Eric Wood has been on the Buffalo Bills' offensive line for seven seasons, and despite what you might expect from a player on a franchise that has yet to enjoy a single playoff season this millennium, he has seen optimism and enthusiasm before. In 2011, the Bills started 5-2, and their 3-0 break from the gate included a home victory over the New England Patriots, a day that Wood remembers as including a wild scene at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The moment was fleeting -- the Bills finished 6-10 that season, continuing the NFL's longest streak of playoff-free futility -- but at least it serves as a handy reference point. So when Wood thought last Sunday's home-opening thumping of the Indianapolis Colts made the stadium as electric as he'd ever seen it, the center tweeted his thanks to the fans who, his Bills teammates have surmised, give Buffalo the feel of playing in a big SEC game.
The responses Wood got?
"Wait until this week."
The last game with this kind of hype -- the last game of the 2004 season, against Pittsburgh with a playoff spot on the line -- ended badly, but we digress. This time, the Bills host the Patriots again. And for the first time since New England established supremacy over the division a dozen years ago, there is a real sense that the Bills might have finally pulled close enough to the Pats to give them a run in the suddenly-competitive AFC East.
There have been one-off Bills victories over the Patriots in the past. But Buffalo's 27-14 thrashing of an AFC finalist like the Colts, with a premier quarterback like Andrew Luck, has sent a signal that the Bills might have the powerful pass rush, dominant running game and versatile young quarterback to back up Rex Ryan's bluster for a protracted run at the champions.
"If we're going to get over the hump, it's not going to be easy," Wood said. "They're not giving away the division. They're coming in at full strength."
Despite Ryan's quip that he might like to line up King Kong to defend Rob Gronkowski, the bombastic head man's defense has enjoyed occasional success against Tom Brady, which is better than almost any other coach can say. Brady has 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 14 games (including the playoffs) against Ryan-coached defenses with the Ravens and Jets. His completion percentage in those games is 59.4 (his career average is 63.6) and his passer rating is 90.1 (career rating: 96.1). The last four games between the Patriots and Ryan's Jets were decided by a total of nine points, with the Patriots winning three. That tight margin is especially notable, considering those Jets teams were decidedly bereft of consistent quarterback play and, especially last season, lacking the defensive talent of Ryan's earlier rosters.
That latter point will not be an issue in Buffalo, where Ryan has arguably better talent -- and certainly better talent on the line, which can generate pressure without blitzing -- than he had even in his first, wildly-successful years in New York. The return of Marcell Dareus from a one-game suspension should only enhance that.
Bill Belichick is rather famously successful at confusing newbie quarterbacks -- he is 12-2 against deer-in-the-headlights quarterbacks making only their first or second NFL start, as Tyrod Taylor will be doing on Sunday. Taylor announced his arrival as a starter by dropping a perfectly placed 51-yard touchdown pass into Percy Harvin's arms at the end of the first quarter against the Colts. Whether Taylor and Harvin and Sammy Watkins can take advantage of the Patriots' still-settling-in secondary the way Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown did in the Kickoff Game remains to be seen. But one fan who emailed this week -- Scott Sarama, a longtime and well-informed Bills supporter who founded the fan website TwoBillsDrive.com -- said Taylor's performance gave fans evidence-based hope that the team has finally landed a worthwhile young quarterback.
"He acted like his normal self during it -- he's always pretty cool and calm," Wood said of Taylor. "I don't think many moments will be too big for that guy."
But the more tantalizing vulnerability for the Bills has to be the Patriots' struggle to stop Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams. The loss of Vince Wilfork was obvious, as Williams -- filling in for suspended star Le'Veon Bell -- ran for 127 yards on 21 attempts. Nobody loves the run more than Ryan, whose offense rushed the ball on 65.5 percent of its snaps last week, the most in the NFL. LeSean McCoy accounted for 17 rushes for 41 yards and three receptions for 46 yards last Sunday. He left practice Thursday with soreness in his hamstring, though Ryan hopes he can play Sunday.
"We've got to be efficient," he said. "They have a good defense -- they let you get a lot of yards, it appears, but they are really stout in the red zone. We've got to score touchdowns. We've got to control the ball -- not to play keepaway, but because you can't string your defense out."
If Wood and his teammates need any reminders, they need only go, say, grocery shopping. One of the charms of the Bills is that their training facility and stadium are plopped in the middle of a residential neighborhood -- locals pull up chairs in their yards to join the tailgate scene in the parking lots surrounding them -- and many Bills players live side by side with their fans in Orchard Park. Everybody has something to say, and Wood is regularly approached by people who want to talk about McCoy and Ryan.
Sarama knows how those fans feel. For years, he said, Bills supporters endured the same depressing conversations: Which city might the franchise relocate to? Which star player would leave in free agency? Which D-list coach would come to Buffalo next? The negativity soured his outlook on every season.
"That weight has been finally lifted," Sarama said in an email. "We are talking meaningfully about a talent-laden defense shutting down Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. We are talking meaningfully about an offense led by a dynamic, intelligent young quarterback and what he needs to do to pick apart a mediocre Patriots defensive unit. All the other nonsense is gone -- and it feels so good."
Three more things to watch around the NFL in Week 2
1) Will anybody be watching Sunday night's rematch of last season's NFC Championship Game more closely than Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor? From the comfort of his couch, Chancellor's negotiating position could get quite a bit stronger depending on the success of the Packers' passing game. Since 2012, the Packers are 0-3 against the Seahawks, have failed to score more than 22 points in any of those games and were held under 200 passing yards in each. Chancellor played in all three of those games, but he won't play Sunday, as he continues to hold out in a contract dispute.
2) Life without Dez Bryant might not be so daunting if the Cowboys had last season's rushing attack. Alas, DeMarco Murray will be in the Eagles' backfield instead this Sunday. Philadelphia managed just 63 yards rushing on only 16 attempts against the Falcons -- not the formula Chip Kelly wants. And his lack of confidence in the run showed when he opted to attempt a field goal late, rather than try to run the ball on fourth-and-1. The Cowboys had just 80 rushing yards against the Giants -- running on only 33.8 percent of their offensive plays, a lower rushing clip than they had in any game last season. This is the start of a daunting month of games against high-scoring teams that the Cowboys will have to navigate without Bryant.
3) Has a Week 2 performance ever carried the weight of the one the Giants will put forth against the Falcons? After their mental meltdown against the Cowboys, the Giants begin the task of rebuilding their confidence and perhaps their pass rush. They barely breathed on Tony Romo, but Atlanta does not possess the Cowboys' offensive line. The Falcons didn't get a sack against the Eagles, either, but their offense sparkled. With dormant pass rushes, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan should have plenty of time to throw downfield to two of the NFL's best receivers: Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones.