Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Kyle Orton: A Remembrance

Thanks almost entirely to the ineptitude of this year's quarterbacks, as well as the best decision-making exhibited all year by the incumbent starter, we have an entire offseason to discuss who should occupy the position for Buffalo in 2015 and beyond.

On this last day of 2014, however, We Want Marangi would like to take a few moments to honor Kyle Orton, who retired Monday morning, less than 24 hours after leading the Bills to perhaps the most significant exhibition-game victory in franchise history.

He may have spent just a solitary autumn here, but his list of accomplishments from what will be foggily remembered as The Orton Season is, well, a list:

--- We could argue until next September about whether the Bills would have won more or fewer games, given the rest of the roster, with E.J. Manuel or any other remotely ambulatory humanoid taking the snaps, but this much beyond debate: Of the 14 quarterbacks to start a regular-season game since Jim Kelly retired, Orton was clearly one of them.

--- The mustache. Just look at it.

Easily the most impressive upper-lip growth on a Bills quarterback since David Humm.

Sadly, it lasted just two starts. Long enough, though, to join the younger Orton's neck beard in the annals of NFL facial hair.

Yes, Ryan Fitzpatrick's Civil War-re-enactor beard was pretty great, but Orton's versatility makes him the franchise's all-time facial-hair standard bearer at the position.

--- According to ESPN's QBR system -- which takes into account not only traditional counting stats, but the situations, such as down, distance and score, involved in compiling them -- Orton was the 25th-best quarterback in the league in 2014, better than such luminaries as Oakland's Derek Carr (even if the rookie substantially outplayed the veteran in their head-to-head meeting), Austin Davis of St. Louis, Tampa Bay's Josh McCown, Geno Smith of the Jets and Jacksonville's Blake Bortles.

A cynic might note that the teams led by the five qualifying quarterbacks rated lower than Orton will all earned Top-10 draft picks next spring, including four of the first six spots. But we're not dwelling on the negative here.

--- Under the more inclusive rankings issued by Football Outsiders, which cover anyone who threw at least 100 passes in 2014, Orton drops to No. 26. Still, how many of you can say you are the 26th-best in the world at what you do? Not Mike Glennon or Charlie Whitehurst, that's for sure.

--- The guy could really pile up the stats when faced with a defense protecting a multi-score lead or a completely disinterested collection of New York Jets defenders.

--- While Orton has been getting ripped pretty regularly around these parts since before throwing his first pass for Buffalo, his retirement was exquisite.

Orton's chosen method of leaving the sport was the football equivalent of the Irish Goodbye, in which one leaves a party or other social gathering without any of the customary niceties. I adopted the move from Tim, a longtime We Want Marangi consultant, a few years back, but have never seen it executed so early on a weekday morning, or so aptly.

The only thing goofier than expecting more from a guy who had to be coaxed out of retirement days before the regular season and who started 12 games would have been that guy tearfully announcing his decision in front of a bunch of reporters.

Orton spared us all of that insincerity. His finishing move also cemented his legacy. He may not have ever won a playoff game, made it to a Pro Bowl or established himself as The Man for any of the five NFL franchises that employed him, but it says here that by slipping away so deftly, Kyle Orton confirmed his status as The Greatest Internet Quarterback Ever.

Early on during his stint with the Chicago Bears, Orton displayed an innate knack for getting himself photographed in highly unflattering situations. The publication of such photos not only launched the famous-person-doing-something-that-some-might-consider-embarrassing genre of internet journalism, a trend that has spread to all fields of public life and come to dominate modern media.

While Orton took his online fame (which included an array of similar pictures from his college days at Purdue, a highly unauthorized Twitter feed and a series of reasonably funny videos posted by a Denver-area comedian) as well as could be expected, the stream of Kyle-on-the-town photos slowed over the years, then stopped altogether. But his re-emergence with Bills triggered the Uncle Rico meme, which was beautiful in its own way.

Football prowess aside, Orton was easy like, mainly because he did not look or act like the stereotypical NFL quarterback.

It would have been even easier if he had played like one more often, and when it mattered.

So farewell, Mr. Orton. Wherever you are.

This one's for you, Kyle.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Blame Abounds As Bills' Season Crashes In Oakland; or, How The Season Finale Became Meaningless, Again

(Note: The following was published in this week's Artvoice, but between Buffalo's rather demoralizing elimination from playoff contention in Oakland and the holidays, we've really let things go around the We Want Marangi offices this week.

