Pitoniak: Bills keep raising the expectations for how good this season can really be

NFL Buffalo

ORCHARD PARK, NY – OCTOBER 29: Tyrod Taylor #5 of the Buffalo Bills points to the crows after an NFL game against the Oakland Raiders on October 29, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

                To invoke a golf analogy, I need a mulligan, another shot, when it comes to predicting how many games the Bills will win this season.
                Before the opener, I thought they were a five-win team. And I am right. For now. Through seven games, they have five wins. But after the moxie and opportunism they’ve shown in recent weeks, especially in Sunday’s 34-14 thrashing of the Oakland Raiders at cold and drizzly New Era Field, it’s pretty obvious the Bills aren’t going to remain a five-win team for long. In fact, they are primed to win several more games – starting with Thursday night’s nationally televised game in the Jersey Meadowlands vs. the New York Jets. And I can see them winning enough games to end that wretched 17-year playoff drought. 
                So, I’m going to tee it up again. With my mulligan, I’m now predicting 10 wins. And a wildcard berth. Yes, I’ve jumped on the bandwagon.
                I readily acknowledge that the Bills remain a flawed team. But the NFL is filled with flawed teams. Few of them, though, have the spunk Buffalo has. Rookie head coach Sean McDermott and rookie general manager Brandon Beane have assembled a roster filled with chip-on-their-shoulder players out to prove the world wrong.
                Every week seems to produce another stat-sheet filled with takeaways and unsung heroes.
                No wonder, Kyle Williams, the Bills elder statesman who’s endured 11 of those playoff-less seasons, shakes his head in wonderment as he watches no-names become somebodies. “We are a team,’’ Williams says. “We got guys who step up when they are called upon who make plays to win games. It’s a testament to them, and to the front office people and coaches who brought them in.”

                Sunday’s new set of unbelieve-a-Bills included:

  • Cornerback Leonard Johnson, who made six tackles in place of injured starter E.J. Gaines, one of the hits resulting in a fumble returned for a touchown;
  • Rookie linebacker Matt Milano, who, while filling in for injured starter Ramon Humber, returned a fumble 40 yards for a touchdown, then forced a fumble on a punt return that resulted in one of Stephen Hauschka’s two field goals;
  • Free safety Trae Elston, who had a team-leading 11 tackles and an interception and pass breakup in place of injured starter Jordan Poyer;
  • Second-string wide receiver Andre Holmes, who caught three passes for 51 yards, including a nifty, toe-touching 6-yard touchdown reception near the back of the end zone vs. his former team;
  • Reserve tight end Logan Thomas, who caught just one pass for seven yards, but touched the hearts of his teammates and coaches by playing a game just days after the death of his months-old daughter.

                 Buffalo also benefitted from the performances by some of its household names. LeSean McCoy rushed for 151 yards on 27 carries, placing an exclamation point on the victory with a 48-yard touchdown run with just over three minutes remaining. For good measure, the five-time Pro Bowl running back added six catches for an additional 22 yards.
                Safety Micah Hyde added to his NFL lead with his fifth interception of the season.
                Hauschka was perfect on four extra points and converted both of his field goal attempts – one from 35 and the other from 44 yards.
                Rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White more than held his own against Amari Cooper. A week after accumulating 210 receiving yards vs. Kansas City, Cooper was limited to five catches on 10 targets for 48 yards and no touchdowns.
                And quarterback Tyrod Taylor continued his steady if underappreciated play, with a touchdown, a 101.6 passer rating and no turnovers.
                Despite playing with four new starters on defense (Adolphus Washington replaced traded tackle Marcell Dareus), the Bills took the ball away four times, extending their streak with at least three takeaways to four games. Buffalo’s offense continued to protect the ball as if it were the Hope diamond, committing no turnovers. One of the biggest reasons why the Bills are off to a surprisingly good start is their NFL-best plus-14 takeaway-giveaway number.
                Two other times in Williams’ 12-year NFL career, Buffalo has started 5-2, only to stumble their way out of playoff contention. So, forgive him if he refuses to get too far ahead of himself. Since his high school days in Ruston, La., and his college days under Coach Nick Saban at LSU, he’s had it ingrained in him to take it one game at a time.
                Williams won’t look any farther down the schedule than Thursday’s Jets game. He won’t say this is going to be the year when the misery finally ends. But he will make one prediction.
                “I can confidently say that these guys are going to work hard, they are going to prepare, and they are going to play their tails off every second that’s on the clock,’’ he said. “I don’t know what the record is going to be, but I guarantee you these guys are going to compete and lay it all on the line to win a game.’’
                And continue to prove skeptics like me wrong.  

                Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is in his seventh season as a Bills analyst for WROC-TV and in his 33rd season covering the team.

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