” he said. “You don’t want those guys out there. You don’t want teams getting a ton of possession to win that battle by eight or 10 minutes a game.”
The Bills are surrendering 155 yards per game on the ground ... tied for 30th worst in the league and face a Ravens team ranked 25th in rushing with Rice hampered.
But the real concern is Buffalo’s injury-plagued secondary.
The Bills do get a bit of a break in that Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has been without three key pass catchers, Rice, wideout Jacoby Jones (out with a knee) and tight end Dennis Pitta (hip, temporary injured reserve), which is why the Ravens rank 30th in total offense.
However, Flacco and leading receiver Torrey Smith will go up against a Buffalo defensive backfield with no starters playing where they were envisioned in training camp.
Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo’s top cornerback, broke a wrist in preseason and isn’t yet ready to return, his place taken by Justin Rogers, who was burned for two long TD passes against the Jets.
Leodis McKelvin, the starter on the other side, tweaked a hamstring against New York, and will be a game-time decision. If he can’t go, Aaron Williams, a former cornerback who performed so poorly his first two years he was moved to strong safety, will go back to his old position.
Itinerant Jim Leonhard, in his second stint with Buffalo, would then take Williams spot at strong safety.
And, finally, free safety Jairus Byrd, who refused to sign his “franchise player” contract until late in preseason, is still nursing issues with both feet and is also a game-time decision. Da’Norris Searcy has been playing in his place.
In addition, nickel back Ron Brooks still has foot problems, likely making rookie Nickell Robey the extra defensive back.
And while McKelvin and Byrd could play today, the nature of their position puts an enormous amount of emphasis on healthy legs and feet.
“Part of my strength is my speed, so what would you do?” McKelvin asked. “Would you put yourself out there without being able to go 100 percent, especially with what you do is be able to run fast and be cover people?
“You have to watch it very closely, especially with your hamstrings. (But) I’m going to work my behind off to get back out there.”