The Buffalo Bills traveled to Cleveland to face a sputtering 2-6 Browns team on Sunday afternoon. Bills fans' hopes of seeing their team start the season 7-2 for the first time since 1993 - the year of the second Super Bowl against the Cowboys - were dashed when Cleveland marches 82 yards in 3:42 to score a touchdown with 1:44 remaining to make the game 19-16. Josh Allen would complete 4 of 7 passes to give the Bills an opportunity to win the game on a 53-yard kick by Steven Hauschka. Hauschka then, for the second time in the game, pulled the kick to the left, turning the ball over to the Browns, Baker took a knee and the Bills fell to 6-3.
We have accelerated through what was surely a longer, more interesting story, but all told, two decent teams took the field on Sunday and the home team came out victorious by three points. The truth would seem much different if the #BillMafia writ large were taken at face/comment/tweet value. "The Bills are in trouble." "We'll be lucky to make the playoffs now." "Why does this team continue to let me down?"
ESPN ranked the Buffalo Bills as the 25 best team in the NFL before the season began. That's one spot behind the 2-7 Jets, two behind the 3-6 Broncos and 15 spots behind the Browns. Granted, there is hardly a grain of salt big enough to take with such preseason rankings, but they serve an important point regardless: The Bills are better than expected. The offense does not score very often and commits too many 3-and-outs. They began Sunday's game with a 4-and-out followed by a 3-and-out. The vaunted defense has shown that it can be gashed fairly easily right up the gut.
And here is where we get to the parts where every Bills fans is wrong. The primary criticisms of Josh Allen through the first four weeks, through the New England game, were that he was playing hero ball and throwing inaccurately. The final whistle that sounded a 16-10 loss to the Patriots on Sunday, September 29 marked Allen's 16th game as a starter. He was 13-28 that day with 0 TDs and 3 INTs. Since then, Allen is 91-163 (61%) with 7 passing TDs, 3 rushing TDs and 1 INT with a 3-2 record over those five games. Elite? Certainly not. Improved? Vastly. When you ignore the numbers and look at his behavior on the field you have to be wearing lenses of bias to miss his improvement. He appears to have taken a major step forward, perhaps - likely? - after watching Tom Brady salvage a victory over him, even on a comparably terribly day. In this league, what a quarterback simply cannot do is make mistakes. The Bills' young quarterback has given up on screen passes, gotten rid of the ball out of bounds and even begun to slide, albeit occasionally, in order to protect himself and his team. He is progressing. The defense, on the other hand, is not.
When defenses have difficulty stopping the run up the guy it is easy to pin the blame on the tackles. Philips, Star and Oliver don't get a good push, it is true, but Tremaine Edmunds either came out of the gates blazing, or has entered a sophomore slump. Or, he had less trouble getting off blocks set by the O-lines of the Jets, Giants, Bengals, and Patriots, the latter boasting a surprisingly weak group of blockers. That is not to say the defense is bad, but it isn't dominant. Bills fans erroneously began the season believing that this defensive team might resemble those of the early-2000's. But Oliver (or Star) and Philips are no Adams and Williams; Alexander and Edmunds are no Spikes and Fletcher, and; though the 2019-2020 secondary is strong and opportunistic, it is a far cry from one that contained Clements, Winfield, Wire, McGee and Milloy.
The Bills deserve to be 6-3. This is a start to be proud of, for the players and for the fans. The team is good enough to beat bad teams and compete with decent teams. On good days this Bills team can play with the big boys, and on bad days they can get blown off the field. Such is life as a pretty good team in the NFL. This team should get to nine wins by beating the Jets, Dolphins and Broncos. This team could get to 10 or 11 wins by taking a step forward on both sides of the ball against Cowboys or the Steelers. If Josh attains one more tool - quick-hitting hot routes with Beasley? Knox on a mismatch? - and if Edmunds can shed blockers and plug holes that the DTs can't, Bills fans might just be happy to be proven wrong come the postseason.