The Buffalo Bills have made a habit of overcoming big early deficits at home during the initial stages of this season. The Philadelphia Eagles, on the other hand, have had all kinds of trouble holding onto a lead during an unexpected long losing streak.
The reeling Eagles try to get back on track in Sunday's visit to Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the surprising Bills return seeking to bounce back from their first negative result of 2011.
Coming off a 10-win season and trip to the NFC Playoffs in 2010, Philadelphia had been billed as a prime Super Bowl contender following an offseason spending spree that landed several coveted free agents. The first quarter of this campaign has so far been a nightmare for the self-anointed "Dream Team", however, with the Eagles suffering three straight frustrating defeats after cruising to a Week 1 victory over winless St. Louis.
Philadelphia has been out in front entering the fourth quarter in every one of those losses, but has been outscored by a 36-0 margin in the final period during that stretch.
"I wish I could tell you it was one thing, but it is a variety of things," a perplexed Eagles head coach Andy Reid said after last Sunday's shocking 24-23 home setback to San Francisco.
Philadelphia appeared poised to end its skid after jumping out to a seemingly- comfortable 23-3 advantage midway through the third quarter against the 49ers. However, a struggling defense allowed three long touchdown drives down the stretch, rookie kicker Alex Henery missed a pair of makeable field goal attempts and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin fumbled inside San Francisco territory with just over two minutes left.
The Eagles, who racked up 513 total yards in a losing cause, have not dropped four in a row since Oct. 30-Nov. 20 of a turbulent 6-10 season in 2005.
Buffalo has had far more ups than downs over the first month, with the projected also-rans roaring out to a 3-0 start highlighted by a pair of thrilling home wins. The Bills fought out of an 18-point halftime hole to rally for a 35-31 ousting over Oakland in Week 2, then spotted longtime nemesis New England a 21-0 advantage before battling back for a seemingly improbable 34-31 decision.
The Bills would have the tables turned on them last weekend, though. Up by 14 points at intermission against Cincinnati, Buffalo was outscored by a 20-3 count in the second half and was handed a stinging 23-20 loss on a 43-yard field goal by the Bengals' Mike Nugent as time expired.
The game illustrated Buffalo's recent issues on the defensive end. Cincinnati gained 293 yards after halftime and 458 for the game, while both the Raiders and Patriots amassed over 450 total yards against the Bills in the two previous weeks.
Philadelphia has had its concerns on defense as well. The Eagles rank 30th in the NFL against the run and surrendered 442 total yards last Sunday to a San Francisco offense that came into the contest at the bottom of the NFL in that category.
Neither of these participants has had much of a problem moving the football, however. The Eagles enter Ralph Wilson Stadium averaging nearly 435 total yards per game, while the Bills are currently the league's fourth-highest scoring team (33.3 ppg).
The Eagles own a 6-5 edge in the overall season series between these teams and have won the last two meetings in the set, following up a 23-13 victory in Buffalo in 2003 with a 17-9 home verdict in 2007. The Bills had bested Philadelphia four straight times prior to that 2003 loss, including wins at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 1990 (30-23) and 1999 (26-0).
Reid is 2-1 in his career against the Bills, while Buffalo's Chan Gailey came out on top in three of four bouts with Philadelphia during his tenure as the Dallas Cowboys' head coach from 1998-99. Gailey went 1-1 in head-to-head encounters with Reid during that stretch.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Blessed with an enviable array of speed and skill, Philadelphia's fourth-ranked offense (434.8 ypg) can create many a headache for opposing defensive coordinators when it's operating at maximum efficiency. That hasn't been the case as of late, however, as turnovers and breakdowns within the red zone have offset the unit's impressive yardage totals. The Eagles have given the ball away three times in each of their three 2011 losses, and managed only two touchdowns in seven trips inside San Francisco's 20-yard line a week ago. On the positive side, quarterback Michael Vick (1021 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) threw for a career-best 416 yards and two scores last Sunday in spite of a badly-bruised non-throwing hand, big-play wideout DeSean Jackson (16 receptions, 324 yards, 1 TD) racked up 171 receiving yards on six catches and both Maclin (26 receptions, 334 yards, 2 TD) and slot man Jason Avant (14 receptions) came through with productive days as well. The Eagles also boast the NFL's second-best rushing offense at 163.5 yards per game, with Vick (228 rushing yards) the league's premier scrambler out of the pocket and leading rusher LeSean McCoy (363 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 6 total TD) a dangerous weapon as both a runner and receiver. Philadelphia will be without stalwart left tackle Jason Peters, a former Bill, on Sunday due to a hamstring injury, with the less-credentialed King Dunlap to step in.
