“The Bills lose Winfield,
And they get four picks,
After not having one,
Since something like 1966.
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?”
Well, it is ironic. No one would have thought or figured that heading into the Dolphins game without left corner Antoine Winfield, Buffalo could be plus-six in the turnover ratio and earn a nice, comfortable win over a hated rival in its own stadium – a win that didn’t even have to come down to the final seconds.
Right cornerback Nate Clements led the team with a franchise record-tying three interceptions, one of which went for a touchdown to put Buffalo up for good, 17-10 in the second quarter (see The Big Play). They were the team’s first interceptions since Phil Hansen had one against the Jets way back in December.
Now Buffalo is in sole possession of second place in the AFC East, half a game ahead of New England, which had a bye, and one game behind the first-place Dolphins. Most important, the win gave the Bills a mental boost, knowing that they could go into enemy trenches and come out with a win – even if the Dolphins were missing starting quarterback Jay Fiedler, and starting wide receivers Oronde Gadsden and Chris Chambers. This was a win over the Fish, no matter how you scaled it.
“This is where everybody wanted to be,” said weakside linebacker Eddie Robinson. “It gives us a legitimate chance to try and win the division.”
“This puts us in the middle of it,” added Drew Bledsoe. “Had we lost this one, then we’re really looking up at the Dolphins, but we put one on them. We’re a game behind them, but this puts us in the middle of the pack at least. We still got a lot of work cut out for us.”
So just what does this monumental win over the Dolphins say about the Bills?
“It says a lot,” Travis Henry said.
The Bills’ defensive game plan was to stick eight in the box, limit the success of Ricky Williams and the much-feared Dolphins ground game and force Ray Lucas to throw. Early on, Lucas looked sharp, taking Miami 57 yards for a score and a 7-0 lead on its opening drive of the game.
At first, it didn’t look good for Buffalo.
But as the game wore on, the Bills used a variety of fronts and packages to screw Lucas up and make him hesitate with his throwing decisions. In the fourth quarter, Lucas looked as frazzled as that geek in the Van Halen “Hot for Teacher” video.
Overall, the fifth-year pro completed just 13 of 33 passes for a 39 percent completion percentage – the worst of the 10 games he had started in the NFL. He also had a 26.3 passer rating.
“We just played our package,” said Gregg Williams, explaining the defensive strategy. “Jerry Gray did a good job mixing up the zone and the man to man coverage stuff and the fact that that they had two receivers down helped us too. But you know what? There are no gimmes in this league and we earned this win and I’m very proud of our guys.”
“We stepped it up today,” said strongside Keith Newman. “We can’t expect our offense to put up 30-plus points every week. We got (23) points today and (23) points should be good enough to win on the road in the NFL.”
It was good enough to win on this day, anyway.
Miami’s Williams still managed 97 yards rushing on 25 carries. But his longest run was 14 yards. Part of his problem was that nose tackle Pat Williams, who’s been playing very well of late, was stout in the middle, allowing the linebackers to penetrate and bring Ricky Williams down early enough to contain the ground damage.
Robinson said, “We did a little bit of stunting with the linemen – their guys are a little big along the offensive line – so we let our smaller guys stunt to try and get around them. And Pat just did a great job of stepping up in the middle and Keith and I was able to force the edges and make the guy go sideways. And guys did a good job tackling.”
In the end, it was the Dolphins’ turnovers and lack of turnovers on defense that did the team in.
Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt: “I can probably clean this up in about one second. Six turnovers against a team that is scoring 35 points a game, the second best offense in the league. It is going to be tough winning. It was remarkable that the game was as close as it was to be quite honest with you. Just disappointing to have so many opportunities, one for a touchdown and twice we turn it over inside the 30 in the first half and get no points out of it. Very disappointing.”
The Bills turned three turnovers into 17 points. Two plays after Clements intercepted Lucas in the red zone at the beginning of the second quarter, Bledsoe connected with Eric Moulds on a bomb down the right sideline for a 70-yard score, vaulting Buffalo ahead 10-7. It was at that point when the possibility of beating Miami became a reality.
“With Eric and Peerless on the outside,” Bledsoe said, “any time someone is going to put them in a one-on-one situation, I feel like that’s going to be a win for us. Eric did a great job on that one.”
When Buffalo was in control it relied on Travis Henry, who finished with 132 yards on 22 carries. The team struggled to get first downs and eat the clock for much of the third and fourth quarters, but Miami was playing so poorly offensively, that it didn’t matter. Finally, up 20-10 late in the fourth quarter, it put together a nine-play drive that heavily featured Henry. The offense got two key first downs. Then Mike Hollis finished it off – and the Dolphins – with a 44-yard field goal, his third of the game.
Bledsoe summarized the game.
“It’s a huge win for us,” he said. “It builds our confidence and this team has gotten better each week. We’re a young team, offensive line is young, but we’re getting better each week. As long as guys do the things that have been working for us, and keep working hard and keep pushing forward, I expect us to continue to improve through the course of the year.”