The Buffalo Bills enter the halfway point of the 2013 season at 3-5 – the exact same mark the 2012 Bills had.
But this year sure feels a whole lot different.
The 2012 Bills had already lost by at least 20 points three times and were wildly inconsistently. The overly conservative and laid-back approach of former coach Chan Gailey didn't help matters, nor did the middling output by journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The 2013 team, while not yielding much better results in many ways, is showing growth as a whole. The Bills have only played one game they could not win in the final two minutes this season, last Sunday's loss to New Orleans. This team has already claimed one victory on the final drive of the game and overcame a 14-point deficit to send another to overtime.
And this year's team hasn't crumbled as injuries have mounted. The Bills are on their fourth quarterback of the year and have seen their top two running backs, as well as their lone veteran wide receiver, miss time with injuries. Yet six of their eight games have been decided by a touchdowm or less.
"We’ve been through adversity, but we’ve got to keep going," coach Doug Marrone said in an upbeat, animated press conference Monday. "We’re excited, I know it sounds crazy. People are going to go, ‘What the hell is going on with this guy?’ We’ve got a lot of work to do, we’re going to get back."
The Bills hope getting EJ Manuel back behind center in the next few weeks will stabilize the offense. Thad Lewis has shown some life, surpassing 200 yards in each of his three starts. But the Bills are still third-worst in the NFL at 195.1 passing yards per game, which doesn't allow Stevie Johnson and promising rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin to shine. The running game has done its part, compiling a seventh-best 133.9 yards per game with Fred Jackson (425 yards) and C.J. Spiller (362) essentially sharing carries. But inconsistent efforts lead to too many three-and outs, which force the defense to stay on the field too long.
And that hampers its efforts. The defense has shown signs of real progress, compiling 12 interceptions and 27 sacks thus far (Mario Williams has 11 of those). And Kiko Alonzo has emerged as a star at linebacker, leading the team with 43 tackles and four interceptions. But an inability to stay off the field for stretches has contributed to rankings near the bottom of the league in opponent passing yards (263.4, 24th) and rushing (117.8, 25th).
But this team has not yet shown any quit, unlike some of the Bills teams in years past. And that has fans hopeful the turnaround is finally happening.
"They play hard. Everyone can see it on tape. We play hard. At times we might not play as smart as we should, at times we might not have the leverage that we need to have," said Marrone, who commended his injured players for wanting to tough it out. "All these guys we’re talking about, asking about on the weekend, they want to get back in there and play. They want to get back in there not for me and I can’t speak for them, but probably not for themselves, but for their teammates. I think that’s why they’re out there. That’s what I’m most proud of right now."
Players who have grown accustomed to losing can sense a change, as well.
"I think everyone knows the effort they put forth this past game," Johnson said. "We don’t want to lose, but I don’t think anyone is discouraged or have their head down or we got ran over or any of that. We’re still strong. We know we’re a good team."
The second half of the Bills' schedule has shaped up favorably. After this Sunday's home game against the undefeated Chiefs, they play Pittsburgh, Jets, Atlanta and Tampa Bay teams that are all underachieving compared to what was expected coming into 2013. With Jacksonville and Miami to follow, the Bills could conceivably be 9-6 or, with a major upset this week, 10-5 going into the season finale at New England – who only beat Buffalo with a final-second field goal to open the year.
Marrone won't come close to guaranteeing results like that. What he does promise, though, is that the effort this team has exhibited will continue:
"I think I’m really happy with the guys that we have and the way that we’ve fought. We’ve stuck together through stuff. No matter what happens on the field, we’re coming on the sideline and I talked about it for a quick second, we’re moving on … We’ve been competitive and close in every game. With the second half of the season, what we need to do is win those games. I think that’s going to be our next step."
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