As for today's game in New England, Doug Marrone will be trying to prove something or other by starting Kyle Orton again at quarterback, eliminating any possible intrigue from the proceedings. Not that a road game, particularly at Gillette Stadium, is an ideal situation to gauge what, if any, progress E.J. Manuel has made during three months as the backup.

While Marrone gave his stock "gives us the best chance to win" explanation for staying with Orton, it appears he believes he is locked in a power struggle with general manager Doug Whaley, and thinks finishing with a winning record theoretically gives him some sort of leverage over the guy who drafted E.J. Manuel in 2013 -- though that was officially Buddy Nix's last act before "retiring" -- and traded two first-round picks to Cleveland for the opportunity to select Sammy Watkins last spring.

Or something.

Whoever plays quarterback today, Buffalo's chances of finishing above .500 for the first time since 2004 are only slightly better than the possibility of reaching the postseason. The Bills have infamously never won at Gillette Stadium, which opened in 2002. And there is little reason to think that will change today.

But while you're waiting to see how long Bill Belichick plays Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski today, here's a look back at the loss to the Raiders, as well as WWM's season-end awards ... )

It would be easy to blame the dispiriting end to Buffalo's football season on Kyle Orton.

Throughout the Bills' 26-24 loss in Oakland on Sunday, which brought talk of playoff scenarios to a jarring halt, all the flaws that marked Orton's soon-to-be-forgotten stint as Buffalo's starting quarterback were in vivid, high-definition display.

He threw high. He threw low. He froze in place as what little protection his perpetually overmatched blockers collapsed around him, unable to extend crucial plays by even a fraction of a second. And, at the worst possible moments, he threw to the wrong team.

But pinning the least explicable defeat of a season rife with missed opportunities on Orton alone absolves too many others who played major roles in Buffalo's most complete team failure of a lost season, in a game the Bills desperately needed to win.

The defense that carried Buffalo to an 8-6 record, capped by one of the biggest upsets of the NFL season a week earlier against Green Bay, finally buckled under the weight of endless offensive misfires and coaching blunders, allowing a previously pitiful offense led by a rookie quarterback to take and keep control.

With the season at stake, the offensive line could not create openings for the running game, which averaged a single yard on each of just 13 attempts, or stifle the pass rush of a team with absolutely nothing for which to play.

And with his team needing a single yard to stay in a game it desperately needed, Doug Marrone decided to punt.

Giving the ball up near midfield and turning things over to the defense down by two points with 8:13 left may have been playing the percentages, given that unit's season-long excellence and the offense's equally long-standing bumbling. It also betrayed the underlying philosophy shared by every Buffalo head coach over what is now 15 full playoff-free seasons -- wait for the other guys to screw up.

And it almost worked. A holding penalty and two ineffectual passes left the Raiders facing a third-and-22 from their own 19. The seemingly inevitable punt would give the Bills the ball in good field position, a couple of first downs from providing their most reliable offensive weapon, kicker Dan Carpenter, with a chance to put them ahead.

Instead, Derek Carr scrambled away from the best pass rush in football and heaved a shot deep down the right sideline, where Andre Holmes out-jumped Buffalo cornerback Corey Graham, producing a 51-yard completion.

That's the problem with relying so completely on one aspect of the game and counting so heavily on opposing incompetence. Sometimes, even the best defense breaks down and gives up a big play or two. And even the worst offense makes one.

Four plays later, Carr flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Jamize Olawale. Just like that, the game and Buffalo's season effectively came to a close.

Yes, Orton still had time for the sort of frantic, closing-moment drive against a sagging, lead-protecting defense that artificially inflates statistics and makes games appear closer than they were in reality, along with one more badly thrown interception.

Just as in Denver two weeks earlier, Orton was highly ineffectual for much of the day, going 18-of-30 for just 135 yards up until Sebastian Janikowski's fourth field goal put Oakland ahead 19-10 late in the third quarter. Forty-two of those yards came when Sammy Watkins made a terrifically athletic catch for a touchdown on Buffalo's first drive, the only time the Bills reached the end zone when it really mattered.

For all his shortcomings, though, Orton can really pour it on once the opposing defense is willing to give up completions and yards as long as time keeps running off the clock. As he did against the Broncos, when he was 17-of-27 for 183 yards in the fourth quarter once the outcome was barely in doubt, Orton put up big, empty numbers -- 14-of-19 for 194 -- in the last 18 minutes.

And once again, all those completions and yards by the quarterback Marrone insists gives the Bills their "best chance to win" wound up not meaning much of anything.

So the Bills head into a now thoroughly perfunctory season finale in New England, then into an off-season very similar to the previous 15. Marrone's decision to discard E.J. Manuel after 14 professional starts may or may not have meant another win or two this year, but it also created a gaping hole at the position.

