We can all agree that Buffalo’s 18-10 win over the 0-7 Jets Sunday at the Meadowlands was less than impressive.
However, there’s also no denying that in improving to 5-2, “quality” of that triumph be damned, the Bills’ playoff hopes got a major boost starting a week ago today.
That’s when Dolphins coach Brian Flores opted to bench veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, playing some of the best football of his career, in favor of rookie first-round draft choice Tua Tagovailoa commencing with Sunday’s game against the Rams at Miami Gardens.
Forget the fact Los Angeles has the NFL’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, who will be in Tua’s grill all afternoon. He owns 80 career sacks barely into his eighth season, 7.5 of those this year, plus two forced fumbles heading into last night’s game against the Bears in L.A. And the Rams ranked third in fewest points and sixth in least yards surrendered before hosting Chicago.
The point is, that’s a heavy lift for a first-year QB.
Worse is the fact that “Fitz,” just short of his 38th birthday, had steered the Dolphins to a 3-3 record, and in this coronavirus-altered campaign, with seven teams making the playoffs from each conference, an 8-8 team grabbing the third wild-card spot is hardly out of the question.
Fitzpartick, beloved in the Miami locker room as he was in Buffalo and his other six NFL stops over a 16-year career, is the antithesis of a complainer. But, after he was demoted, the Harvard alum admitted to reporters his “heart was broken.”
“Fitz” maintained he was a “place-holder” when Tua was drafted, but it’s unlikely he expected to be benched in the midst of raising the Dolphins to respectability.
That said, though bad news for him, it’s encouraging to the Bills and their fans.
Projecting Tua to immediately step in and play at Fitzpatrick’s level or above is a stretch, meaning the decision likely severely dampens Miami’s postseason hopes.
THE OTHER good news for Buffalo is the Patriots’ stumble from the gate.
After winning two of its first three games, New England has dropped the last three, two of them at home — 18-12 to Denver and a 33-6 pasting by San Francisco — preceded by a 26-10 defeat at Kansas City.
At 2-4, it’s the Pats’ worst start since 2000, when they opened 0-4 in coach Bill Belichick’s first season en route to a 5-11 finish.
The Bills host New England Sunday, and the Patriots figure to be playing with desperation. But if Buffalo wins, facing a brutal second-half schedule, it’s at least assured of a split with Belichick’s crew.
After that, Seattle (5-1) pays a visit to Bills Stadium, followed by a trip to Arizona (5-2), back home with the Chargers (2-4), at rejuvenated San Francisco (4-3), a hosting of Pittsburgh (6-0), at Denver (2-4) and New England and the season finale against Miami in Orchard Park.
In short, from Buffalo’s standpoint, it’s a perfect time for the Dolphins to audition a rookie quarterback and the Patriots to lose their swagger.
THAT SAID, Bills fans might want to stifle their assessment that the team has rediscovered its defensive mojo based on Sunday.
Clearly, holding the Jets to four (yes, 4) yards in the second half was a noteworthy performance. But, you’re talking about the NFL’s worst team record-wise and in both fewest points scored (12 per game) and yards gained (264).
But, in the first half, New York showed the Bills’ vulnerability to the run. Frank Gore, who played for Buffalo last season and is now 37, looked like the second coming of Adrian Peterson with eight carries for 46 yards. Rookie La’Mical Perine added 55 yards on 11 tries.
Thus, in the first half, the Jets totaled 101 yards on the ground on over five per carry, though that was corrected after intermission as New York mustered minus-2 yards on three carries.
Still, Buffalo is searching for the key to stopping opposing running games. Obviously, injuries to middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (shoulder) and outside backer Matt Milano (hamstring/pectoral), causing them to miss time, hasn’t helped. And it’s hard not to notice that 2018 third-round draft choice Harrison Phillips has been inactive the last two games, replaced at defensive tackle by free agent Justin Zimmer.
No matter, we have to see more than a half of inspired defense against an NFL bottom-feeder before we can conclude that the Bills’ ‘D’ has returned to 2019 form.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)