With so few reasons to celebrate on Sunday afternoons this season, last week the Bills gave us a pretty good reason smile with a crucial 16-13 overtime victory on the road against the New York Jets. Now can lightning strike twice in as many weeks when Buffalo squares off against Carolina?
The Bills will have some confidence heading into Carolina coming off a huge win over the Jets, considering the circumstances. Starting quarterback Trent Edwards was knocked out of the game in the second quarter when he suffered a concussion. Buffalo trailed 13-3 at halftime. They had no answers for the Jets rushing attack and the injury list grew once again. But with all that, the Bills somehow found a way to persevere and snap their three-game skid and eight-game losing streak in the division.
As the Bills prepare for the Panthers, they’ll most likely do so with backup Ryan Fitzpatrick making his first start in a Bills uniform. In relief of Edwards a week ago, Fitzpatrick went 10 of 25 for 116 yards with a touchdown and an interception. His 37-yard game tying touchdown to Lee Evans late in the third quarter got the Bills back in the game and allowed Buffalo to be in a position to play for the win in overtime.
Kudos must be given to the Bills inexperienced and often porous offensive line. Last week, the unit started three rookies (Jamon Meredith, Eric Wood, Andy Levitre), but the kids held the fort and kept Fitzpatrick upright. This week they’ll have to find a way to duplicate last week’s performance, especially against Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers.
Overall, Peppers has five sacks on the season but the past two weeks he’s been a nightmare for opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks. In Carolina’s wins over Washington and Tampa Bay, Peppers registered four sacks, a forced fumble and five tackles for loss.
After being asleep at the wheel for the first three weeks, the Panthers have awakened. Winners of two straight, Carolina’s turnaround can be traced to running and defense. Two weeks ago in a 28-17 win over Washington, the Panthers held the Redskins to 198 total yards and last week they held Tampa Bay to 245 total yards. The two headed monster of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield is finally starting to percolate. Last week against Tampa Bay, Williams and Stewart accounted for 262 of the team’s 267 total rushing yards; Williams rushed for 152 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Stewart had 110 yards and a touchdown.
While the Panthers’ 8th ranked rushing attack has the team pointed in the right direction, Carolina continues to have problems through the air. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has carried over last year’s awful six interception performance in the playoffs against Arizona into this season. In five games, Delhomme has just four touchdowns, but he’s thrown 10 interceptions. Star wide receiver Steve Smith is suffering as a result of Delhomme’s struggles. Smith has just 21 catches for 259 yards and has yet to find the end zone. After last week’s 1 catch for four yard performance, Smith declared that he’s “no longer an asset to him team.”
In Smith’s case, misery loves company and he’s got in the form of Terrell Owens and Lee Evans. Evans may lead the Bills in receiving yards and touchdowns, but the numbers are similar to Smith’s; Evans has just 227 yards receiving with two touchdowns. And as for Owens? Like his star counterpart Smith, Owens has only one score to go with 215 yards receiving. It’s pretty simple if you go strictly by the numbers. Carolina is ranked 29th in the NFL in passing and Buffalo is a mere few rungs higher at 25th. Translation: both teams are enduring serious quarterback issues when it comes to going downfield and getting the ball into the hands of the receivers.
Speaking of serious issues. That brings us to the Bills run defense. Or something like that. Through the first two games against New England and Tampa Bay, the Bills allowed just 130 yards rushing combined. Then, the bottom fell completely out. Against the Saints, they gave up 222 total rushing yards and three scores. At Miami, they were torched for 250 yards and three scores while giving up 5.6 yards per carry. Last week against the Jets, the Bills rushing defense hit rock bottom just six weeks into the season. As a team, the Jets rushed for 318 on a whopping 8.0 yards per carry. Thomas Jones set a career mark rushing for 210 yards and Leon Washington went for 99 yards. For four weeks straight the Bills have allowed a 100 yard rusher and two out of the last four games, they’ve almost allowed 2 100-yard rushers. In case you haven’t put this puzzle together, the Bills run defense ranks 32nd in the NFL, good for dead last. That explains the twinkle in the eyes of Williams and Stewart.
On the injury front, the Bills infirmary is backing up again. Trent Edwards will most likely be out with a concussion. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams looks like a no-go with a torn joint in his shoulder. Donte Whitner suffered an ankle injury in the win over the Jets and he is questionable for Sunday’s game, as is corner back Terrence McGee, who suffered a chest contusion last week against New York. Offensive lineman Jonathan Scott likely remains out with an ankle injury he suffered against Cleveland two weeks ago. Corner back Bryan Scott also looks doubtful for this week with a high ankle sprain suffered against New Orleans in Week 3. Scott has missed the past three weeks.
Final Prediction: Panthers 26, Bills 17. The Bills will certainly be a confident group going into Sunday’s contest after last week’s gutsy win. However, this is a tough spot to be in. On the road for the second consecutive, the Bills will face the prospects of having to stop one of the NFL’s best backfield duos, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
A week after Thomas Jones shredded the Bills for 210 yards and Leon Washington going for a yard shy of 100, it’s frightening to think of what Williams and Stewart can do. The Bills have been horrible against the run the last four weeks and that’s not likely to change this week.