Orton, quite obviously, is not the guy. Just as clearly, Marrone does not believe Manuel is, either. Due to Doug Whaley's decision to give up two first-round picks for Watkins, Buffalo has no first-round pick in this year's draft. Not that there is a potential franchise quarterback without a lengthy history of disturbing off-field behavior to be had, anyway.

As the rest of the weekend's games turned out, beating Oakland may not have meant much beyond guaranteeing the Bills a winning record for the first time since 2004. Fourth-quarter comebacks by San Diego on Saturday night and Cincinnati on Monday meant they would have had to win at Gillette Stadium for the first time since it opened, while the Chargers and Baltimore each lose their finales. That scenario is particularly unlikely since it would require the Ravens to lose their second straight contest to a team operating with a third-string quarterback, this time at home.

The Bengals' Monday-night rally against Denver guaranteed New England home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. That would have been a theoretical plus for Buffalo, since most teams would rest most of their starters in such a situation. The Patriots are not most teams. The only scenario in which Bill Belichick would allow his team to mail in the closer would be if he decided to let the Bills into the postseason in order to create the possibility of truly humiliating them on national television in the second round.

Sort of like inviting Carrie to the prom.

Given the for-amusement-purposes-only nature of Buffalo's visit to Foxborough, along with next week's annual hiatus for the print edition of Artvoice, it seems like a good time to dole out a few season-ending awards and dishonors:

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: After several misadventures through the spring and summer that raised more than a few calls for the franchise to cut ties with Marcell Dareus, the mammoth defensive tackle finally produced a season that justified his status as the third overall selection in the 2011 draft.

Besides posting career highs in sacks and runs stuffed behind the line, Dareus anchored quite possibly the best defensive line in football, providing a constant disruptive presence that helped Mario Williams have his most productive all-around season since coming to Buffalo and Jerry Hughes wreak havoc when he was not busy committing stupid penalties.

Dareus' value was underscored against the Raiders, when the run defense fell apart after he injured his knee while tackling Oakland running back Latavius Murray early in the second quarter. To that point, Buffalo had allowed just 6 rushing yards and two first downs. Without Dareus, Buffalo allowed a team that had averaged a league-worst 73.7 rushing yards per game to roll up 134 the rest of the way, while sacking Carr just once.

LEAST VALUABLE PLAYER: While I've been beating up on Orton in this space since before he even took the field for Buffalo, there's no satisfaction in doing so. I generally root for good stories, and a quarterback who had been found wanting by four NFL teams leading the fifth to the postseason would have been a great one. Especially since Orton does not fit the quarterback blueprint, either in aesthetics or personality.

That's not what happened. After pulling off two last-minute comebacks largely made necessary by his own bumbling during the rest of the minutes against Detroit and Minnesota, Orton spent the rest of the season not making a positive difference. Even Jeff Tuel could have led the Bills to their two wins over the Jets, while Orton led the Bills to a single touchdown in their victory against Cleveland.

In all, Buffalo scored 13 offensive touchdowns in nine games against teams other than the Jets. Of those, just six came before the fourth quarter.

You could certainly argue that this citation could be shared by every member of the offensive line, which failed to provide adequate protection for Orton or openings for the running backs. Orton's complete lack of mobility, though, exacerbated the pass-blocking problems and his inaccuracy, even when given time to throw, allowed defenses to commit more fully to stopping the run.

PLAY OF THE YEAR: Like Time's Person of the Year, earning this title is not necessarily a good thing. Bryce Brown's goal-line fumble against Kansas City sums up the season nicely -- a flash of excellence undone by the same sort of brutal mistake that will force the Bills, and their fans, to spend a 15th straight postseason tournament as detached observers.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Scrambled Playoff Picture Actually Pretty Simple

For all the teams and games in play this weekend and next, Buffalo's path to the NFL playoffs for the first time in 15 years is pretty simple.

The Bills, of course, need to beat the Raiders today in Oakland and the Patriots next Sunday in New England (note: "simple" does not mean "easy," or even "tenable," as it pertains to the second half of that must-do list). If they can just win at Gillette Stadium for the first time ever (and not soil themselves against the 2-12 Raiders), they have a 77 percent chance at the postseason.

As for the rest of the contenders:

-- Baltimore closes at Houston, then home against Cleveland. The Ravens are already 9-5, and are not going to lose to a team quarterbacked (to use that made-up verb very, very loosely) by Johnny Manziel, so we're going to concede them one wild-card berth.

