Pitoniak: Bills get better, but not enough

We could talk about how the defense played much better, how the Bills gave up just 21 points to a very good Houston Texans team Sunday, which was 24 points below Buffalo's average yield in its previous four losses.

                We could talk about how Mario Williams had a sack, a few pressures and six tackles against his old employer.

                We could talk about how there is no shame in dropping a 21-9 decision on the road to a team with a 7-1 record, tops in the mediocre AFC.

                But if you're a Bills fan you're sick and tired hearing about moral victories because you've been hearing about them for 13 seasons now. And the last we looked, the NFL standings don't take such victories into account.

                Buffalo arrives at the midway point with a 3-5 record that almost certainly will be 3-6 after next week's visit to Foxboro against a rested New England Patriots team that will be coming off its bye and wondering if it can put up 52 points like it did when these AFC East clubs met at the Ralph five weeks ago.

                 To quote Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are. In the Bills case not very good.

     Suddenly, the second half of the schedule doesn't look so inviting, not with two games remaining against Miami, one against Seattle and one against Indianapolis and its phenom, Andrew  Luck. Each of those teams has exceeded expectations while the Bills have failed to live up to theirs. They likely will be underdogs in each of those contests.
                  This season now has the same hopeless feel that recent ones have had. A final record of 6-10 or 5-11 or even 4-12 seems a distinct possibility.
                   And even if those sad scenarios play out, you'll be stuck with Chan Gailey as your head coach because general manager Buddy Nix said a few days ago it wouldn't help things by making a fifth coaching change since 2001 at One Bills Drive. So Gailey, who boasts a Williams-Mularkey-Jauron-like 13-27 record, will continue to steer a ship that keeps on hitting the ice berg. Unless, of course, Ralph Wilson, decides to blow things up once more and get rid of both Nix and Gailey. But we have no idea what state of mind the Bills 94-year-old owner is in since he isn't well enough to attend games any more.
                   The Bills braintrust unwisely pinned its hopes on Ryan Fitzpatrick, betting nearly $60 million that the journeyman could become the franchise QB. Fitz is now 4-13 in his last 17 starts. Yes, he played error-free football Sunday, with the exception of a fumble when the outcome of the game was pretty much decided. And his stats - 25-of-38 for 239 yards - would have been better had he not been victimized by a few costly drops. But the bottom line is that Fitzpatrick's limitations are hurting the Bills offense. He just doesn't have the arm strength to play the vertical passing game. That enables defenses, such as the tenacious one the Texans employ, to compress the field, put seven, eight guys in the box and stuff the run.
                   I've used this analogy before and I think it holds: Playing Fitzpatrick is like defending against a guy in basketball who doesn't have an outside shot. When he's outside you can layoff him and help defend someone else. Football defenses can concentrate on shutting down the run because it isn't likely Fitz is going to beat you deep.
                   And his mediocre arm becomes an even bigger problem when the Bills fall behind, especially against a "D'' as good as Houston's.
                   At some point, don't you give Tarvaris Jackson a shot? No, the guy isn't great, but he has a much better record as a starter than Fitz does. And his arm supposedly is much stronger than Fitz's. Beyond that, this team needs a spark, a catalyst, something different to kick-start it.

                Although the compressed defenses have created greater challenges to the Bills run game, Gailey still must find a way to get C.J. Spiller more touches. The guy is the Bills most dynamic weapon. He touched the ball just 11 times (five receptions, six carries) and produced 102 yards against one of the league's most stout defenses.

                As you watched the sideline shots of Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips you couldn't help but wonder if the Bills might have avoided this lost decade had he continued on as Buffalo's head coach following the 2001 season. He had a 29-19 record and two playoff appearances in his three seasons at the helm.

                Since Phillips was fired by Wilson following an 8-8 record, he's had a fairly successful head coaching stint with the Cowboys and solidified his reputation as one of the game's great defensive minds.

                And the Bills since his departure?

                Well, they're now 42 games under .500. 

                SCOTT'S REPORT CARD
                OFFENSE: Not enough touches for C.J. Spiller, no true field-stretching throws, two crucial drops by tight end Scott Chandler, just two third-down conversions in 11 tries and no sense of urgency when they got the ball back with just over four minutes remaining and them still in the game. Grade: C-minus.
               DEFENSE: Mario Williams looked more active than he was in the first seven games, so maybe he'll start being a force now that his left wrist has been surgically repaired. Arian Foster did rush for more than 100 yards, Andre Johnson went over 100 yards receiving and quarterback Matt Schaub threw 2 TD passes and was just 32 passing yards shy of 300. Overall, though, the Bills "D" played well enough to put the Bills in position to win. Grade: B.
                SPECIAL TEAMS: Alex Carrington blocked a 46-yard field goal attempt by Shayne Graham, Shaun Powell averaged 49 yards per punt and pinned two inside the 20 and Rian Lindell hit three field goals after missing for the first time this season. Bills were hurt by Keshawn Martin's 26-yard punt return early in second half that gave the Texans the ball on Buffalo's 43, setting up Houston's second touchdown. Grade: B.
                COACHING:  Chan Gailey played it too close to the vest. He had time to take one more shot at the end zone before settling for a field goal. He also needs to get C.J. the ball more and have Fitz chuck it down field on occasion to loosen things up. Grade: C. 
               OVERALL:  The Patriots scored 45 second-half points vs. the Bills in their first meeting and this one could be even scarier because New England is coming off the bye. Grade: C
                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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