AGAINST THE Raiders on Sunday, the Bills started five drives inside their 20-yard line, lost fumbles on back-to-back possessions to end the first half and threw an interception from their one-yard line midway through the third quarter to set up a touchdown that put Oakland ahead by nine points. In other words the Bills had the Raiders right where they wanted them.
Perhaps no other team handles adversity better than the Bills, who won seven games last season though three defensive starters sustained season-ending injuries in the first three weeks, a franchise-record 17 players finished the year on injured reserve and a rookie quarterback started nine of their final 13 games. This season, for the second time in the last two weeks, Buffalo trailed by a touchdown or more with less than seven minutes to play and, as on the previous Sunday against Jacksonville, refused to blink.
"There were plenty of plays throughout the day where it was like, Any other day we probably wouldn't have had that call that went against us, any other day we probably would have made that play that we failed to make," second-year passer Trent Edwards would say later. "We were not playing well and the breaks weren't going our way, but we were able to put some things together at the end. That says a lot about this team and this coaching staff—that we were able to win games when we didn't have our best."
It also says the Bills (3--0) are suddenly a candidate to break the Patriots' five-year run atop the AFC East. New England, playing the season without franchise quarterback Tom Brady (knee surgery), showed its vulnerability on Sunday in a 38--13 loss to the visiting Dolphins, who had dropped 20 of their previous 21 games. The aging Pats defense lacks athleticism at linebacker and a playmaker at cornerback, and whenever the D had struggled in the past, it could count on Brady to make up for its deficiencies by controlling the clock and putting up a lot of points. New England averaged a league-high 36.8 points a game last season but has scored a total of only 32 in the past two weeks with Matt Cassel under center.
Buffalo has had only one winning season since 1999 but now arguably is the most balanced team in the division, with a stingy defense (ranked fifth in the NFL in total D and in points allowed), excellent special teams (they lead the league in punt return yards), a solid running game behind second-year back Marshawn Lynch and a fast-maturing young quarterback.
Edwards, who is 8--4 as the starter since being drafted in the third round out of Stanford in 2007, has been at his best when the game has mattered most. His fourth-quarter passer rating this year is 122.4. Over the past two weeks, he completed a combined 21 of 29 fourth-quarter passes, for 268 yards and two touchdowns with no picks. In the final 17 minutes against Oakland, he put together a 16-play, 96-yard touchdown drive (Lynch did the honors from three yards out), threw a 14-yard TD pass to Roscoe Parrish and then ate up the last 2:29 in positioning Rian Lindell for the 38-yard field goal with no time left that won the game 24--23.
"It says a lot about this offense, our offensive coordinator [Turk Schonert], the players around me," says Edwards, who looks like the answer to the quarterback problem that has plagued Buffalo since Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season. "It really has nothing to do with me. I feel like I'm lucky to have the guys I have. All I have to do is get them the ball, and we can hopefully have a chance to win at the end."
Buffalo's next two games are on the road against the 0--3 Rams, who have been outscored by a total of 116--29, and the 2--1 Cardinals, who lost to the Redskins last week. Most important are the six AFC East games, the first of which isn't until Oct. 26; Buffalo, for example, has won only one of its last 14 against New England.
The Bills still don't have much star power, but they are tough and together—qualities that helped them remain competitive last season after losing safety Ko Simpson, cornerback Jason Webster and linebacker Paul Posluszny to season-ending injuries in the first three weeks, as well as popular special-teamer Kevin Everett (SI, Dec. 17). After Week 3 this season, there are no starters on IR.
"Last year was huge for us because there were so many situations that we've already drawn on this year," Edwards said. "There were games that we were able to fight our way back in, and I think there are going to be plenty of situations like that this year. It's anybody's ball game at this point, and I like the makeup of our team."