Coming off their bye week, it's honestly still not clear whether Buffalo remains a contender in the AFC.
Sure, their pitiful showing against New York, San Francisco and New England, coupled with their needless loss to the Titans has many fans already throwing up their hands in defeat, but the fat lady isn't crooning quite yet.
The Bills are just a game below .500, they have the easier part of their schedule in the second half, and there are eight other teams currently at 4-4... or worse. It has most definitely not been the season fans were expecting, for sure, but to say Buffalo is out of it at this point is ridiculous.
However, these next two games are killers, away to the Texans this week followed by a long shot for redemption in New England, so in order for Buffalo not to slip further into the mire of a season-killing losing streak, there are some things that need to change pretty quick... as in this Sunday.
1. Forget sacks, how about some stops?
Honestly, the Bills' pass rush has improved in 2012, just not to the extent they paid for. Their 17 sacks are only 12 less than their total for all of last year, they are getting occasional pressure out of their front four, and though Super Mario and the boys are nowhere near as advertised, they are moving things along.
The problem the defense isn't doing anything else.
The Bills' defense is ranked 22nd in pass yards given up, 31st in total yards, and are dead last in both points against and rushing yards allowed. That means they are giving up an average of 32.4 points per game, while allowing opposing runners to go wild for an average 176.9 yards in 2012.
This week in Houston, the Bills face the sixth best running attack in the league behind Arian Foster, who has nine TDs alone this season. In addition, the Texans are currently far and away the best team in the AFC at 6-1, just one back of the undefeated Falcons for best record in the entire NFL.
Houston scores an average 30.0 per game, runs up 371.4 yards average, and unless the Buffalo defense has an answer for both their potent run attack, as well as a passing game that is far better than its 18th rank in yards through the air, they have no shot in this one.
Sure, the Texans defense is a swarming fury of attackers, 3rd against the run and 5th against the pass, but in order for Buffalo to even have a chance in this one, it has to be their defense that step up to the plate.
Ryan Fitzpatrick may have thrown the killing interception against the Titans their last game, but if the defense had just made a few more stops, it wouldn't have even mattered. Dave Wannstedt needs his defense to fire on all cylinders, to play as a team, as a whole. The getting-to-know-you period is over, time to come together to stop some yards and prevent some points.
2. Turnovers... Stop committing them.
Speaking of Fitz throwing INTs, how about stopping those needless turnovers?
The Bills are currently a -6 in turnover ratio, with some real stinkers against divisional foes the Jets (3 INTs and a lost fumble) and New England (4 INTs, two fumbles). Even when they're playing great offensive football as they were against the Titans, the defense is so porous that a normally innocuous late turnover just gives the game away (it was Fitz's only INT on the day, though the Bills did give up a fumble earlier).
It sounds a little simplistic to say that Buffalo just needs to avoid turnovers, but the reality of how difficult this is proving to be makes it a big need for the Bills to compete in 2012.
Without those early turnovers against the Jets, the game might not have been as one-sided, could have even ended up as a W. It wasn't until the Bills kept handing New England the ball that the game really got out of control. They are shooting themselves in the foot game after game, spelling out their own defeat regardless of how good their run game is this year.
Last season, Buffalo started the season 3-1 based on the second best turnover ratio in the NFL, a +7. They had just nine turnovers through the first seven games in 2011 and didn't give up more than two in any of those.
Then things started falling apart the last nine, as the Bills turned it over 21 times, largely on interceptions as Fitzpatrick's INT total rose from seven by week seven to 23 by the end of the year.
It's no secret that Fitz makes some bad decisions in games, forcing throws or inaccurately lobbing the ball to wide open receivers, and he already has nine INTs to now. If he can clean up his game, look more like the quarterback who played against the Titans (minus the last three minutes), and find ways to get the ball to the open men on his own team, the Bills have shown the potential to score some points, maybe even win one.
3. Who cares about carries, just run the ball.
70-30. 55-45. 50-50
Does it really matter what percent Fred Jackson gets the ball, or how evenly the distribution to CJ Spiller is? Have you heard either player complain about their touches or lack thereof in 2012?
The Bills have not been all too impressive this season, but the one place they have had success is in their run game. They're gaining 150.3 per game, good enough to rank third in the entire NFL, and the Spiller-Jackson beast has shined as sometimes the only good news in many of Buffalo's games.
In fact, when the Bills run game gets going, so does Fitzpatrick in most cases.
165 yards rushing against the Cardinals (88 from Spiller, 53 from Jackson), no passing touchdowns, but also no interceptions, and a win.
201 yards rushing against the Cardinals (no Jackson, but 123 from Spiller here), no interceptions, and a win.
Even in their loss to the Titans, Fitz looked fantastic until his late blunder, riding the Bills' 166 rushing yards to 3 passing TDs on a day he went 27 for 35, getting 225 through the air.
Rather than worry about how to make sure they share the load, effectively trying to fix something that ain't broke, just start doing more with that facet of the game. I know, the Texans are beasts against the run, but with two weapons like the Bills have pacing the sidelines, odds are one of them will have the goods to get free on the day.
A good run game is the foundation for a great offense, no matter who is getting the ball, no matter how much. Granted, Jackson's game is built on repetition, while Spiller's is about explosive speed, but when you have both as an option, the simplest game plan is here, the best. If Spiller starts off quick, Spiller's the number one back. If Jackson starts to get a rhythm going, let him be the primary. Simple.
Worrying about how to divide the load before the game is just silly speculation and could paint the offense into a corner. The run game is the only consistent weapon Buffalo has brandished all season, leaning on that isn't a crutch, it's going with your strengths and should filter down to every other part of the team.
Buffalo isn't a lost cause in 2012, they're just lost.
If they can go 1-1 through the next two games, which is an admittedly high bar to set based on their performance in the first half of the year, there's no reason to think they can't continue to compete in the AFC playoff picture.
Taking care of the three things listed here would do wonders in making that a reality.