Buffalo Bills enjoy breath of fresh air in positive start to 2014

Week 3 of the 2014 NFL season is finally here -- and as she does every week, Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to, beginning with a new lease on life for the Buffalo Bills franchise and continuing with 10 more things to watch below.

It was a few hours after Adrian Peterson had effectively been banished from the Minnesota Vikings, and a few hours before the Carolina Panthers would do the same to Greg Hardy. A bleak stretch of news and mishandlings had engulfed the NFL for nearly two weeks, sending reputations plummeting and games to the margins.

But for a few minutes, there was a tiny sliver of good news coming from the NFL. Terry Pegula's purchase of the Buffalo Bills for a reported $1.4 billion was approved by the NFL's finance committee this week, a positive development squeezed in among so much negativity. Pegula, who has been media shy as the owner of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, wisely declined to answer questions after his approval was announced Wednesday, because he has not yet been confirmed by the full ownership group. That probably saved him from being asked how concerned he is about the league in which he is about to invest so much.

There are no such concerns about Pegula -- not among the owners on the committee who approved him unanimously, and certainly not among the Bills and their fans, who have suddenly, maybe unexpectedly, found themselves at the confluence of so much good fortune. They are 2-0 heading into this Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers; their franchise icon, Jim Kelly, has had positive health reports after being treated for cancer; and the team is no longer in danger of leaving town.

Center Eric Wood, who was one of the Bills' two first-round picks in the 2009 NFL Draft, had tried to block out many of the daily updates about the Bills' sale while the bids came in over the months following the passing of former owner and founder Ralph Wilson. The uncertainty, though, seeped in.

"But I'm a homeowner in Western New York," Wood said this week. "I enjoy living here, and I definitely wanted us to stay. I've got stuff I've got to focus on to keep my job, but when the news passed that the Pegulas were the front-runner, I was extremely excited.

"The emotions are high with our fans. The Bills mean so much to them. Just the thought of the possibility of losing the team over the last however many months has been a lot on them. I've never heard them as loud as they were last week."

Wood got his first glimpse of that passion the day after he was drafted.

"They flew me up, and on the flight, people were telling me their favorite stories -- mostly from the '90s, the Super Bowl runs," Wood said. "You meet people in the grocery store, they're all fired up; everybody has got stories about the tailgate they run. It's neat."

Of course, the real fun is coming from the Bills' perfect start to the 2014 campaign -- they are one of just seven teams that are still undefeated -- including their season-opening upset in Chicago. Buffalo has a talent-rich roster, which includes 12 former first-round picks, and it's come up with a formula for victory that is predicated on a strong defense, which has allowed just 15 points per game. Wood jokes that the only surprise of the season so far is that 300-pound defensive tackle Kyle Williams had an interception against the Bears.

There were, of course, concerns about quarterback EJ Manuel following a shaky preseason, and the Bills have limited him to just 48 attempts, the second-fewest total in the NFL among quarterbacks who have played two full games. Entering Week 3, the passing game was ranked 26th in the league, and the Bills were just 25th in third-down efficiency. Manuel will undoubtedly have to be more involved and more productive if Buffalo is to continue contending against more high-powered offenses, like those featured by upcoming opponents San Diego,New England,Denverand Green Bay.

Still, Manuel has been sacked just once and is completing 66.7 percent of his passes. He's also completed 66.7 percent of his passes that have traveled at least 20 yards in the air, the highest percentage in the league among those with a minimum of five attempts. That he is now throwing to a talent like first-round pick Sammy Watkins, who had eight receptions for 117 yards last week, is undoubtedly part of the reason Manuel looks better.

"We aren't really shocked," Wood said of the results. "We didn't put a ton of stock into the final scores of our preseason. We knew we were getting better and better. We've got to keep this in perspective. It's only 2-0. We have 14 more games."

Coach Doug Marrone isn't doing much to tamp down the excitement, though. Wood said Marrone likes his players to be emotional. He ran an extremely physical training camp and now runs very fast, physical practices.

"He definitely doesn't reel us back," Wood said. "He wants us to be fired up. I don't know that anything needs to be said. I don't think anybody is going to be complacent after a 2-0 start. If anything, that makes you hungrier."

And it has made daily life more pleasant in the neighborhood. The Bills haven't made the playoffs since the 1999 season, which is the longest such drought in the league. But last week, the Bills' RV lot outside Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York was sold out the day before a game for the first time in the team's history, with RVs lined up to get into the lot before dawn on the Saturday prior to the victory over the Dolphins.

"It improves your quality of life," Wood said. "It's better going to the grocery store. It's better going to meetings. It's better going to practice. It energizes you each day when you go to the stadium."

Here are 10 more things to watch as the rest of the Week 3 schedule plays out:

1) Can the Broncos duplicate a Chargers game plan that kept Seattle's offense off the field last week? Attempting to limit the Seahawks' drives will be a test for Denver's rebuilt, toughened-up defense. In Seattle's loss to San Diego, Russell Wilson and Co. had the ball for 17 minutes, 45 seconds and ran just 13 times. Consequently, the Seahawks' defense wore down in the California heat, allowing 30 points without notching a single takeaway. But the Broncos' defense will have to improve -- and do it in thunderous CenturyLink Field -- to match that; the unit has allowed an average of 394 yards of offense in its first two games (28th in the league entering Week 3). Since taking a 24-0 lead over Indianapolis in the second quarter of the season opener, Denver has been outscored 41-31.