-- Since San Diego (8-6) drubbed the Bills 27-10 in Week 3, a San Francisco win tonight would be nice, since it would render the Chargers incapable of reaching 10 wins.

-- Pittsburgh (9-5) isn't going to lose two straight at home, but beating Kansas City (8-6) on Sunday and Cincinnati (9-4-1) in Week 17 would give the Bills the last AFC playoff berth, IF ...

-- Denver (11-3 and already the AFC West champs) wins at Cincinnati (9-4-1) Monday night and the Pittsburgh takes down the Bengals in the season finale, thereby winning the AFC Central title.

To put it as simply as possible, if Buffalo and the Steelers each win twice, while San Diego loses once (the Chargers close at home against the Chiefs), the Bills are in as the sixth and final seed.

There are other scenarios, which you can figure out for yourself with the New York Times' handy playoff simulator. But, beyond the requisite Bills-Patriots stunner next week, the one above does not require any major upsets, with each of the teams Buffalo needs to win this week favored to do just that.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Buzz-Worthy D Keeps Playoff Hope (Faintly) Alive

Here's something you don't hear very often:

"You do not want to play the Bills in the playoffs right now."

That line came from a Bleacher Report post clumsily headlined "The 1 NFL Team That No One Wants to See in the Postseason," one of a flurry of Buffalo-praising pieces that flooded the national football media following the Bills' stunning 21-13 win over Green Bay last Sunday.

For the past decade, Buffalo has been easy for the rest of the league to ignore, annually floundering out of contention by Thanksgiving and offering little in the way of national relevance at any point.

When you disarm Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers in consecutive weeks, though, it gets people's attention.

"In today's NFL, the idea that a defense could hold Manning and Rodgers each without a touchdown in consecutive weeks sounds crazy," wrote Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports. "Except that the Bills did it."

By doing so -- and generating enough points, despite another feeble offensive performance, to beat the Packers a week after keeping it cosmetically close against the Broncos -- they also kept themselves in somewhat realistic playoff contention heading into the final two weeks of the regular season for the first time since 2004.

Of course, to finally get there, they need to beat the 2-12 Raiders late Sunday afternoon in Oakland. That is fair to call a modest, achievable goal.

Then comes the annual visit to New England. Where they will have to find a similar solution for Tom Brady, who is playing at least as well as Manning or Rodgers. At Gillette Stadium, where they have never won. Ever.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Kansas City and San Diego have to lose one or more of their last two games in specific combinations in order for Buffalo's most-feared-playoff-opponent to become more than theoretical.

Which is a shame. Because this is as good a defense as the Bills have ever fielded.

While it may seem like sporting heresy to make comparisons to the defenses that reached four straight Super Bowls back in the early 1990s, those units were complemented by a revolutionary offense operated by Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and featuring fellow Canton honorees Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and James Lofton.

The other side of the ball featured very big names, as well, but the defenses featuring Bruce Smith, and Cornelius Bennett were built to absorb opposing comeback bids, not win games by themselves. Those Bills could be run on, as in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, and occasionally melted down entirely, as in the other three Roman-numeraled defeats.

The Bills also fielded highly rated defenses, in terms of yards and points allowed, in 1999 -- the last time they reached the playoffs -- and 2003 and '04, but none of them ever delivered the sort of dominance on display last Sunday.

Balance was key to Buffalo's playoff seasons of 1980 and '81, with an efficient offense led by Joe Ferguson at his peak nicely complementing The Bermuda Triangle.

You have to go back to the AFL championship teams of the mid-1960s to find a Buffalo defense that so thoroughly stuffed opposing attacks as consistently. Those squads also had the likes of Cookie Gilchrist, Elbert Dubenion, Jack Kemp and Daryle Lamonica putting up plenty of points. Also, subsequent rule changes, almost always designed to create more scoring and protect the safety of marquee offensive players, as well as the evolution of both training methods and strategy, make comparisons to a half-century ago pretty shaky.

Statistical analysis has taken a huge leap forward since any of the defenses mentioned above roamed the turf. The site Football Outsiders ranks defenses according to a stat called DVOA (Defense-adjusted value over average), which takes into account the opponent and game situation, as opposed to the traditional rating system of simply adding yards and points.

After the win against Green Bay, Buffalo's current defense took over the No. 1 position in the entire league

The offense, meanwhile, has sputtered along, scoring just four touchdowns in its last five games against teams other than the dysfunctional and demoralized New York Jets, with two of those coming too late to make any difference in Denver.

While the Bills moved up one spot in the defensive DVOA rankings, Kyle Orton's crew dropped to No. 26. By this measure, the only less threatening offenses belong to Washington, the Jets, Oakland, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. It is not a coincidence that those teams are a combined 14-70.

