Pitoniak: Byrd saves the day

I'm assuming that Chan Gailey gave Bills safety Jairus Byrd an extra big hug and thanked him profusely several times - not only for the game-winning interception but also for sparing the coach from a week's worth of hellacious second-guessing.
                Byrd's second pick of the day set up Rian Lindell's winning field goal in overtime, enabling Buffalo to escape the Arizona desert with a 19-16 victory and putting an end to the blood-letting of the past two weeks when the Bills were outscored 90-17 in the previous six quarters by the Patriots and 49ers.
                Byrd's theft of a John Skelton pass and Lindell's decisive kick turned Gailey's foolish decision to pass out of the Wildcat formation into a sidebar. The coach's call to have Brad Smith throw instead of run the ball and run out the clock with the Bills leading almost cost them the game. And had it, the wolves would have been nipping at Gailey's heels big time.
                Smith's ill-advised pass wound up being picked off by the Cardinals Patrick Peterson with 3:07 remaining. Arizona then drove down the field and tied the game at 16 when Jay Feely drilled a 61-yard field goal that might have been good from 70 yards. After the Bills went three-and-out on their next possession, the Cardinals had enough time left to get into position for a 38-yarder that would have won it for Arizona as time expired. But - go figure - Feely boinked the shorter attempt off the left upright, sending the game into an extra session.
                The Bills won the OT coin toss and marched to the Arizona 35 before the drive stalled, and they had to punt. Three plays later, Byrd made his pick and almost returned it for a touchdown.
                After two of the worst losses in franchise history, the Bills gained back a little respect and evened their record at 3-3, which puts them in a four-way tie for first and last in the topsy-turvy AFC East.
                The good news is that the defense redeemed itself after being shredded for 1,201 total yards in blowout losses to New England and San Fran. Buffalo's "D" recorded five sacks, forced two turnovers and bottled up the Cardinals run game - if you subtract the 66 yards starting quarterback Kevin Kolb picked up on four scrambles. And Mario Williams, the highly compensated Bills defensive end, finally played like a superstar, making two sacks and pressuring the quarterback on at least four other occasions.

    It should be noted that the defense's sterling performance came against an offensively challenged club that had allowed 17 sacks the two previous weeks and was down to its third-string running back. But given the nature of Buffalo's efforts against the Pats and Niners you take away any positives you can.
                 The Bills offense didn't exactly light up the scoreboard, but C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson appear to be rounding back into form after their injuries, combining for 193 yards. Stevie Johnson had his most productive yardage game of the season with six catches for 82 yards. And those totals would have been even more impressive had Ryan Fitzpatrick not continued to have accuracy problems. He misfired badly three times when Stevie was open and also underthrew Jackson in the flat during a crucial third down play in OT. Fitz completed just 18-of-32 for 153 yards, but he didn't commit any turnovers, a big plus, considering the damage his picks did in previous games.
               Buffalo's decision to spend the entire week practicing in Arizona seemed to promote the type of bonding this team needed after the recent debacles.
              The 3-3 mark is where I expected the Bills to be at this juncture. And while I anticipated losses to the Jets, Patriots and 49ers, I didn't envision them being nearly as lopsided as they were.
               To me their record rings a little hollow at this point. Though they made progress Sunday - and a win on the road against a team that had won eight straight at home is significant - the jury is still out. Given the muddled standings, they're still very much in the playoff hunt. Heck, the way the parity is playing out this season, 8-8 might get you a post-season berth in the AFC.
               The Bills need to build on this victory with another one next Sunday against Tennessee at the Ralph. Then comes the bye week and road contests against Houston and New England.
               So, just like the Arizona game, the Titans game is almost in that "must-win" category if the Bills want to keep hope alive.
               Kudos to Byrd for saving the day. Had he not this would have been one, long week for Gailey, who would have been answering questions ad nauseum about his decision to throw when he should have run.
               SCOTT'S REPORT CARD
                OFFENSE: C.J Spiller rushed for 88 yards and caught passes for an additional 22, and Fred Jackson added 53 and 30, respectively, against one of the NFL's better defenses. Unfortunately, Jackson also fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and Brad Smith's interception while throwing out of the Wildcat also proved costly. Ryan Fitzpatrick continued to be off-target, but he didn't throw any picks. Grade: B.   
               DEFENSE: They took advantage of the Cardinals weak line to make five sacks - including one for a safety - and two interceptions. They also kept the Arizona run game in check, despite being burned four times by Kevin Kolb scrambles. All in all, it was a major bounce back from the carnage of the previous two weeks. Grade: B-plus.
                SPECIAL TEAMS: They were burned by a fake punt, and Shawn Powell's 30-yard shank with a minute remaining in regulation nearly cost the Bills the game. Buffalo did do a good job containing the Cardinals Patrick Peterson, limiting the dynamo to just 12 yards on three punt returns. Grade: C.
                COACHING: The decision to stay out west for a week worked out well and you have to give Chan Gailey credit for getting his team ready to play after two demoralizing losses. Fortunately, the Bills won despite Gailey's foolish call to throw out of the Wildcat.  Grade: B. 
               OVERALL: The Bills have two road wins, which is one more than they had all last season. They need to beat Tennessee at home next Sunday to keep their postseason hopes alive. 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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