If, on the last day of the preseason, you told someone the Buffalo Bills would be an AFC best 4-1, 90% of people would laugh in your face, the other 10% were Bills fans and were far too depressed to laugh. However, 5 weeks into the 2011 season the Bills sit atop the AFC along with the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers.
The Bills were initially written off by most analysts – ESPN’s annual pre-season power ranking had the Bills ranked 31 out of 32, while Yahoo Sports predicted a 4-12 season, (the second worst record in the league). The Bills have surprised even the most optimistic fans. Led by their bearded (and what a beard it is) QB, and fantasy football monster, Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills are off to a terrific start.
The former Harvard Crimson quarterback spent his first 4 years as a backup in St. Louis and Cincinnati before signing with the Bills in 2009. After winning the starting job at the beginning of the 2010 season “FitzMagic”, as he’s called by the Bills faithful, made the most of his opportunity throwing for 3000 yards and 23 touchdowns in 13 games. Though the Bills went 4-12 that year, most fans got their first real look at “FitzDragon”, and though analysts certainly placed no faith in him, the organization clearly did, by choosing not to pick a QB with the 3rd overall pick of last year’s draft.
If last year was FitzMagic’s coming out party to the Bills fans, this year has certainly been his coming out to the rest of the league. In 5 games he’s racked up 1200 yards and 10 touchdowns and currently has the 7th best QB rating in the league. His passing numbers, although not league leading, are solid. He is currently in the top 10 in TDs, QB rating, completion percentage, and top 15 in most other stats, coupled with his ability to avoid turnovers (only 4 QB’s have fewer interceptions per attempts) have given the Bills something they haven’t had since 2004; a QB that can win games for the club, rather than just not lose them.
Though Fitzpatrick (I think we’ve gone a bit overboard with nicknames to this point) may be getting the media spotlight, the real secret to the Bills success has been 5th year running back Fred Jackson. After putting up 1000+ yards in 2009 and 900+ in 2010, Jackson is once again running all over opponent’s defenses.
After 5 games, Jackson is 5th in yards per carry, 3rd in total yards, 3rd in touchdowns, 1st in yards for a 20 yard gain or more, 2nd in first downs and he still hasn’t fumbled the ball. Last year Jackson ranked as the 8th best pass blocking running back in the league, something that he is terribly underrated at, and this year his skills have only improved, helping Fitzpatrick become the least sacked QB in the league. With 480 yards already, Jackson will most likely eclipse the 1000 yard mark for the second time in his career, while continuing to be the motor behind the Bills success.
As everyone should know, a football team is not made up of just a QB or RB, and the Bills supporting cast has perhaps been the biggest surprise this year. Last year the Bills often-injured offensive line (11 different players suited up for the 5 man unit) was one of the worst in the league, allowing the 11th most sacks and 5th most QB hits. However, this year has certainly been a turn around as the Bills offensive line has been arguably one of the best in league.
Fred Jackson has been running all over defences and despite running the ball 139 times, the tandem of Jackson and Spiller have only lost yards on 15 plays. Fitzpatrick has also benefited greatly from the improved O-line as he has been sacked a league low 3 times.
The Bills defence may seem like somewhat of a paradox this year. On one hand it seems they have no answer to anything the opposing teams do. They are 30th of 32 in total yards given up per game. Opponents are averaging almost 140 yards per game against them, giving them the 4th worst rushing defence and their pass defence is much better, allowing 283 yards a game, 7th worst in the NFL.
Though their yard per game is truly terrible, they are in the middle of the league in terms of allowing teams to score. They give up 24 points a game, good enough for 15th in the NFL. The reason for the terrible yards per game coupled with a decent point per game total is fairly simple: turnovers.
The Bills defense has a league leading 16 turnovers this season. The Bills secondary has picked off opposing QB’s 11 times this year, with 3 of those going for touchdowns. Their 186 yards off of interceptions have definitely helped Fitzpatrick and the offense with starting field position.
If the Bills can win a few more division games, and keep winning the turnover battle, the 11-year playoff drought could finally come to an end.