Playoff teams should dread facing a Buffalo defense that belongs with a Super Bowl contender. Thanks to an offense worthy of a contender for the first pick in next spring's draft, though, odds are no one will have to worry.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Who Needs An Offense, Anyway?

As Green Bay's offense took the field with just less than two minutes left in Sunday's game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, it was tough not to think something really, really bad was about to happen to the Buffalo Bills.

Buffalo's defense had delivered its most dominant 58 minutes of football of the season, harassing Aaron Rodgers into the worst performance of his professional career. The secondary had flustered the Packers quarterback with a smorgasbord of coverages, while jumping his receivers' routes well enough to come up with the first non-deflected interception he had thrown all season and just missing on a second, while also snagging one of the tipped variety.

While the pass rush had not registered a sack, it got close enough to Rodgers often enough to keep him from getting too comfortable. The home crowd had also come up big, augmenting the disorienting effect Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's schemes were having.

Green Bay came in averaging almost 33 points per game, but had scraped out just 13 as of the two-minute warning. Marcus Thigpen's 75-yard punt return and Dan Carpenter's four field goals had produced 19 for Buffalo, even without much meaningful input from Buffalo's offense.

Rodgers and the Packers needed to cover 91 yards, and do it against the NFL's No. 1 pass defense.

And yet.

Maybe it was the years of seeing the Bills finding new and increasingly painful ways to lose.

Or knowing that in four of Buffalo's six losses this season, the defense had played well enough to win.

Or finding it hard to believe that an offensive showing as wretched as the one led by Kyle Orton could possibly be enough to beat a Super Bowl contender.

Or having seen Jordy Nelson drop a likely 94-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers late in the third quarter, demonstrating that the Bills were one breakdown away from letting a brilliant effort in two phases of the game go to waste.

Thanks to Mario Williams, though, the looming dread did not last for long.

On Green Bay's first snap after the two-minute warning, Williams bulled backup Green Bay tackle J.C. Tretter and swatted the ball from Rodgers' grip. After a weird moment where the ball lay on the turf in the end zone, Packers running back Eddie Lacy tried to get it back onto the playing field, but a rule change forced by an infamous Oakland Raiders touchdown 36 years earlier gave the Bills a safety, and the win.

It was fitting that Buffalo sealed the game with Orton's offense safely on the sideline, where it had been when just about every other good thing happened.

Unlike the losses to Denver, Miami, Kansas City and Houston, when even a minimally competent offensive showing would have flipped the outcome, the Bills did not even need that much against Green Bay.

Excellent catches by Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods led to Buffalo's first field goal. The second came on the Bills' best sustained drive of the day, which not coincidentally involved Orton handing off on nine straight running plays. The third resulted from a blown coverage that left Bryce Brown wide open for a 40-yard romp.

Almost all of Buffalo's offense came from Brown, Fred Jackson and Boobie Dixon, who combined for 117 rushing yards and made five catches for 75 more, meaning the three runners accounted for 76 percent of the unit's production.

The defense and special teams scored or set up the other 12 points, including Williams' clinching sack and strip.

Williams also blocked Mason Crosby's 53-yard field goal attempt and deflected a pass, one of 10 by Buffalo's defense.

The most telling statistics, though, were Rodgers' passing numbers -- 17-of-42 for 185 yards and the two interceptions by Baccari Rambo. This from a guy who had thrown 35 touchdown passes and just three picks, all of them off his receivers' hands, in the previous 13 games. His 34.3 passing rating was easily the lowest of his career.

As out of sync as Rodgers and his receivers remained all day, Green Bay still had 333 total yards to Buffalo's 253, and 21 first downs to the Bills' 13.

The enormous plays by Williams, Rambo, and Thigpen -- along with Buffalo getting just about every break and bounce -- rendered most of the numbers meaningless, though, guaranteeing the modest achievement of a .500 season for the first time in 10 years and sustaining hope of breaking the franchise's 15-year postseason drought.

For at least one more week.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Orton Always A Good Bet To Come Up Small

(Note: The following column was originally published in this week's Artvoice, but someone in the We Want Marangi multi-media department apparently dropped the ball on posting it here. Anyway, this also serves as the preview for Sunday's game against Green Bay, since you can basically sub "Aaron Rodgers" for "Peyton Manning" and "Packers" for "Broncos" below, or in this piece, with the same basic end result. Buffalo's defense could play even better at home against Green Bay than it did in Denver, and unless Kyle Orton starts playing at least as well as almost any other quarterback in the NFL, the Bills will be 7-7 as they head to Oakland next weekend.

