Whenever I’m home in Rhode Island and listening to sports radio, I’m struck by how critical the talk show hosts and callers are of their New England teams.
Those teams win Super Bowls and World Series and NBA titles, and yet people are still picking at their flaws, fretting about the imperfections and wondering why they don’t win it every year.
That’s what happens when excellence isn’t a fanciful hope, but an expectation. Any small crack in the foundation is a sign of a crumbling dynasty, and fair game for criticism. They don’t measure themselves against mediocrity, but against their own elevated standards.
So if the Bills want to be taken seriously as an NFL contender — and I believe they could be the best Buffalo team in 20 years — they shouldn’t go patting themselves on the back after Sunday’s nerve-wracking, 21-17 victory over the Bengals at New Era Field.
OK, so they’re 3-0 for the first time in eight years. Head coach Sean McDermott celebrated their collective heart after they rallied to win in the final moments after frittering away a 14-0 halftime lead that should have been considerably larger.
Even McDermott, when pressed in the interview room, acknowledged as much after the Bills averted what would have been a soul-crushing defeat in the home opener.
“Yeah,” McDermott said when I asked if they should have been farther ahead after a dominant defensive first half. “With all respect to the Bengals, I did. That’s what I said (to his team), that it’s one of the areas we have a lot to work on and to learn from.”
Late in the first half, the Bills were leading, 14-0. They had outgained the Bengals, 221 total yards to 28, at that point. They could have led by twice as much, if not for a T.J. Yeldon fumble, a couple of errant throws by Josh Allen, and some overly cute playcalling.
They had played shabbily with the lead against the Giants in Week 2. For the second straight week, they showed their age, looking like an immature team that wasn’t used to playing with a big lead, one that felt it could put things on cruise control against an inferior opponent.
McDermott recited his standard line about how “it’s tough to win in this league.” But he’s right. Any team can rise up if you give them an opportunity. The Bengals were dreadful for more than a half. But Andy Dalton has won a lot of games in the league and if you allow him to get into a rhythm, as the Bills did in the second half, he can get on a roll.
Allen, who was terrific in the first half, opened the door with one of his signature awful throws midway through the third quarter, making a reckless throw over the middle of the field that was picked off by Darius Phillips and returned to the Bills’ 22.
Three plays later, Dalton waltzed into the end zone for a touchdown and it was suddenly a 14-7 game. It was as if Allen’s throw breathed new life into a team that had one foot on the team plane back to southern Ohio.
“You’ve got to be smart,” McDermott said. “You can’t throw the ball over the middle of the defense like that. I thought that was the play that changed the momentum of the game.”
Dalton, that erstwhile Buffalo folk hero, was 6 of 6 passing on an 82-yard TD drive straddling the third and fourth quarters. He marched the Bengals to a field goal later in the fourth, putting them up, 17-14, with 4:12 left in the game and leaving a sellout crowd in stunned silence.
“We have to understand that when we have our foot on someone’s throat, we have to have the killer’s instinct to end it quick,” said defensive end Jerry Hughes. "So this was a great game for us, a stepping stone on how to play with the lead and be smart and go out and finish games."
Maybe the Bills aren’t ready to be that type of team. They’re 3-0, but they haven’t exactly played the 1971-73 Dolphins. Their three victims (Jets, Giants, Bengals) are a combined 1-8.
Allen has made tremendous strides so far. He has completed 64 percent of his passes for 750 yards, which puts him on pace for precisely 4,000 yards over a full season. He led yet another fourth-quarter comeback — albeit from a deficit largely of his own making.
But he’s still making those dangerous, confounding throws into coverage — “Hero Ball” plays, in the current parlance. On the series after his interception, Allen failed to see the safety shifting over and made another dubious throw down the field that could easily have been picked off.
There’s also the offensive line, which is better then last year’s remedial unit but not nearly as good as some critics would have you believe. They’re below average in pass protection and had Allen under siege and scrambling for much of the afternoon.
Am I nitpicking? That’s how it goes when you’re a contender, when you’re supposed to be good. In today’s NFL, all teams have flaws. The true contenders acknowledge their flaws, learn from them and rise above them.
That’s the most promising thing about Allen, that he is learning and demonstrating the ability to put aside a regrettable play (or four, against the Jets) and move past it. He seems to thrive on finding his way through crisis.
McDermott praised his guys for their heart and resiliency after the win. He took even longer than usual to arrive at his post-game press conference, and he became emotional when he uttered the word “heart.” But you suspected that he didn’t spend all that time in the locker room throwing them bouquets.
There was plenty to criticize after this stirring victory. McDermott talks about his process, and he knows that winning games in which you squandered a lead and survived can be a requisite part of the learning process.
All right, so they won. They’re 3-0, albeit an imperfect 3-0 against a trio of losing teams in a down year for the AFC. That doesn’t include the 0-3 Dolphins, a tanking team they still have to play twice. If you assume those are two wins, that means the Bills merely have to go 5-6 in the other games to finish with 10 games for the first time since 1999.
That certainly seems achievable. We’ll find out a lot more next week when the Patriots come to New Era. New England is also 3-0 after drilling the Jets, 30-14, on Sunday in Foxborough.
The Patriots shut out the Jets in the first half. They haven’t allowed a point in the first two quarters in five straight games, dating back to last year’s AFC title game against the Chiefs. Head coach Bill Belichick said are still things his defense “needs to work on and be more consistent at.”
That’s the Patriot way. Even when you’re perfect, you can still be better. Enjoy this start while you can, but the Bills are still a long way from achieving that kind of standard.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.