After an exhausting five games away their first eight, including a two week road trip to the West coast, I've got Buffalo coming in to week 10 at 5-3 so far, with big wins over the Patriots week 3 and the Titans week 7 to this point of the season. However, the Bills road woes continue to start here, with a week 10 trip to Gillette stadium, as well as a short week before playing Miami on Thursday night at home, followed by two more games against the AFC South. Care to continue with me down the speculative road to find a Buffalo Wild Card berth and a 10-6 season?
Week 10: November 11, 2012 - Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots
Last meeting: 9/30/12 - (predicted a win in Part I)
This marks the last game of the rough stretch in Buffalo's schedule. After playing three of the last four away from home (largely against top ten teams), November will see this trend continue as they travel east to visit a Patriots team coming off a bye. Actually, this has been a pretty common thing the last decade, with New England coming off a bye to face the Bills five times the last 12 seasons and though they haven't done this since 2007, Buffalo also hasn't won one since the turn of the century (16-13 in 2000). Regardless of the fact that last season New England lost to Pittsburgh coming off their bye, their first such loss since 2002 (24-16 to Denver), there's just no reason to think the Bills can walk into Foxboro, Mass. and come away with a win.
Though the Bills broke their 15-game losing streak to New England last season and may well win their first matchup of the 2012 season in Western New York, the Patriots haven't given up a home loss to Buffalo since 2000 (ironically, the above mentioned post-bye loss in which QB Doug Flutie went 18-37, with 179 yards and a TD). What's more, the all-time win-loss between these two teams is just ridiculously in favor of New England, with Buffalo posting a dreadful 41-62-1 record against their East opponents since 1960 (the tie was in 1962, 28-28 at War Memorial in Buffalo... Cookie Gilchrist ran for 107 and two scores, but QB Warren Rabb threw for just 59 yds on a Tebow-esque 4-17 day). Another stat in favor of the Patriots, since opening Gillette Stadium in 2002, the Patriots have won 76 games at home (including the playoffs).
The Bills have a shot at this game for sure, as their reinvigorated defense will be able to match up with the Patriots' tight end weapons, Gronkowski and Hernandez. A healthy Shawne Merriman on the outside edge could keep up in coverage, as could Mark Anderson, who is incredibly quick and mobile, as well as having some decent knowledge on how to cover the duo after playing in New England last season. Unfortunately, unless Buffalo has managed to avoid injuries completely by this point or the Patriots have lost Brady or Welker, this young Buffalo team just won't be ready to go into the lion's den and come away victorious (not this season). The Bills will have the better running game, perhaps the better defense, but that confidence of being at home and having Brady under center will keep what could have been an AFC East battle for first into just another home win for New England and Buffalo's third loss in the last five games. Record 5-4
ONE LAST THOUGHT (as a fan)... A second year of splitting the season series, coupled with Buffalo largely expected to be the number two team in the AFC East this year (with eyes squarely on first), will likely ignite a rivalry that just hasn't delivered in some time. In the 1990's, the Bills were a powerhouse, going 103-57 from '90-'99, but their divisional Lex Luthor at the time was Miami. The Patriots, then, were the winningest team in the following decade with 126 wins between 2000-2010, but they were most locked in against the Jets in that time (especially in the second half of the decade... and, I know, the time frame's a year more, but you see where I'm going with this). In the end, neither team has been all that good at the same time and previous to 2011's comeback win by Buffalo, the Bills have had only one decent win in the last ten years against the Boston Bullies, which was opening day 2004, a 31-0 blowout led by Drew Bledsoe and newly acquired Patriots veteran Lawyer Milloy on a day when Tom Brady coughed up four INTs (New England did, however, win the second meeting that year... 31-0). To now have two years of splitting the season series, fans should start to be excited about what this rivalry could become over the next few years (especially with the twist that both Miami and New York look as unpredictable as they've ever been... could be the AFC East starts to become less unbalanced towards New England in the very near future). An interesting thought for now...
Week 11: November 15, 2012 - Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
Last meeting: 12/18/11 - Bills 23-Dolphins 30
This game is just huge for Buffalo. First, it's a night game at the Ralph, their first since a November 17, 2008 loss to Cleveland and their first Thursday night game period since losing to the Jets in 2009 (they haven't had a Monday night game in three years and have had only one Sunday night game since NBC got the rights in 2006). Sure, it'll be on the NFL Network and may not be viewable by many in Buffalo (stupid cable), but it's a night game in Orchard Park against a division rival and that always makes for a raucous environment for those in attendance (night games in Orchard Park are always memorable to tell the truth). Second, Buffalo will be coming off just five days rest following their trip to Foxboro, Mass. and have to play another important divisional game (they're all important in the end). Third, a loss here drops them to 5-5 (by my count) and makes getting that 10-6 record a little more difficult the rest of the way, even if their schedule gets easier from here on out (at least if you look at it from the preseason predictions). A win here, Buffalo's 6-4 and very much still in the race for the playoffs, a loss in the division and they could very well start spinning out of control as they did in 2011.