Doug Marrone continues to insist that Orton, despite failing to lead his team to a touchdown until the game's competitive portion was over (again), somehow gives Buffalo its "best chance to win."

That phrase is even more meaningless than most coach-speak. Suggested follow-up question for the next time Marrone insults the intelligence of anyone watching the games: "In what way?")

 "The great thing about this is that ... " I started to say, before Dave -- one of the small group gathered to watch Buffalo take on the Broncos in Denver late Sunday afternoon -- finished the sentence.

“It makes no sense whatsoever,” he said, accurately assessing my decision, along with our friend Mark, to hypothetically add a little spice to the next few hours with a responsibly small wager on the hometown team.

Not merely to cover the 10-point spread, mind you, which could be argued is an attractive proposition on almost any NFL matchup, particularly one involving a defense as sporadically dominant as Buffalo’s. No, we theoretically chose to contribute enough to cover a double order of wings and a beverage by way of what is known as the money line, which offered a 400 percent return (in theory) on investment in the event the Bills did not just keep it close, but upset the Broncos, and Peyton Manning, in Denver.

All that was necessary to make it work was for Buffalo’s defense to somehow keep one of the most consistently productive quarterbacks in football history off his game while keeping a suddenly explosive ground game in check, as well as a career day from Manning’s counterpart in white, blue and red, Kyle Orton.

Like Dave said, no sense whatsoever.

“It should make things more interesting,” I said, as the television above the bar at The Public House on Hertel Avenue displayed the Broncos preparing for the opening kickoff. “Hopefully, for more than 10 minutes.”

At least that much proved correct. Manning and the Broncos did slowly, inexorably take control, scoring touchdowns in each of the first two quarters, while Orton’s Bills could must only a single field goal.

Still, even trailing by 11 at intermission, the game did not feel lost. Manning looked average, at least by his usual Cantonian standards. Denver’s running game, which piled up more than 200 yards in each of the previous two games, had managed just 56.

With Manning on the way to his least productive game since joining the Broncos, even a mediocre offensive performance would have put Buffalo -- and anyone with a conjectural investment in the outcome -- back in the thick of things.

Instead, as against New England, Miami and Kansas City, the defense was left to carry the rest of the Bills. In addition to the offense’s usual struggles against anyone not wearing New York Jets green, kickoff specialist Jordan Gay and punter Colton Schmidt managed to have lousy days in the thin air of Denver, an atmospheric anomaly that has kept aloft both the longest field goal and longest punt in NFL history.

The stress of hefting the other two units around finally cracked the defense, with Denver’s Juwan Thompson exploiting its one true breakdown of the day with a 47-yard run on third-and-1. Two plays later, it was 21-3.

Whereupon Orton set about extinguishing any shot at a comeback by throwing ugly interceptions on Buffalo’s next two drives, the second coming at Denver’s 2-yard line.

That led to a field goal and a 21-point Broncos lead, which put Orton squarely in his comfort zone.
Give the guy this much. Like Ryan Fitzpatrick before him, he can really pile up the numbers when an opponent goes into prevent mode, calling off the pass rush in favor of sagging back and yielding short, clock-running throws underneath.

Against the Broncos, he completed 17 of 27 fourth-quarter throws for 183 yards, allowing him the hollow achievement of setting a new franchise record with 57 attempts and tying the completions standard with 38, a pair of achievements that underscore just how meaningless football statistics can be.

With any real shot at winning extinguished, Orton led Buffalo to a pair of purely cosmetic touchdowns. Orton’s scoring plunge with 55 seconds left cut the final margin to seven, allowing fans to convince themselves that lousy officiating was somehow to blame for their team’s sixth loss in 13 games.

The furor over a fist bump between two officials following a Denver touchdown triggered the sort of remarkably paranoid self-pity party in which Buffalo fans seem to revel, but had no impact on the final outcome.

Any culpability for the officials relies on the idea that Orton would have capitalized on any additional opportunities that may have been doused by the questionable calls. Based on his body of work over the last two-plus months, it is much more likely that even had every single close call gone the Bills way, they still would have lost.

As would have Mark and I, was our financial interest in the outcome not merely notional.
Instead, the Bills limp home to face another playoff-bound team with another future Hall-of-Fame quarterback when the Packers and Aaron Rodgers visit on Sunday, their previously flickering playoff aspirations all but extinguished.

But while Orton and the rest of the offense failed to keep realistic postseason hope alive in Denver, give them a little credit. With that furious garbage-time rally, they did cover the spread.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Bills Living The Improbable Dream

It’s pretty simple, really.

