NFL Gridiron Gab Week Eight Preview: Buffalo at Kansas City

Statistically, Ryan Fitzpatrick is one of the best QB’s in the NFL

Still trying to get over the hump and register their first victory in the 2010 season, the Buffalo Bills are set to invade Arrowhead Stadium where they’ll challenge the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the biggest surprises thus far in the NFL season.

Though the season is still relatively young, the Chiefs have already matched their win total from last year, and with a victory over the Bills on Sunday afternoon, it will mark the first time since 2006 that Kansas City has won more than four games.

The Chiefs raced out of the gate with hot start at 3-0.  And now with their record at 4-2, Kansas City sits atop the AFC West while looking to improve to a 4-0 start at home since 2003 at the hands of the winless Bills.  Suddenly, the surprising resurgent Chiefs are in a position now where they’re expected win.  With consecutive divisional trips to Oakland and Denver on the horizon, the Chiefs can’t afford any looks ahead nor any letdowns.

To avoid being Buffalo’s first notch on their belt, Kansas City’s game plan figures to be controlling the ground game with running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones.  The Chiefs’ boast the league’s top-rated rushing attack with 176.5 yards per game, while it just so happens that the Bills have the NFL’s worst rushing defense, allowing a staggering 174.5 yards per game on the ground.

The duo of  Jones and Charles have combined for 180 carries, 950 yards and five touchdowns;  Charles has a whopping 6.0 yards per carry average to Jones’ 4.7 ypc.  The Chiefs are fresh off their season-best 236 yards rushing as a team in last week’s 42-20 victory over Jacksonville, in which Jones ran for a season-high 125 yards.

The Bills are 0-6, off to their worst start since the 1985 season and stand alone as the NFL’s only remaining winless team.  They’ve allowed 34 points or more in five straight games (a franchise record), and as hard as they may be fighting, that hard work and determination has failed to translate into wins.  At the start of the season, this game looked as though it would be one of the few the Bills had a chance of winning.  But looks can be very deceiving.  Six games in, the Chiefs have division and playoff aspirations and the Bills are desperately trying to avoid the Detroit Lions and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the only teams to go 0-16.

The moral victories and the close-but-no-cigar cliches have been no comfort for Buffalo.   Take away Oct. 3rd 38-14 blowout loss against the New York Jets, and the Bills have led in three of their past four games, only to come away empty handed.

Buffalo led at New England 16-14 near the final moments of the first half, but the Patriots regained the lead with a field goal, 17-14.  Buffalo pulled to within one, 24-23, but Tom Brady and the Patriots wouldn’t allow the Bills to get any closer, winning 38-30.  The Bills led against Jacksonville 13-3, played mistake-free football but the defense couldn’t hold the lead and they couldn’t stop the Jacksonville offense as the Bills lost 36-26.  Last week, the Bills had two 10-point leads on the road against Baltimore, but despite over 500 yards of offense, were undone by four turnovers and the Ravens squeezed by Buffalo in overtime, 37-34.

Unfortunately it has all added up to mean that the Bills simply haven’t been good enough to get a win.  Despite the tremendous game last week at Baltimore and arguably one of their best efforts ever at New England, Buffalo has failed to put everything together for 60 minutes.  But if Ryan Fitzpatrick’s play is any indication going forward, the Bills might not be winless for much longer.

Fitzpatrick boasted a career day last Sunday in Baltimore, throwing for 374 yards and an NFL-tying season high four touchdown passes.  It was the first time in four years that a Bills quarterback has thrown for more than 300 yards in a game.  The former Harvard signal caller has thrown for at least two touchdowns in each of the past four games, pumping life back into Lee Evans while turning Steve Johnson into a reliable No.2 receiver.

Fitzpatrick connected with both receivers last week, throwing three of his touchdowns to Evans.  After resembling a ghost rather than the Bills’ No.1 wideout, Evans has had a resurgent effort since Fitzpatrick took over as the starter, hauling in four scores.  Johnson, on the other hand, has put to rest any and all doubts about having a reliable target opposite Evans.  Johnson leads the Bills in receiving  (372 yards) and touchdowns (5).  All five of Johnson’s touchdowns have come in the Bills’ last four games.

Despite dropping their last two road games by a combined 11 points, one saving grace for Buffalo on Sunday might be their recent success in one of the toughest venues in all of football.  The Bills have won two straight in Kansas City in as many years.  Last year, Fitzpatrick was the starter when the Bills escaped Arrowhead Stadium with a 16-10 victory.  Buffalo has won three in a row overall in this series, holding Kansas City to 10 points or less in two of those three contests.

3 Keys to the Game

1.  Stopping the Running Game. I hate to keep banging the same drum, but if the Chiefs excel in running it and the Bills are the NFL’s worst in stopping the run, what do you think the Chiefs’ game plan is going to feature?  The Chiefs will rely on Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones to put them in position for win No.5, and not leave it all on quarterback Matt Cassell.  Charles is averaging 6.0 yards per carry.  The Bills are giving up a shade under 175 rushing yards a game.  Buffalo reverted back to their 4-3 defense last week in hopes of stopping, or at least slowing the bleeding as it pertains to the run defense.  They gave up 125 yards against Baltimore a week ago, which is a big improvement considering they allowed three straight weeks of surrendering 200-plus yards rushing.

2. Make Matt Cassell’s afternoon uncomfortable. Another area of the game where I feel like I’m playing the same song on the juke box, but nonetheless it holds just as true as the run game.  Buffalo ranks second-to-last in the AFC with just eight sacks and they have a league worst one interception.  Not to mention it’s five games and counting that the Bills have allowed 34 points or more.  The Chiefs are tied with the Jets with just four turnovers, tops in the league.  Cassell is doing his part, playing mistake free football and making good decisions with the football.  In last season’s meeting, Cassell was sacked three times and threw a career-worst four interceptions, three of which came in the fourth quarter.  The Bills needs to find some way to get pressure and players in Cassell’s kitchen.  In short: dig out last year’s game film and duplicate that defensive effort once again.

3.  Win the turnover battle.  Even though their 0-6 record suggests otherwise, the Bills aren’t a charity and are in no position to be giving games away.  Sure they played their best football a week ago against the Ravens, but their four turnovers played a big factor in their overtime loss.

Prediction:  Chiefs 27, Bills 21. The Chiefs enter this game in some unfamiliar territory: they’re now expected to win games.  And against a Bills team that’s winless and with two major divisional rivals coming up, the Chiefs can’t afford to let this one slip from their grasp.  Fitzpatrick has the Bills playing better and they enter with confidence knowing they can beat the Chiefs in their own stadium.  But I’m going to revert back to one of my main rules for picking games:  if they’re winless, pick against them until they prove they can win a game.  I think the Bills keep it close, but close has meant no cigar for the Bills and I don’t think the trend changes.

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