In defeat, Bills closed the gap

In defeat, the Bills proved that they can rumble with the AFC's elite. Last year's problems have become this year's strengths. Here are Tyler Dunne's reasons to believe...

For a split-second, stop sulking. Stop wallowing in your tears of self-pity, wondering what could have been. Whoever vandalized Leodis McKelvin's lawn deserves a Chuck Norris-sized roundhouse to the face. That's disgusting, disturbing and has unfortunately given all Buffalo fans a bad rep nationally.

Monday night was a nightmare in real life, no doubt. But before you surrender season tickets to StubHub, look at the big picture. The Bills lost to New England, but in the process they clearly have closed the gap in the AFC East. The problems of last year were fixed.

Make no mistake. The pressure on Dick Jauron is still higher than ever — these heartbreaking losses are becoming routine — but there's reason to believe that this Bills team is different. Some guy named Terrell Owens only had two receptions and Buffalo still should have won.

Here are the tell-tale signs that Buffalo could be a playoff competitor this season:

--- The 3-4 defense doesn't faze Buffalo. Geoff Hangartner is clearly a colossal upgrade over Duke Preston. It was night and day out there. Hangartner repeatedly steered Vince Wilfork out of camera view to carve lanes for Fred Jackson. Far fetches from the days of Preston getting bowled over.

Maybe more importantly, Hangartner was the point man on screen passes that demoralized New England throughout the game. Jackson caught five passes for 80 yards in large part to Hangartner's athleticism in the open field. He was vocal before every play, calling the correct blocking schemes. Hangartner, not T.O., was Buffalo's best addition over the offseason. Buffalo got an absolute steal.

--- Aaron Schobel is reborn. Safe to say nobody saw this coming. Coming off a foot injury (and a couple years of ineffectiveness), expectations for Schobel were tempered this season. He didn't get much heat on quarterbacks through the preseason. At 32 years old, it sure looked like Schobel was becoming an archaic shell of his former self.

Wrong. Buffalo's defensive end wreaked havoc against the Patriots. He had one sack, multiple pressures and, of course, the savvy pick six. New England's offensive line is not what it used to be, but Schobel should be a dependable 12-sack performer this season. That's more than anybody could ask for. Looks like there is hope for Buffalo's pass rush after all.

Fred Jackson is a matchup nightmare. With or without Marshawn Lynch, Jackson needs to play a keynote role on this offense. Finally, his rare blend of speed, power and acceleration is being appreciated. By the fans. By the Bills. By the public. The guy has worked as hard as any player on the entire team over the last two years and now he's reaping some rewards as the focal point of the offense.

Here's hoping Jackson doesn't recede into a change-of-pace back when Lynch returns. On Monday, he proved that he's more than a complementary wind to Lynch's fire. Jackson is a guy defenses must account for every single play. He does more than Lynch ever dreamed of on the ground and through the air.

Against the Patriots, Jackson had 140 total yards (57 rushing, 83 receiving). He glides like a gazelle, yet still runs angry. Jackson finished plays with a low-shoulder kaboom each time. The Bills never tried to establish a ball-control running game, yet still he was effective because of his multiple talents. I'm not sure if Lynch is as suited for this no-huddle offense. In style and substance.

Jackson can line up behind Edwards, motion into the slot, out wide, or….who knows. He's a weapon this offense has not had in a very long time. He'll drive opponents nuts all season if the coaches use him right.

The O-Line is maturing. Demetrius Bell was a drive-killer at left tackle. His two brain-fart flags for lining up too far back were embarrassing. And his holding penalty in the second half halted one of Buffalo's best drives of the game. But other than this, Buffalo's ultra-young offensive line held up just fine.

Andy Levitre and Eric Wood are athletic guys that can pull out into space in a hurry. Afterward, Wood sounded like a confident veteran.

"This loss hurts, but I'm encouraged by the way we fought," Wood said. "That's the way Coach Sean Kugler talks about and that is what he wanted to bring into the room, guys who fight. That's what we are going to do up front."

In other words, they're the antithesis of last year's plus-sized, plodding, underachieving offensive line. The Bills took a huge risk in entrusting the offensive line with three players who had never taken a snap before. After succeeding under the MNF limelight, the future is very, very bright for this unit.

When T.O. is shut down, others step up. New England had a cornerback harassing and a safety stalking Terrell Owens all night. T.O. was treated like Jon Gosselin. A paparazzi hoard swarmed to him constantly. So Trent Edwards didn't force the issue. He consistently settled with other options and played mistake-free football.

Other receivers stepped up. Jackson, tight end Shawn Nelson and several others made plays at key moments.

---

Immediately after the game, players weren't leaning on all these moral victories. They had their foot on the throat of the best team of this generation. And the prevent defense, Tom Brady's heroics and one costly fumble cost them.

Even Nelson, who grew up in a hurry Monday, wasn't looking for silver linings.

"I know what this game meant to this team and this organization," Nelson said. "It is hard because we had the game in our hands and didn't come out on top."

Not this time. But it's clear that the Bills will not go 0-8 in the division again. They are built to compete for a playoff berth. And that's something nobody could say one week ago.

Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of BuffaloFootballReport.com. Contact him at thdunne@gmail.com.

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