Pitoniak: Complexion of Bills season changes dramatically with upset of Falcons

NFL Buffalo

ATLANTA, GA – OCTOBER 01: Head coach Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills celebrates beating the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

I’ve been penalized for false starts before. I’ve injured myself jumping to conclusions.

Back in 2008, I thought the Bills were on to something after they won their first four games and five of their first six with Trent Edwards at quarterback. That promising beginning devolved into a 7-9 season as Buffalo missed the playoffs a ninth consecutive year.

Then, in 2011, when Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Bills to a 5-2 start, which included a 41-7 thrashing of the Chiefs in Kansas City and a dramatic 34-31 victory against New England, I drank the Kool-Aid again, only to suffer severe indigestion as Buffalo dropped eight of its last nine games.

I keep telling myself, I won’t get fooled again, I won’t over-react.

But, I gotta tell ya, after watching the Bills’ shocking 23-17 victory against the heretofore unbeaten Falcons in Atlanta’s spiffy, new $1.6-billion football playpen Sunday, it’s hard not to think that something special is unfolding for a 3-1 team that now owns sole possession of first place in the AFC East. Perhaps, this really will be the year when the 17-year playoff famine ends. Perhaps, it is time to Bill-lieve. Or at least trust the process.

At the quarter pole of the 2017 season, it’s safe to say that new head coach Sean McDermott has fixed the defense that Rex Ryan broke. The Bills are yielding an average of just 16 points per game, making them the stingiest team to score on in the NFL. They finally gave up a touchdown pass Sunday, the only one they’ve allowed in four games, a pretty remarkable stat in a league where passing rules.

The Falcons had scored 28 or more points in 10 straight home games. That streak was halted by the Bills.

It bears noting that wasn’t journeyman Josh McCown or yet-to-establish-himself Trevor Siemian or rusty Cam Newton that Buffalo was making look silly Sunday. That was Matt Ryan, reigning National Football League MVP. “Matty Ice” suffered a major meltdown, while turning it over three times and failing to consummate a game-tying drive in the final minute.

Jerry Hughes’ strip sack resulted in a controversial fumble that rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White astutely scooped up and carried 52 yards into the end zone. It looked like a forward pass to me, but the folks at NFL master control said the ruling on the field stood, and Buffalo had themselves a 14-10 third-quarter lead. Give White credit for doing what McDermott has been preaching since the first day of practice: Keep playing until you hear the whistle.

Micah Hyde continued his stellar play at safety with two more picks, each resulting in a Stephen Hauschka field goal. Speaking of Hauschka, he continued to live up to his nickname “House Money” by booting field goals of 56 and 55 yards in the fourth quarter, making him four-for-four from beyond 53 yards the past two games.

The 13 points off turnovers was the difference in the game. But that’s not to say the offense didn’t contribute, too. Tight end Charles Clay had a big day, catching five of seven targets for 112 yards. LeSean McCoy didn’t run wild, but he did run better than he had the previous two games, when he

mustered just 30 yards on 21 carries. McCoy finished with 76 yards on 20 totes and had three catches for 32 yards. His rushing totals would have been better, but a penalty wiped out a sizeable gain.

And quarterback Tyrod Taylor did what he needed to, completing 12 of 20 passes for 182 yards and a score for a 106.7 passer rating. He once again didn’t turn the ball over. And ball protection continues to be a huge part of the Bills winning formula. They’ve now gone a franchise record 15 consecutive quarters without a turnover.

Yes, Buffalo caught a few breaks against the Falcons. As I said, that fumble recovery that was taken to the house by White sure looked like an incomplete pass to me. Ryan seemed to have regained possession and his arm appeared to be going forward. The Bills also appeared to catch a break when the tip of the ball hit the ground on one of Hyde’s interceptions. And there’s no doubt that Ryan (24-42, 242 yards, 1 TD, two interceptions) sorely missed his favorite targets Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, each of whom sat out the second half with injuries. But there have been numerous occasions in the past 17 seasons when all the breaks went against the Bills. So, maybe they’re overdue for some good luck for a change.

“We’re not the old Buffalo Bills any more,’’ Hyde proclaimed after the game.

Hyde has only been a Bill for six months. He spent his first four seasons with the Green Bay Packers, appearing in playoff games each of those seasons. So, he doesn’t understand the pain of what it’s like to go 17 years without a postseason appearance.

Still, I think he may be on to something here. These aren’t the old Buffalo Bills any more. McDermott really has changed things, and changed them dramatically in a short period of time. It underscores the importance of a good coach. (It also underscores how bad of a coach Rex really was in Buffalo.)

A reporter asked McDermott how it felt after recording perhaps the biggest road win since the Bills Super Bowl years. “I’d say, hold your horses a bit,’’ he said, grinning.

There is plenty of season to play. And as I pointed out at the top of this column, fast starts have led to false starts on other occasions. I look at a New England team that is 2-2 and easily could be 1-3 were it not for Tom Brady’s last-minute heroics last week. The Patriots defense is a sieve right now, yielding close to 32 points and 442 yards per game. They can’t stop anybody. Sunday, Newton, who couldn’t do squat against the Bills, threw three touchdown passes and ran for another in a 33-30 victory at Gillette Stadium, a place where the Patriots have won 82 percent of their games.

I’m sure, Bill Belichick will find a way to shore up a toothless defense that’s desperately seeking a pass rush. I am not ready to write their dynasty’s obituary. But, suddenly, those two Bills-Patriots games this December seem a lot more interesting than we thought they were going to be heading into this season.

Buffalo travels to Cincinnati next week to play a Bengals team that thrashed the hapless Cleveland Browns to improve to 1-3. The Bills have a golden opportunity to be 4-1, with a 3-0 conference record, heading into the bye week. That’s huge because conference record is one of those all-important playoff tie-breakers.

The mere fact I would even be talking about playoff tie-breakers seems crazy, considering just six weeks ago, we were wondering if trading away Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby on the same day was an indication the Bills were tanking in order to move near the top of the 2018 draft board.

Now, a team that is just a ball off the fingertips from being 4-0 has even skeptics like me talking contention instead of tanking. I’m not ready to jump the gun and say the drought’s about to end. I’m just going to trust the process until I’m convinced to do otherwise.

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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