After Buffalo beat Cleveland 26-10 on Sunday, all the Bills need to assure themselves of snapping their 15-year spell of playoff avoidance is to beat the three best teams in the National Football League, while managing to not lose to the worst.

Their 7-5 record has the Bills on pace for the sixth and final playoff spot—along with five other teams. A closing sweep would almost certainly get them in at 11-5, while they would have a pretty decent shot at 10-6.

They don’t face any of their five competitors (Miami, Kansas City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland) during the season’s final month, but do travel to Denver this weekend, come home to face Green Bay and, after a quick trip to 1-11 Oakland, finish up in New England.

The Broncos, Packers and Patriots are tied for the league’s best record at 9-3, along with Arizona and Philadelphia, and Las Vegas oddsmakers have them as the three teams most likely to win Super Bowl XLIX in February. On most Sundays, they also play a different game than the Bills, or at least the same game at a markedly higher level.

In eight games since Kyle Orton replaced E.J. Manuel at quarterback, Buffalo has scored a shade over 23 points per contest. Against opponents other than the New York Jets, the average falls to 17.

Denver, meanwhile, has put up nearly 33 points per outing over the same time period, exceeding 40 three times and just missing with 39 against Miami (which allowed the Bills just nine the previous week).

Green Bay has been even more prolific, averaging 36 points while running off a 7-1 mark—including a 26-21 win over New England last week—during The Orton Era, topping 50 points twice and 40 once.

And the Patriots, also 7-1 since Week 5, lead the way with 38.5 points per game, exceeding 50 points once and 40 three times.

The most glaring difference is at the sport’s most important position. While Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have somehow gotten more productive as they age, Orton’s performance has been, to be kind, remarkably consistent with the first 10 years of his professional career.

Against the Browns, Orton’s first interception came in the Cleveland end zone, helping keep Buffalo scoreless at halftime. Orton failed to pick up former Bills safety Jim Leonhard floating across the end zone, the sort of oversight you would expect from, say, an inexperienced second-year quarterback, not a cagy veteran whose ability to avoid glaring, potentially game-turning errors is ostensibly the reason for his presence on the field.

The second, shortly after intermission, allowed Cleveland to start out already in field goal range, with an excellent opportunity to take a double-digit lead with a touchdown.

Buffalo’s defense bailed him out on that one, and he then made a pair of throws—one deep to Robert Woods on fourth down, the second short to Chris Hogan for the Bills’ lone offensive touchdown of the day—to put the Bills ahead.

A 41-yard catch-and-run hookup with tight end MarQueis Gray, who had picked up 30 yards on an earlier, similar connection, led to one of four fourth-quarter field goals by Dan Carpenter to seal the win.

The two short tosses to Gray and the fourth-down fling to Woods covered a total of 105 yards. Orton completed precisely half of his other 28 throws for all of 75 yards, which comes out to 2.67 yards—or about 8 feet—per attempt.

That Buffalo still won the game rather handily stands as a tribute to just how good the Bills defense is, and has been for most of the year. They have given up the second-least points in the league, while ranking No. 5 in total yards allowed, fourth in interceptions and at the top of the list in quarterback sacks.

Out of 12 games, the defense has played well enough to win 10, with the burden of overcoming the shortcomings of their offensive counterparts proving overwhelming against San Diego and the Patriots the first time around.

Those are also the only two games in which they have faced an elite quarterback operating with most of his normal supporting cast.

So there is not much reason, other than a fan’s blind faith, to think Buffalo has much of a chance to knock off even one of the NFL’s true heavyweights, much less three in four weeks. Based purely on recent performance by all teams involved, and their quarterbacks, 8-8 looks like a more realistic possibility than 11-5, or even 10-6.

Which is the beauty of the whole thing. The Bills, for all their well-documented flaws, have put themselves in a position to control their playoff fate for the first time since the final game of 2004 (which they managed to, of course, lose to a Pittsburgh team resting almost every important player for their own postseason run).

But it beats the alternative Buffalo has been offering its fan base since people were freaking out about the inevitable catastrophe looming at midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. If the Bills do somehow get themselves into the NFL tournament, it would stand as one of the franchise’s most memorably unlikely achievements.

So enjoy the ride. While it lasts.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Buffalo Survives Browns, Bills Offense

For the second straight week, the Buffalo Bills looked like a playoff team during their 26-10 win over Cleveland on Sunday.

Two-thirds of one, at least.

As it has through the first three months of the 2014 season, the defense did its part and then some, keeping the Browns from seizing control of a game Kyle Orton's platoon appeared determine to hand them, then scoring what proved to be the decisive touchdown itself.

