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Pitoniak: Bills survive loss of Spiller

A Phyrric victory is one that's achieved at too great a cost.

                We won't know how costly the Bills 24-14 victory against the Cleveland Browns Sunday was until we hear the results from the MRI on C.J. Spiller's injured left shoulder. Chan Gailey said that Spiller will miss Sunday's home game against perennial AFC East king New England. But the Buffalo coach also said that the initial prognosis is good - that Spiller isn't expected to be out for an extended period.

                It's too bad this had to happen when it did because the Bills also are without starting running back Fred Jackson (though there are reports that Steady Freddie's rehab is ahead of schedule and he might even be available for limited action against the Patriots.) Spiller was leading the NFL in rushing and was off to another great start against the Browns, taking a screen from Ryan Fitzpatrick 32 yards for a touchdown to put the Bills up 14-0 with just over five minutes left in the first quarter.

 The rout appeared to be on when Spiller carried another screen 25 yards into Browns territory on Buffalo's next possession. Unfortunately, the long gain was negated by a holding penalty, but that wasn't the worst of it. On the tackle, Cleveland safety Usama Young came down hard on Spiller's shoulder, and the next thing you knew the Bills superstar-in-the-making was writhing in pain and being carted to the locker room for X-rays.
            
              The silver lining in this dark cloud is that for the second consecutive week the Buffalo defense flexed its muscles, making four sacks - including the first one by Mario Williams in a Bills uniform. And Bryan Scott and Leodis McKelvin intercepted Cleveland's rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in the fourth quarter when the verdict was still in question.

 More impressive than the pass rush and defense was the Bills effort against the run. They completely bottled up rookie running back Trent Richardson, holding the future star to 27 yards in 12 carries a week after he had turned in the first 100-yard performance of his fledgling NFL career.
            
             Give Fitzpatrick credit, too. The occasionally scatter-armed quarterback tossed three touchdown passes and did not throw a pick for a second straight week. Yes, he lost a fumble when the ball slipped out of his hand during a second-quarter march when it appeared the Bills might go up 21-0. But, in his defense, it looked like the replacement referees made a mistake. The ball should have been ruled an incomplete pass.
         
              Finally, kudos to Tashard Choice. The third-string running back acquitted himself well in place of Spiller, rushing for 91 yards on 20 carries, including a big 22-yard gain during the fourth-quarter scoring drive that iced the victory.
       
             This was Buffalo first road win in more than a year, snapping an eight-game home-away-from-home streak (excluding last year's "home" victory vs. Washington in Toronto.) It also gives the Bills a 2-1 mark, heading into next week's big game.

             We learned again today that anything can happen in the National Parity League. How many of you had Minnesota upsetting San Francisco, 24-13, or predicted that Kansas City would bounce back after two blow-out losses to beat New Orleans? I still don't believe the Bills can beat New England Sunday at the Ralph, especially without Spiller and Jackson. But I'm also reminded how Fitz actually out-gunned Tom Brady in last year's improbable overtime victory against New England. And how a far inferior Bills "D" picked off the superstar QB four times, returning one of them for a touchdown.
    
            At 2-1, the Bills are where I thought they would be at this point. Now, comes the hellacious part of their schedule. If they can steal a win in one of these next three games (New England followed by road contests against San Fran and Arizona), they'll still be in good shape as far as the playoffs are concerned, given a weak and home-game laden second half of the schedule. Of course, for tiebreaking purposes, it would matter most if they were able to beat the Pats.

                SCOTT'S REPORT CARD

                OFFENSE: The unit was on the verge of a monster performance until Spiller went down. I thought they regrouped in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter when they wrested control of the game with a 10-play, 68-yard drive that was capped by a 9-yard TD toss to Stevie Johnson, who now has scores in four consecutive games. Tashard Choice was excellent. Fitz played the type of game he needs to play for this team. Grade: B   

               DEFENSE: They executed their game plan by stopping the run and putting the pressure on a rookie quarterback to beat them. Good to see Mario Williams record 1.5 sacks and draw a holding penalty. He looked much more active than he's been. You know things are going well when Leodis McKelvin comes up with an interception. Bills still need to show up some coverage issues. Aaron Williams and Stephon Gilmore are going to have the challenge of their lives next week vs. Brady. Grade: B-plus.

                SPECIAL TEAMS: Brian Moorman had another solid effort, including a 66-yard boomer. McKelvin had another good day returning punts and continues to lead the league in that category. Grade: B

                COACHING: It's not easy weathering the loss of your biggest weapon, but Bills survived, thanks to the defensive, Fitz and a third-string running back. Chan held things together and got his team to do what it needed to do against a mediocre opponent .  Grade: B  

               OVERALL:  At 2-1, Bills have recovered nicely from their opening debacle vs. the Jets, beating two teams they were supposed to beat. They now have to hope that Jackson continues to be a fast healer and returns to action this week following the strained knee he suffered in Week 1. Buffalo needs to win at least one of these next three difficult games. Grade: B.

                Nationally honored columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak has followed the Bills since the late 1960s, covered them since the mid-1980s and written five books about their storied history. 
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