- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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TORONTO -- We are entering the month of November and guess who's in first place in the AFC East?
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is the surprising Buffalo Bills (5-2).
Not only that, the offensive-minded Bills are starting to get improved play from their much-maligned defense near the midpoint of the season. That is a scary proposition.
What also is scary is the way the Bills played on Sunday. The Bills exploded out of their bye week, pummeling the Washington Redskins 23-0 in one of their most complete games of the season. Buffalo is back in first place via the head-to-head tiebreaker over the New England Patriots (5-2), who lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bills went against every defensive trend it had this season against Washington (3-4).
Buffalo was the 31st-ranked defense entering Week 8, but held Washington to 178 yards. The Bills allowed 24.5 points in the first six games, but pitched a shutout for the first time since Dec. 17, 2006. Buffalo was last in the NFL with four sacks but astoundingly had nine against Redskins quarterback John Beck. It was the second-most sacks for Buffalo in franchise history.
It's safe to assume the offense will be there for the Bills. Buffalo has scored at least 20 points in every game this season. But how scary can the Bills be if their defense plays this well in the second half of the season?
"We can be unstoppable," Bills defensive lineman Spencer Johnson (one sack, one blocked field goal) said. "Everybody knows what our offense is capable of. We showed what we can do as a defense when we prepare and play together."
Bills first-round pick Marcell Dareus, who had his best game as a pro with four tackles and 2.5 sacks, also felt confident about the direction of the defense.
"I think the sky is the limit," Dareus said. "A lot of people questioned us stopping the run, playing flat and [not] playing a whole game. I think this is the first complete game our team has played. I think it’s only the beginning."
The overall feeling in Buffalo's locker room was that the defense knew it had this kind of performance in them. The Bills didn't feel they were nearly as bad as their defensive numbers suggested.
Buffalo's ability to disrupt Beck with ease led to a snowball effect for Washington.
The Redskins' banged-up offensive line was dominated at the line of scrimmage. Washington couldn't get the running game going (26 yards) and couldn't protect Beck long enough to make plays downfield. Beck was sacked nine times by eight Buffalo defenders.
Some weeks Buffalo had been close to getting sacks but couldn't finish. This week the Bills made the most of their opportunities.
"That would be the biggest understatement of the year -- that was amazing to go get nine sacks against that team," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "They really worked hard at it during the bye week. ... I'll be honest with you, I didn't expect that."
Now, we have an interesting three-team race in the AFC East. The Bills (5-2), Patriots (5-2) and New York Jets (4-3) are all one game apart in the division. The AFC East is wide open and only two of these division teams most likely will make the playoffs.
Each team has its flaws. The Jets' weak link has been their inconsistency on offense, while New England and Buffalo have been up-and-down on defense.
That's why it was huge for Buffalo to put forth this defensive performance. The Bills at least put on film what they potentially can be on defense. It also provides much-needed momentum.
"As a group it feels like we are finally getting to the point where we’re together," Dareus said. "We've been trying to find that mold, that right fit at safety, corner, D-linemen up front. It's that good combination where we can really go out there and stop the run and get after the quarterback."
Beating a struggling Washington team was key for Buffalo. The Bills did themselves a great service by padding their record before a tough upcoming stretch.
The Bills will play three road games in November. But next week's home game against the Jets might be the biggest to date.
New York, which has won two in a row, also is playing great football. The Jets had two weeks to prepare. Therefore, expect coach Rex Ryan and Co. to throw everything they have at the Bills.
The first-place Bills put themselves in position to control their own destiny. Playing the Jets twice in November could turn out to be elimination games for one of them.
"New week is huge," Bills safety George Wilson said. "We're going back into the division, what we call 'two-fors.' By beating our division opponent, you essentially go up on them two games. So we have to continue to challenge, to be able to win our division so we're not having to depend on anybody."