NFL Preview - Buffalo (0-6) at Kansas City (4-2)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - After a few years of rebuilding, the Kansas City Chiefs appear to have finally discovered the right formula for success. The Buffalo Bills are still searching for a solution to their longstanding woes, but may have found the answer at the all-important quarterback position.
Fresh off a career-best performance, Ryan Fitzpatrick will attempt to guide the suffering Bills to an elusive first victory of the 2010 season in Sunday's road test with an upstart Kansas City squad seeking to continue its newfound winning ways.
The Chiefs have transformed themselves from the doormat of the AFC West into possibly the division's team to beat, though it hasn't quite happened overnight. The master plan began prior to last season, with the hirings of former New England executive Scott Pioli as general manager and ex-Arizona assistant Todd Haley as head coach. Two more key administrative moves took place during this past offseason, when Pioli brought in two of his one-time cohorts from the Patriots -- Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel -- to serve as offensive and defensive coordinator, respectively.
While Kansas City took its lumps during year one of the Pioli/Haley era, a slew of astute acquisitions through both free agency and the draft has the Chiefs in early position to end a string of three consecutive dreadful seasons. The team presently sits atop the AFC West with a 4-2 record, matching the entire win total from the 2009 edition, and owns a 1 1/2-game lead on second-place Oakland in the standings.
Kansas City has shown dramatic improvements on both sides of the ball during its sudden turnaround. The Weis-run offense leads the NFL in rushing yards and has had just four turnovers in six games, while Crennel's defense ranks sixth against the run and has yielded a respectable 18.7 points per contest, an average of nearly eight less than a year ago.
The Chiefs unleashed their punishing ground game on slumping Jacksonville last Sunday, piling up 236 rushing yards that fueled a 42-20 triumph that moved Haley's club to 3-0 at Arrowhead Stadium on the year. Veteran back Thomas Jones, one of Pioli's savvy offseason pickups, led the charge with a season- best 125 yards on 20 carries.
Kansas City has not began a season 4-0 at home since 2003, a year the Chiefs finished 13-3 and earned a No. 2 seed in the AFC Playoffs, something the franchise last reached in 2006.
Buffalo's postseason drought has gone on even longer, with its most recent appearance coming in 1999, and it's clear the team still has a long way to go. The 0-6 Bills are the league's lone winless outfit at the moment and field one its sorriest defenses as well, having surrendered an NFL-worst 174.5 rushing yards per game thus far while permitting 30 or more points in five straight tilts.
At least Buffalo seems to be making strides on offense, as evidenced by the 506 yards the group amassed on a well-regarded Baltimore stop unit last week. The Bills took the heavily-favored Ravens to the limit in that outing, but four costly giveaways proved to be the difference in a hard-fought but stinging 37-34 overtime defeat.
Fitzpatrick compiled personal-highs of 382 passing yards and four touchdowns through the air, and the journeyman has emerged into a legitimate field general upon supplanting the since-released Trent Edwards in late September. The Harvard product enter this weekend's play with a 102.2 passer rating, second only to Peyton Manning for tops in the NFL.
More progress still needs to be made, however, in order for Buffalo to avoid its first 0-7 beginning since it dropped its first 11 games in a 2-14 season in 1984.
Buffalo holds a 21-16-1 advantage in its all-time regular-season series with Kansas City, including victories in each of the last three meetings between the teams. The Bills bested the Chiefs by a 16-10 margin at Arrowhead Stadium during Week 14 of last season, and posted a 54-31 win in Kansas City the previous year as well. The Chiefs' last triumph over Buffalo took place at Arrowhead Stadium back in 2003.
In addition to their regular-season edge, the Bills have prevailed in two of three lifetime postseason bouts with the Chiefs. Buffalo was a 30-13 home winner in the 1993 AFC Championship; won by a 37-14 margin at home in a 1991 AFC Divisional Playoff; and was a 31-7 home loser in the 1966 AFL Championship.
Gailey lost his only meeting with his one-time employers as a head coach, having dropped a 20-17 decision to the Chiefs while piloting the Dallas Cowboys in 1998. Haley is 0-1 against the Bills and will be going head-to-head with Gailey for the first time.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Buffalo will be poised to duplicate last week's surprising production of offense, with Fitzpatrick (977 passing yards, 11 TD, 4 INT) slinging the ball to the quality wideout duo of Steve Johnson (25 receptions, 5 TD) and Lee Evans (21 receptions, 4 TD) while getting solid protection from a young front line that allowed just one sack to the Ravens. Johnson had a breakout day as well against Baltimore, establishing career highs of eight catches and 158 receiving yards, and the third-year pro has a touchdown reception in four straight games. Evans, a two-time 1,000-yard receiver, put up 105 yards on six grabs and hauled in three of Fitzpatrick's scoring strikes last week, with fellow veteran Roscoe Parrish (22 receptions, 1 TD) contributing eight catches from his role in the slot. The Bills can run the ball a bit as well, as top back Fred Jackson (233 rushing yards, 1 TD) is coming off a 1,062-yard season and rookie first-round pick C.J. Spiller (113 rushing yards, 13 receptions, 1 TD) has flashed playmaking skills in a change-of-pace capacity.
