Bills quietly turn the corner

September, 16, 2008
9/16/08
1:30
PM ET
 
 Doug Benc/Getty Images
 The Buffalo Bills earned a hard-fought victory in Jacksonville on Sunday.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

The Buffalo Bills, drenched in sweat and drained from a brutally oppressive afternoon, slogged off the Jacksonville Municipal Stadium field Sunday afternoon.

They were exhausted. Safety Donte Whitner was wiped out, and that's no figure of speech. He required five bags of intravenous fluids to recover. Left tackle Jason Peters, who missed every offseason workout because of a contract dispute, was paying the price.

Fans back in Western New York had a tough time catching their breath, too. They'd just watched their team stage its biggest character performance in recent memory.

The Bills pulled out a victory that might be remembered as their coming-of-age moment. They scored 10 fourth-quarter points in a strangling Florida heat to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 20-16.

Sometimes significance takes a few days, maybe even weeks or months, to be understood. The Bills knew the meaning of this victory immediately -- and it went beyond being 2-0.

"When we came off the field," said Bills defensive end Chris Kelsay, "I saw [Bills chief operating officer] Russ Brandon, and I told him 'Last year we don't win that game.'

"Really the last couple years we don't win those close games that come down the last five minutes."

If you're a Bills fan, the beauty of Sunday's victory is that it further established them as genuinely formidable and was untethered to anything else going on around the AFC East.

In the aftermath of Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury, many voices quickly proclaimed the New York Jets were the AFC East's team to beat. Then the New England Patriots slapped down the Jets like ... well, like they were the Jets.

The Bills, meanwhile, are creating their own identity independent of what's going on elsewhere and has the front office working out a contract extension for head coach Dick Jauron.

They dominated the Seattle Seahawks in the season opener, own an impressive comeback victory over the Jaguars and have the chance to show they know how to step on an opponent's throat -- great teams do that -- when they host the disturbed Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

On Sunday, the Bills trailed 16-10 when they assumed possession at their own 26 with eight minutes to play. Second-year quarterback Trent Edwards calmly led them down the field against one of the NFL's better defenses. Edwards conducted a nine-play, 74-yard drive for the winning touchdown, a perfectly thrown jump ball to rookie James Hardy in the right corner of the end zone with 4:10 left in the game.

"It was very important both for myself and for the other guys in the huddle, recognizing that we can do something like that," said Edwards, still wan a day after.

"This is only Week 2, and this is nothing to get overly excited about. But we're excited about the fact that we feel like we've proved that we can win big-time football games."

Just as they could have wilted in Jacksonville, the Bills could have pulled an Eeyore as the Peters holdout threatened to encroach on the regular season.

But the Bills bonded in the face of that hardship and further developed a swagger that first came to light before training camp, when Whitner boldly made a playoff guarantee.

"We did come together, especially early on in camp with Jason not being there," Kelsay said. "We knew we had to push forward with that we had.

"We knew then that we had something special, and you saw that on Sunday. To take it on the road and win in Jacksonville, we felt to get a win in the heat -- it was something like a 105 heat index before the game -- we fought and fought and stuck together."

The Bills might be the best team in their division. We'll have to wait to find out because their quirky schedule doesn't offer an AFC East opponent until Week 8, when they'll play the first of three straight division games. They finish the season with three division games over the final four weeks.

"Especially with Brett Favre now being with the Jets, we do get overlooked," Kelsay said. "To be honest with you, it's not a bad thing. I like the attitude of being overlooked and surprising people."

What makes the Bills so impressive is their well-rounded roster. They don't have elite players like some teams, but they're good everywhere and don't have any glaring weakness now that Peters is back.

Offensive line coach Sean Kugler deftly rotated Peters with Langston Walker and Kirk Chambers throughout Sunday's game to keep the big men fresh. Walker played both the right and left sides, and the line didn't seem affected by the changes one bit.

The Bills' defense has improved dramatically. They ranked 31st by averaging 363 yards a game last year, but the offseason additions of DTs Marcus Stroud and Spencer Johnson and LB Kawika Mitchell and the return of MLB Paul Posluszny have turned it around.

They've allowed 495 yards in their first two games combined. They've registered seven sacks, two interceptions and two recovered fumbles.

Special teams have been sublime across the board. The Bills have a Pro Bowl punter, one of the NFL's more reliable kickers and an embarrassment of riches in the return game. Kelsay called punt returner Roscoe Parrish "our little stick of dynamite back there."

Roughly one out of every three NFL teams is undefeated after two games, so maybe Edwards has a point about not getting too worked up. But
that also means two-thirds of the league already has a loss.

The Bills have been 2-0 twice since 1996, but neither start helped them avert their franchise-long eight-year playoff drought.

The Bills have a healthy chance of winning their first three games, a feat they last accomplished in 1992, their third Super Bowl season. The disoriented Raiders, with their dead man coaching, look like an easy mark.

Before the Bills hit their bye in Week 6, they also have the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals, two more teams they should beat.

A 4-1 record at the break is reasonable, 5-0 entirely attainable.

"Some people are starting to give us a little respect," Kelsay said. "Respect comes over time, but humility comes before honor. As long as we stay humble, the praise will come.

"We just go about our business, and that's to win football games. It's about showing up on Sunday and playing your rear off and consistently getting wins. If we do that we'll be where we want to be."

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