Now, Buffalo hasn't exactly been owning this match-up the last 12 years, sporting an 11-13 record against the Dolphins since 2000, including two losses in 2011. The first was a 35-8 drubbing on 11/20 that saw the Bills lose Fred Jackson for the season, followed by the closer 23-30 game in Orchard Park on 12/18 (though Fitz was great in that loss, throwing 316 yds and 2 TDs, while CJ Spiller ran for a then career mark of 91 yds and a score). In those two games last year, Miami just owned the Buffalo defense, taking them apart in the first game through the air (Matt Moore threw 3 TDs) and in the second on the ground, riding Reggie Bush's monster 203 yard game to victory at Ralph Wilson. The Bills' 2011 injury free fall, though, may have been largely responsible for those losses, as well as the wretched pass rush.
However, Miami is truly a team in transition for 2012, with no clear leader on the field and a quarterback quandary made none the clearer after using their first pick on Ryan Tannehill (the first time they've taken a QB to start the Draft since Dan Marino). With the inclusion of Tannehill, that means the Miami QB carousel includes last year's standout Matt Moore, as well as oft-injured veteran David Garrard, so whoever gets the start at QB will have two other guys looking over their shoulders the whole season (not a very secure way to play... see Doug Flutie/Rob Johnson). Also, without Brandon Marshall (gone to Chicago), Miami's primary receiving threats are Davone Bess (537 yds, 3 TDs in 2011) and tight end Anthony Fasano (451 yds, 5 TDs) as Miami really did nothing to improve their solid, but unspectacular receiving corps in the Draft (they took Michigan State's BJ Cunningham in the sixth round, but he'll need some development).
Let's face it, Buffalo needs this win and needs to let their defense take control from play one if they hope to take this rivalry game. The home crowd should have them pumped to play, as should the sting of a loss last week to New England, and Fred Jackson will probably play twice as hard against the team that prematurely ended his huge 2011 season. Though the Miami defense posted solid numbers last season, ranking sixth in points allowed and third against the run, Buffalo has such an array of weapons on offense for 2012 that, should they remain healthy to week 11, this should be a big win in front of a primetime audience (something that will go far in getting Buffalo some respect outside of the Queen City). The Bills' defense should have no problem handling the Miami offense this time around, whether it's a Bush-heavy gameplan or a chance to let whoever is playing QB by this point to shine. With a solid front seven in Buffalo now, as well as a youthful and talented crew of defensive backs, this should be a victory that will keep the fans warm in the stands on a chilly Buffalo night in late November. Record 6-4
Week 12: November 25, 2012 - Buffalo Bills at Indianapolis Colts
Last meeting: 1/3/10 - Bills 30-Colts 7
In their last meeting, Peyton Manning played just three series, one of several Colts who didn't play much as they had already tied up the AFC South by then and were looking ahead to the playoffs. The Colts could have cared less about that game, truly, though Buffalo had several future standouts play great, including Jackson, who ran for 212 yds and caught a TD pass, and QB Fitzpatrick, who threw three scores against a Colts team who just sat too many starters on both sides of the ball to have any chance.
Honestly, this year's matchup doesn't look all that different, as almost every star on the Colts' team seems to have jumped ship since their embarrassing 2011 campaign. Though QB Andrew Luck has been proclaimed the Golden Arm of the NFL since his 2010 season at Stanford and was the first pick of the Draft this year, there's no reason to think he'll be enough to take this Colts team and raise them from the mucky-muck of their 2011 ineptitude. Even Peyton Manning went 3-13 his first year in the league, so to think that Luck can do anything with his rookie year is silly, especially with WR Reggie Wayne as the only real target/help (Pierre Garcon left as well, signing with the Redskins). Luck will be operating without Jeff Saturday to protect him, or TE Dallas Clark to give him a big target in tight situations, or even any sort of running attack (Donald Brown wasn't that impressive last year, with 645 yds and 5 TDs his third year), so that means the Colts will have to depend on a defense that wasn't ranked near the bottom of every category (28th in points allowed, 25th in yards, and a Draft that saw just two defensive acquisitions).