The Chiefs will try to combat Buffalo's upgraded aerial attack with a secondary that although still rather green, possesses considerable talent. Third-year man Brandon Flowers (24 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) is putting together a Pro Bowl-caliber season at one corner, while rookie safety Eric Berry (31 tackles, 1 INT) is beginning to show why the team made him the fifth overall pick in April's draft. The former University of Tennessee star came up with a forced fumble and his first career interception in last week's win. Kansas City isn't blessed with a wealth of pass rushers, but outside linebacker Tamba Hali (17 tackles, 5.5 sacks) is a good one that will need to be accounted for. Crennel's imprint has shown up more against the run, where a front seven anchored by inside linebackers Derrick Johnson (49 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) and Jovan Belcher (40 tackles) is allowing a modest 89.7 rushing yards per game. Johnson has also excelled in coverage, as the 2005 first-round choice proved by breaking up three passes and returning an interception for a touchdown versus the Jaguars.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
There will be little guesswork as to what the Chiefs have designs on doing this week. Kansas City is averaging league-highs of 176.2 rushing yards and 35.2 attempts per game, with the backfield duo of Jones (461 rushing yards, 3 TD) and fleet-footed Jamaal Charles (489 yards, 2 TD, 12 receptions) both on pace for over 1,200 yards. The powerfully-built Jones is utilized to wear down defenses between the tackles, with Charles a dangerous home-run hitter who's averaging a healthy six yards per carry. The tandem has helped alleviate the burden on quarterback Matt Cassel (1044 passing yards, 9 TD, 5 INT), and the ex-Patriot has thrived under Weis' tutelage as of late, completing 70 percent of his throws and tossing five touchdown passes over the past two weeks. Cassel's also been aided by a coming-of-age from wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (18 receptions, 5 TD), as the gifted yet inconsistent 26-year-old has scored four touchdowns in the last two games while providing a needed field-stretching presence, as well as a steady front line that's given up a league-low five sacks. Rookie receiver Dexter McCluster (15 receptions) gives the offense another potential weapon, though the young speedster is a question mark for Sunday's game after hurting his ankle against Jacksonville.
While the Bills have been woeful in stopping the run this year, a switch to a 4-3 alignment during the team's Week 6 bye may have stopped the bleeding somewhat. After being gashed for 200 rushing yards or more in three straight weeks prior to the break, Buffalo held Baltimore to a still-subpar 135 yards on the ground last Sunday. The switch hasn't solved the Bills' problems in containing the pass, however, with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco throwing for 250 yards and three scores in this past week's clash. Buffalo ranks dead last in pass efficiency defense and has generated only one interception to date under new coordinator George Edwards, one year after finishing second in the league with 28 picks. The secondary has been without its best cover man, cornerback Terrence McGee (9 tackles), for three straight games due to a back injury, and the club is hopeful he'll be able to go on Sunday. A better push up front would help matters as well, since the Bills have an anemic eight sacks in six games and no individual has more than one on the season.
Kansas City's is one of the few running-back situations where both members are viable fantasy performers, and you can bet both Jones and Charles will get plenty of work against a porous Buffalo run defense to make each player useful. The run-heavy game plan doesn't bode well for Cassel's prospects, however, but Bowe is certainly worth a play as the clear-cut No. 1 target in the passing game. Those in need of a bye-week fill-in at quarterback might want to give Fitzpatrick a look, and Steve Johnson is starting to establish himself as a capable fantasy receiver. Evans' numbers have varied from week- to-week, making him a risky choice with upside, and Jackson is more of a flex option at the running back position. As the Bills' primary punt returner, Parrish has some value in leagues that take that yardage into consideration. This one has the makings of a possible high-scoring affair, so avoid either defense if possible.
The progress the Chiefs have made, and the lack thereof from the Bills, will show up here. Buffalo isn't built to handle the physical ground game Kansas City will be bringing on Sunday, as the defense hasn't shown it can stop anyone with a pulse, and there's been no credible evidence to predict the Bills can survive a shootout in a hostile environment. The Chiefs have turned themselves into a sound operation that doesn't beat themselves with mistakes, and they'll be able to pounce on the ones their opponent makes.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 34, Bills 24
10/28 13:58:57 ET