Season Changer? Buffalo 17, Minnesota 16

20 Oct


Going into Sunday, Bills fans were mostly looking at the contest against Minnesota as a “should win.” And 58 minutes into the affair, that wasn’t happening. Turnovers from the offense, major injuries to two stars, poor tackling and pass coverage on defense, and even some head-scratching problems in the kicking game made for a long, bitter, but all-too-familiar Sunday for Bills fans.

But as is the case in the NFL, a one-score game in the final 2 minutes is all a team needs to neutralize an entire vexed afternoon. The Vikings left the Bills hanging around, and the home team took the opportunity to snatch victory from the clutches of defeat.

Let’s not mince words though – if the Bills play the rest of the season like they did in the vast majority of yesterday’s game, it’s tough to imagine staying near the 0.500 mark. It was ugly.

But QB Kyle Orton led Buffalo on the final drive which led to WR Sammy Watkins’ 2-yard touchdown grab along the sideline with 1 second remaining, putting the Bills ahead by 1 after the PAT. Orton went 8-13 on the drive for 105 yards, due to 2 sacks and 2 penalties which hampered the drive. Yet even with the hurdles, which included having to overcome an improbable 4th-and-20 situation, Orton kept his cool and made the key throws to win it.

Watkins’ role in the win was refreshing, ending the day with 9 catches for 122 yards and 2 touchdowns. In addition to the winning score, he caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Orton in the 2nd quarter to put the Bills up 7-3. At that point you thought Buffalo might have easy sailing, but the waters were far from serene.

The joy of the close victory was tempered by two debilitating injuries to their two-headed monster at RB. Fred Jackson left near the end of the 1st quarter with a groin injury. Later, CJ Spiller ended a superb 53-yard run by being tripped and falling hard onto his left shoulder, fracturing his collarbone. Early reports have Jackson returning after the bye, while Spiller’s season is likely over after his shoulder is surgically repaired.

The injuries will leave Head Coach Doug Marrone with some decisions to make at the RB position. Boobie Dixon has seen limited action thus far this year. His effectiveness running the ball waned as the game went on, which should lead Marrone to readying Bryce Brown for his first action of 2014. If Spiller’s season is through, they may also look to bring in a free agent RB to restore depth at the position.

Additionally, the offensive line was less than effective, yielding 6 sacks. The running game was average at best; if you remove Spiller’s 53-yard improvised bounce-out run, the rushing attack averaged 3.6 yards/carry. At first glance, it appeared Minnesota used blitz decoys to disturb the blocking assignments. Marrone needs to seriously evaluate the OL. Their next opponent, the New York Jets, are unwavering in their use of blitz disguises and stunts which confounded the pass protection yesterday.

The defense was fair on Sunday, which you’d expect against a rookie QB in Teddy Bridgewater. Leodis McKelvin nabbed 2 INTS, and the pass rush harassed Bridgewater enough to keep the game close. The Vikings’ running attack was effective though, gouging the defense for 158 yards primarily through rookie Jerick McKinnon (19 carries/103 yards).

At 4-3, Buffalo remains a threat in the AFC East division race, one game behind the New England Patriots (5-2). Sunday’s divisional matchup at the New York Jets (1 PM, CBS) should flesh out whether the Bills have what it takes to stick around the top. The Jets are a disappointing 1-6, but gave the Patriots all they could handle in Foxboro Thursday night in a 27-25 loss.

The victory yesterday could provide some momentum heading into that pivotal contest. It’s not everyday a team can struggle and still come away with a win. Can they grow from this victory? Can Marrone sort out the offensive line, and put hope in the running game again? We’ll see.

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