If any team was pegged for mediocrity in the preseason, it was the Bills. After two consecutive 7-9 seasons, the Bills seemed to have mastered mediocrity. But two impressive games to start this season beg the question of whether the Bills have instead matured into a formidable football team that could challenge for the playoffs.
The Week 1 throttling of Seattle could be attributed to the Seahawks' serious injury situation, but this past Sunday, the Bills traveled to Jacksonville and escaped with a 20-16 victory over everyone's Super Bowl sleeper. The Jaguars are a disappointing 0-2 after close losses to Tennessee and Buffalo. A trip to division rival Indianapolis becomes an almost must-win situation.
The Bills' ascension was difficult to predict, as they made few offseason changes. But their returning core was extremely young and primed for improvement. Perhaps most importantly, quarterback Trent Edwards seems to have matured in his second season. He sliced up the Jaguars' defense, completing 20 of 25 passes and connecting on the big plays that eluded him last season. Through two games, he has averaged 8.3 yards per attempt, compared with 6.1 in 2007. He is completing a 20-yard pass on one out of eight attempts, compared with one out of 12.8 last season.
Edwards' early-season success gives the Bills competency at quarterback for the first time in years, but if Sunday's game is any indication, this team will be driven by defense. The team features a young, talented secondary that goes four deep at cornerback. The Bills' base defense is a conventional Cover 2, but their faith in their secondary allowed them to employ an aggressive blitzing scheme.
There are three fundamental differences between last year's Bills defense and the potential top-10 unit we've seen in the first two weeks of this season. Most importantly, free safety Ko Simpson is healthy and capable of playing deep coverage. Second, Paul Posluszny has returned from injury to solidify the middle linebacker position. And third, the Bills dealt for Marcus Stroud. The big defensive tackle's production had declined in recent years with the Jaguars, but he showed life on Sunday with a couple of pass deflections.
Jaguars quarterback David Garrard struggled to get comfortable against the Bills' attacking defense. Despite their smashmouth reputation, the Jaguars actually were more successful passing than running last season. Based on Football Outsiders' advanced stats, the Jags had the third-most-efficient passing offense last season, behind outfits run by guys named Brady and Manning.
Garrard is certainly a good quarterback, but his life was much easier when opposing defenses had eight guys up in the box to stop the run. Thanks to the favorable setting and some good fortune, Garrard had only three interceptions last season.
Garrard already has three interceptions this season, partly because injuries have ravaged the Jacksonville offensive line. Starting guard Vince Manuwai is out for the season with a torn ACL. Center Brad Meester and guard Maurice Williams are both out for some time with a torn biceps. Top reserve Richard Collier was the tragic victim of a shooting and will miss the season. The offensive line is the strength of the Jaguars' offense, but injuries have made it a liability. The two-headed attack of running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew is averaging less than three yards per carry. Without the threat of the running game, Garrard is suddenly a pretty good quarterback with very average weapons.
Jacksonville's offensive line will get close to whole later in the season, so expect a late-season run. The question will be whether the team has dug too big a hole for itself. Like last year, the AFC playoff race should be a dogfight -- especially now that Buffalo has added itself to the mix.
Ned Macey writes for FootballOutsiders.com