2) The Kirk Cousins audition begins in earnest. With Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III out with a dislocated ankle for an undetermined period, Cousins will get his chance to stake a claim to the starting job, beginning Sunday in Philadelphia. While Griffin appeared to be making progress in first-year coach Jay Gruden's offense, there have been whispers that Cousins is a better fit for Gruden's West Coast approach. Washington has been more productive with Cousins: In 13 drives with Griffin under center, the offense managed just one touchdown, while it had five in 12 drives with Cousins. Cousins will need that kind of production against the Eagles, who are averaging an NFL-best 32 points per game through two weeks.

3) Can Andrew Luck snap out of his mini-funk? Luck has hardly been terrible in the Colts' twolosses, but he also hasn't been sharp. He's been picked off three times (he had just nine picks last season), thrown a handful of off-target throws and made a few poor decisions. Last week, he had just 172 yards. But the Jaguars might provide the cure. Their defense has allowed at least 400 yards in each of their firsttwo losses and has allowed a league-worst 37.5 points per game heading into Week 3. And Jacksonville's offense would likely be unable to mount the kind of comeback that the Eagles put together against the Colts on Monday. The Jags got into Washington territory last week on just one of 12 drives and had just 148 total yards.

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4) Will Colin Kaepernick steady himself and the 49ers against the 2-0 Cardinals? In the league's toughest division, the Cardinals are kings for now, standing atop the NFC West with a top-10 defense. But the pass defense has been the weakness so far -- it's ranked 22nd in the league through Week 2 -- with cornerback Patrick Peterson giving up two touchdowns while in coverage this season (after allowing just seven throughout 2013), according to Pro Football Focus. That might be good news for Kaepernick, who threw three interceptions against the Bears last week after throwing just three in his previous 11 games. Kaepernick has struggled late in contests; compare his passer rating in the first quarter of games this season (136.1) with that in the fourth quarter (48.5).

5) Can the Browns carry over the momentum gained from last Sunday's upset over the Saints? Maybe if they really step on it against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. In the no-huddle, Brian Hoyer's passer rating is 118.1 and his completion percentage is a stunning 77.8. By comparison, when the Browns huddle, his passer rating is 76.9 and his completion rate is 54.7 percent. Regardless of how quickly the Browns play, however, Hoyer is taking care of the ball; he hasn't thrown an interception in his last 132 attempts. Still, he'll have to earn it if Cleveland is to defeat the Ravens, who have allowed just 29 total points in two games.

6) Is there any way the Vikings can stay on the field with the Saints? Yes, New Orleans might be 0-2, but Minnesota's offense is in disarray. With Adrian Peterson out of the picture indefinitely and replacement Matt Asiata getting just 36 yards on 13 rushes against the Patriots last week, the Vikings will have to lean on Matt Cassel and the passing game. That hasn't been a good tactic. Last week, Cassel did not complete a pass of at least 10 yards in the air, throwing three interceptions on passes of that distance. He's also the only player in the NFL who has attempted a pass of at least 15 yards in the air without having completed one (0 for 9).

7) Memo to the Cowboys: Feed DeMarco Murray. The Rams have allowed an average of 171 rushing yards in their first two games, including 100-yard rushing efforts by Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and backup Buccaneers running back Bobby Rainey. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who didn't practice Wednesday with a sore back, has struggled in the first two games of the season. So look for a heavy dose of Murray in St. Louis on Sunday. Murray has 285 rushing yards so far, which is the most in team history through the first two games of a season and the third-highest total through two games by any NFL player in the past decade. Murray's two previous games against the Rams were memorable, to say the least: in 2011, he posted 253 yards, and last year, he had 175.

8) How many rushing yards will the Patriots roll up against the Raiders? With Tom Brady struggling on deep throws (he is just 1 of 15 on passes that travel at least 20 yards in the air this season) and New England's offense sputtering (it's ranked 27th overall entering Week 3), the team could rely on the run game to exploit Oakland's porous defense. The Raiders are one of just two teams in the past five years to allow 400 yards rushing through Week 2 (not surprisingly, theirs is the lowest-ranked rushing defense in the NFL). The Patriots' Stevan Ridley had 25 rushes for 101 yards and one touchdown against the Vikings last week.

9) Will the Panthers even notice the absence of Greg Hardy against a stagnant Steelers offense? Carolina, which stopped the Detroit Lions' offense without Hardy last weekend, is allowing just 10.5 points per game and an opponent passer rating of 72.1, fifth-best in the league through two weeks. The Panthers also have seven sacks and six takeaways. That's bad news for Pittsburgh, which has been outscored 50-9 since going up 27-3 at halftime against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1. The Steelers' defense, which has no takeaways so far, has been terrible against the run (ranked 29th entering Week 3), so the offense isn't getting extra chances. Ben Roethlisberger and Co. might have to carry the defense for a while -- that is, if Pittsburgh can figure out a way to score (tied for 25th in that category).

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10) Can the Lions build a big enough early lead to hold off Aaron Rodgers late?Matthew Stafford has started off hot and then fallen off dramatically in both games he's played this season. In the first quarter of games, his passer rating is 132.8, but it drops to 54.7 in the fourth quarter, continuing a trend of late-game struggles that began last season (in his last eight games, his fourth-quarter completion percentage is 47.3, with two touchdowns and five interceptions). Rodgers' passer rating has improved in each quarter this season, rising from 81.7 in the first quarter to 125.2 in the fourth. He has been particularly successful on the rare occasions when he takes the snap from under center. Just 12 of his 75 attempts this season have been from under center -- and Rodgers has completed 83.3 percent of those passes for 154 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. His completion percentage is 60.3 from the shotgun this season.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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