The special teams are fine, with Dan Carpenter's foot accounting for more than half his team's points, and new addition Marcus Thigpen sprucing up the return game.

As for the offense ... well, we'll get to that later.

We will also delay discussion of the final quarter of the schedule, a gauntlet which makes Buffalo's present spot in the standings -- tied with five other 7-5 teams in the race for the final AFC playoff berth -- particularly precarious.

Thanks almost entirely to the defense, though, this Sunday's visit to Denver, the first of three against leading Super Bowl favorites in the season's last four weeks, will be the franchise's most meaningful December game in a decade.

Back to the defense, which weathered an early burst of competence by Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer, forcing the Browns to settle for field-goal attempts on two long first-half drives. Hoyer completed 10 of 15 throws for 146 yards on those possessions.

The rest of the day? Eight-for-15 for 46 yards and two interceptions, before finally giving way to Johnny Manziel in the fourth quarter.

With the pass rush harassing Hoyer and the secondary producing repeated break-ups and stops, the Bills did not allow Cleveland to turn either of Orton's interceptions into points, even when the second set the Browns up at Buffalo's 30-yard line early in the third quarter.

Instead of fading under the burden of carrying the entire team (including an offense that appeared to be conspiring with the Browns through two quarters and part of a third) as it had in Buffalo's mid-November losses to Kansas City and Miami, the defense not only held, but turned the game around completely. With the Browns ready to take a lead of at least 6-0, Kyle Williams' third-down sack drove Cleveland out of field-goal range and led to Buffalo's first scoring drive.

Following Orton's own fleeting epiphany, which consisted wholly of a fourth-down heave to Robert Woods and an ensuing flip to Chris Hogan for Buffalo's lone offensive touchdown, Jerry Hughes took matters into his own hands and out of Terrance West's.

Hughes -- Mario Williams' lesser-known and lower-paid, but almost equally productive counterpart at the other end of the defensive line -- ripped the ball from the rookie running back while taking him to the ground, had the presence of mind to realize he had not been touched after taking possession, and was in the end zone before anyone else figured out what was going on.

Just like that, after more than a half of trying, and failing, to score a single point, the Bills posted two touchdowns in 10 seconds of game time.

Hopefully, you had not chosen that flash of explosiveness to use the restroom. Because not much else of consequence happened the rest of the way, unless you are a field-goal aficionado or Johnny Manziel cultist.

Following Hughes' bravura solo effort, an increasingly flustered Hoyer could not lead Cleveland to a single first down in three tries. After connecting with Buffalo safety Da'Norris Searcy for the second time, Hoyer spent the game's final 12 minutes on the sideline, watching the 2012 Heisman winner run around and rub his fingers together.

To his credit, Manziel did lead the Browns through an intentionally permissive Bills defense, dashing the final 10 yards himself for Cleveland's lone touchdown. He celebrated with the aforementioned finger-rubbing motion (to which he also treated the viewers at home in his introductory video clip), congealing his status as the The Situation of the National Football League.

On his second professional quarterbacking series, Manziel received his official welcome from Buffalo's pass rush. Kyle Williams splattered Johnny Football, who wound up flat on his back as what was ultimately ruled an incomplete pass bounced behind him into the end zone.

Meanwhile, Orton managed to not turn the ball over -- or do much of anything else -- the rest of the way. After taking that 14-3 lead, Buffalo started three drives in Cleveland territory. Each ended in a field goal. So did a drive highlighted by MarQueis Gray's second long run with a short Orton pass.

Gray, in his second game with his fourth NFL team, wound up tying Woods for the team lead with 71 receiving yards. The Browns didn't seem to bother covering Gray on either of his catches, perhaps because he had made himself as anonymous as a professional athlete can be, his long dreads completely covering the name plate on a jersey bearing No. 48.

(Note: With apologies to Brad Cieslak, Gray has already put himself in the conversation as the franchise's best-ever No. 48, with only early-'80s fullback Roosevelt Leaks standing in his way.)

Such one-off bits were about it for the offense, along with an earnest 97 total yards from Fred Jackson.

Meanwhile, the pass rush only notched two sacks, but continually disrupted the pocket and, after Cleveland's early precision, got strong backside support. Besides his pair of interceptions, Searcy recorded one of six other Buffalo pass break-ups and was in on four tackles, while Corey Graham batted one down and made seven stops.

The Browns couldn't do much on the ground, either, with their running backs average a paltry 2.5 yards per carry.

All of which proved enough for the Bills to overcome the Browns.

And, for at least one more game, their own offense.