Meanwhile, the Bills should be flying high after their primetime win at home over Miami, as well as loving their ten day break after playing two divisional games in just five days. While the Bills seem to finally be done rebuilding and are trotting out a product they can be proud of in 2012, the Colts have brought in alot of youth on offense (two receivers, two tight ends, a running back), but won't have had time to see what they really have yet and probably won't be ready to compete again for a couple of years. Sure, they'll get some breaks and Luck will show some flashes of greatness his first season (unless he turns out to be another Ryan Leaf), but Buffalo will be starting their stampede towards the prize at this point and won't be yielding gimme games like this if they're as good as advertised. Look for Jackson to have another big rushing game (or Spiller, they're both more than able against this soft defense) and expect Fitzpatrick to throw a couple scores to boot against the Colts' unimpressive DBs (just eight total INTs in 2011). A win, perhaps the most sure bet of the Bills' season, and a great game to enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers to in Western New York. Record 7-4
Week 13: December 2, 2012 - Jacksonville Jaguars at Buffalo Bills
Last meeting: 10/10/10 - Bills 26-Jaguars 36
Regardless of if the Jaguars can sell out a game in 2012, or if QB Blaine Gabbert can truly be a starting quarterback in the NFL after a so-so rookie season (210-413, 2214 yds, 12 TDs, 11 INTs), this Jaguars/Bills game is a pretty hard one to call. Like the Titans earlier this season, the Bills will have to contain one of the strongest runners in the NFL this game, facing off against Maurice Jones-Drew who racked up 1,606 yds and scored eight times on the ground with another 374 yds and 3 TDs receiving last season. Though the Jacksonville offense ranked 28th in points scored in 2011, as well as dead last in passing yards and total yards, their running game ranked 12th and their defense surprised with top ten rankings almost across the board. With the perennial AFC South winning Colts now officially ranked fourth for the foreseeable, the other three teams in the division are gunning to take over the top spot, and though Houston has the most opportunity to lead the way, the Titans or Jaguars could very well get a Wild Card (the same thing Buffalo's gunning for).
The Bills have had several rushing tests to this point in the season and how they do against players like Frank Gore and Chris Johnson will be telling in how they deal with Jones-Drew in this game. Should Super Mario and company find a way to shut down Jacksonville's primary offensive weapon and can get some good runs of their own against a Jaguars team that only allowed an average 104.2 on the ground last season, then they should be able to get this one easy. However, facing the linebacker duo of former Bills' standout Paul Posluszny and veteran Jacksonville leader Daryl Smith (who led the team with 107 tackles and 3.5 sacks in his eight season) could hold the Buffalo running game in the same way Buffalo's Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard will contain the Jaguars'. If that happens, this game will fall squarely on the quarterbacks, which means that if Buffalo wants to win this one, they'll need their Fitzmagic.
Though Buffalo lost the last meeting with the Jaguars, Fitzpatrick had a great game, throwing for 20 completions on 30 attempts, getting 220 yards and 3 TDs. Though he was inconsistent down the stretch to end last season, it was since revealed that Ryan was nursing a rib injury, as well as having an offensive line that was pieced together due to injury. With a healthy wall of protection this season (or at least enough depth to fix what breaks), a healed Fitzpatrick should easily outshine Gabbert under center, as the sophomore Jacksonville QB hasn't quite shown himself to be the future leader of the Jaguars quite yet. Granted, the addition of Justin Blackmon to a Jacksonville receiving squad who had Mike Thomas and his 415 yards as their biggest weapon should help things (especially if Blackmon can stop getting DUIs), but the Jaguars didn't do much to bolster their team in the offseason otherwise (especially in the Draft, as they wasted one of their only six picks on a punter in the third round). Though the Jaguars defense should be impressive again in 2012, maybe more so with the addition of Clemson's Andre Branch, a good game from Fitzpatrick (like he had their first meeting) should be enough to get them through a tightly fought contest and get them another win, their third in a row. Record 8-4
Again, we are largely speculating, but is it really that much of a fantasy to think that a Bills team that looks so good in the preseason workouts could be 8-4 come the first week of December? With just four games left from this point, Buffalo has three of those games at home to finish the season (if you include their game in Toronto, that is) and if they can get to 8-4 by this point, it's not that big of a leap to believe they can get to 10-6, or even 11-5. Here's to hope, which may no longer be a four-letter word in Western New York this season.