Commentary

Heartbreak Handbook for Bengals, Bills

Two teams, two different paths after wrenching Week 1 losses

Originally Published: October 17, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Cincy & Buffalo SplitGetty ImagesThe Bengals (left) and Bills have taken different paths this season.
As you recall, two teams with playoff aspirations had heartbreaking season-opening losses.

The Cincinnati Bengals had the Broncos beat when Denver quarterback Kyle Orton threw a desperation pass into triple coverage. It was batted in the air and landed in the welcoming arms of receiver Brandon Stokley, who raced 87 yards for a touchdown. The Broncos won 12-7.

The next night, the Buffalo Bills had the New England Patriots beat -- until Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes in the final 3 minutes, 26 seconds, both to tight end Ben Watson, both on the same route: a skinny post, the ball intentionally thrown to the backside shoulder. The Pats won 25-24.

You never know how teams will recover from those types of losses. It can serve as either a rallying cry or a cry for help. And sure enough, it's done both this season.

The Bengals are 4-1. The wins haven't always been pretty -- executing PATs has been oddly difficult -- but no matter, Cincy has beaten the talented Green Bay Packers, the defending-champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the venerable Baltimore Ravens. They've done it with a castoff running back in Cedric Benson and a defense that doesn't play well all the time but does when it needs to: Only three teams in the AFC have allowed fewer points than Cincy's 90.

Meanwhile, the Bills are 1-4, losers of three in a row, last in their division. Only two AFC teams have scored fewer points than Buffalo's 77. One of them is the offensively stunted Browns, who last week beat the Bills 6-3 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills have two running backs averaging 4 yards a carry, and three freakishly talented receivers, yet rank 31st in time of possession.

So what's the difference?

Is it injuries?

The Bengals have been relatively healthy, while the Bills have been decimated, especially at linebacker, where they've lost three starters -- Paul Posluszny, Kawika Mitchell, and Marcus Buggs -- to various ailments. But neither team has a Peyton Manning to lose, so …

How about talent?

Maybe. With Carson Palmer back to his 2006-self, the Bengals are probably slightly more talented across the board, but it's not like a Giants-Raiders discrepancy.

Schedule?

No. Cincy's opponents are collectively 14-10; Buffalo's, 10-14.

Money?

Nope, both owners are equally cheap.

Luck?

After Stokley's catch, you going to tell the Bengals that they're lucky?

Frankly, if you could cite one reason why fairly even teams handle adversity differently, you'd be rich enough to buy either of these teams. It's something harder to define. Every time the Bills have faced the type of situations that can solidify a team, they haven't handled them well.

The Bills entered the season strangely, having fired offensive coordinator Turk Schonert in late August and replaced him with Alex Van Pelt. Strange, yes -- but also the type of move that a team can rally around. The Bills haven't. Two fourth-quarter, special-teams blunders -- a fumble on a kickoff return by Leodis McKelvin against the Pats and a muffed punt last week against the Browns by receiver Roscoe Parrish -- have cost them games.

The moments in which QB Trent Edwards has had a chance to distinguish himself in his craft, he hasn't. True, his offensive line has been a mess. But at one point or another so is every quarterback's -- the best ones overcome it.

Topping it off, Terrell Owens (12 catches) is off to the slowest start of his career since he became a starter.

The Bills spent all offseason trying to learn the no-huddle offense, but it isn't scaring anyone. One opposing coach says the point of the no-huddle is to get to the line quickly to prevent the defense from making substitutions. But "they're so slow, we had no problem subbing our guys," he said.

The result? Owner Wilson is leaving the door open that coach Dick Jauron could be fired any day. It's too early to definitively know if the Bills have character, but we'll learn now. When a coach is dangling in the wind, not many teams follow him as he twists.

The Bengals, meanwhile, haven't played perfectly. But one way or another, they've survived. They survived Week 2 against the Packers when time expired as Green Bay tried to get to the line for a final play.

They survived Week 3 against the Steelers when Palmer threw for two fourth-quarter touchdowns. They survived Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns in overtime by not quitting, even when a PAT late in the fourth quarter that would have won the game was blocked. And they found a way against the Ravens last Sunday, despite star defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife, Vikki, passing away days before the game. There wasn't a dry eye in America that saw Zimmer's postgame speech: "My wife loves all of you. Win or lose, she's proud of you."

"Everyone has stuck together," says cornerback Johnathan Joseph, whose three interceptions are tied for third leaguewide. "This team has a lot of character."

When was the last time "character" was used in a good way to describe the Bengals?

Lousy stuff happens to every NFL team. For some, it feeds on itself and wipes out a season. For others, it becomes a hurdle that forms a stronger bond than the players had before.

Of course, now the Bengals just have to keep it up. It's not easy, though. Just ask the 2008 Bills, who finished 7-9 after starting -- you guessed it -- 4-1.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.