Fast-starting Bills brace for stern test vs. Bengals
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Those who earn their living as NFL "experts" said about a month ago that the Buffalo Bills were in tank mode as the 2017 season started.
First-year coach Sean McDermott and his players apparently never got that memo.
Following consecutive wins over Denver and defensing NFC champion Atlanta, Buffalo heads to Cincinnati to face the Bengals on Sunday with a 3-1 record and a surprising grasp of first place in the AFC East.
But McDermott is taking a cautious approach when asked to assess the first quarter of the 16-game season. After all, other Bills teams have flashed early promise but haven't backed it up, and this club is battling injuries that will leave it short-handed for a tough road test.
"I believe it's a big challenge for our building to keep things in perspective," McDermott said. "If we're going to get addicted to anything, let's get addicted to the process of what leads to winning."
One can't blame long-suffering Buffalo fans for guzzling the kids' drink at this point, though. It's been a while since the Bills appeared to pay attention to detail. An argument can be made that the Rex Ryan teams of the last couple of years possessed far more talent but about one-tenth of the discipline this group has featured so far.
The stifling defense that Ryan was supposed to bring to Buffalo arrived one regime later. No team in the NFL has permitted fewer points than the Bills' 54. The ability to keep opponents under wraps has enabled Buffalo to stick with a low-risk game plan that uses the running game as well as Tyrod Taylor's ability to make plays with his arm and feet.
Taylor is averaging only 186 yards per game in the air, but owns the seventh-best passer rating in the NFL at 100.7 and has thrown five touchdown passes against one interception in 99 attempts. Add in the presence of LeSean McCoy, who despite modest numbers can take over any game, and you have an offense that plays complementary football.
"They've been productive on third down," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. "Tyrod Taylor is doing a fine job. He's able to scramble and get the ball downfield. He delivers the ball on time. LeSean McCoy is such a good runner. They have good, sound people."
But they'll have one less of them this week. Jordan Matthews, who's averaging 16.2 yards on 10 catches, is out for thumb surgery. That leaves wide receiver pitifully thin, which means Taylor's top options appear to be tight end Charles Clay, McCoy out of the backfield and maybe Hall of Famer Andre Reed from about 25 years ago.
The Bengals might be 1-3, but their defense doesn't appear to be the ideal foil for a short-handed offense. Cincinnati came within about a couple of minutes of pitching a shutout last week at hapless Cleveland in a 31-7 win that suggests their early-season woes might be behind them.
With defensive tackle Geno Atkins leading the charge, the Bengals have allowed the fifth-fewest points of any NFL team and are third in the league in sacks with 12.
"We just need to stop the run and put them into 3rd-and-long situations," Cincinnati safety George Iloka said. "Every week, we challenge ourselves to be the best defense on the field."
The Bengals' defense wasn't quite as good as whoever was getting to feast on Andy Dalton mistakes the first two weeks. But since Bill Lazor became offensive coordinator after a sloppy Week 2 loss to Houston, Dalton has looked like the guy who guided Cincinnati to four straight playoff berths.
In two games with Lazor calling the shots, Dalton has produced passer ratings of 124.1 and 146.0. In the rout of Cleveland, Dalton completed 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and four touchdowns without an interception.
"This is a team that has been in the playoffs the last 'X' amount of years," McDermott said of Cincinnati. "Anyone who looks at a record at this point in the season is making a huge mistake. This is a good football team."
Albeit one that isn't running the ball well. Rookie Joe Mixon leads the squad in rushing but is averaging just 2.6 yards per carry. The Bengals failed to reach three yards per attempt against the hapless Browns.
That figure probably won't cut it against a stouter opponent. Even one like the Bills that was said to be playing this year with an eye on next year.
Updated October 4, 2017