If there's one week a team can afford having its Pro Bowl offensive tackle unavailable, this may be the one. The Bills have generated little in the way of a pass rush in the early going, having mustered a league-low four sacks in four games, and that lack of pressure has in turn taken a toll on a secondary that's permitting over 275 yards per game via the air (25th overall). The group has been opportunistic, though, having snared eight interceptions thus far and picking off Patriots superstar Tom Brady two weeks back. Cornerback Drayton Florence (11 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PD) and nickel safety Bryan Scott (24 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) have each had interception returns for touchdowns in the last two weeks, while the backfield should be bolstered by veteran corner Terrence McGee's expected return from a hamstring strain that's sidelined him since Week 1. Buffalo finished dead last in run defense in 2010 and has made only moderate strides this year, with Cincinnati churning out 171 rushing yards in last Sunday's matchup. The team's leading tackler is inside linebacker Nick Barnett (39 tackles), an astute free-agent pickup from Green Bay who's recorded double- digit stops in three straight games.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
A Buffalo offense that's averaged 36 points and 464.5 total yards in the team's two home outings this year could present some problems for Philadelphia's troublesome stop unit. The Bills have displayed very good balance during their 3-1 start, with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (1040 passing yards, 9 TD, 3 INT) showing strong accuracy and decision-making under center and running back Fred Jackson (369 rushing yards, 4 TD, 13 receptions) an overlooked asset who's gaining nearly seven yards per touch on the year. He's the bell cow of the league's fifth-rated rushing attack (137.0 ypg) and a quality receiver as well, while top pass-catcher Stevie Johnson (24 receptions, 314 yards, 3 TD) and 6- foot-5 slot operator David Nelson (22 receptions, 1 TD) give Fitzpatrick two big targets to work with when the Harvard graduate looks downfield. Fitzpatrick has also gotten sound protection from a no-name offensive line that's given up only three sacks over the first four weeks, though left tackle Demetrius Bell injured his shoulder in the Cincinnati game and won't be able to go on Sunday. Untested rookie Chris Hairston will make his first career start in his place.
Buffalo's strong pass blocking figures to be challenged by a formidable collection of Eagles linemen that have generated 15 sacks, tied with Washington for tops in the league at the moment. One of Philadelphia's best pressure- producers won't take part in Sunday's tilt, however, with two-time Pro Bowl end Trent Cole (14 tackles, 3 sack) ruled out because of a calf strain sustained last week. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo will still be able to trot out high-motor edge rusher Jason Babin (12 tackles, 7 sack), who's fresh off a three-sack performance against the 49ers, and penetrating tackle Cullen Jenkins (10 tackles, 4 sacks), while capable reserve end Darryl Tapp (3 tackles, 1 sack) is anticipated to return from a three-game absence (chest) this week. Despite those contributions up front and the presence of three cornerbacks who have been to Pro Bowls in the trio of Asante Samuel (15 tackles, 1 INT), Nnamdi Asmougha (8 tackles, 1 INT) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (8 tackles), the Eagles are presently 31st in the NFL in pass efficiency defense. Stopping the run has been an even greater liability for Castillo's crew, however, with Philly yielding substandard averages of 139.5 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per attempt. A young linebacker corps has undergone significant shuffling, with second-year pro Jamar Chaney (27 tackles) manning the middle the last two games and rookie Brian Rolle (8 tackles) now installed as a starter on the weakside.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Turnovers. A big reason why the Bills are presently 3-1 is a plus-seven takeaway-to-giveaway ratio over the first four games, while Philadelphia's 1-3 mark is in part due to the NFC-worst minus-six number it's constructed in that important category. The Eagles are the superior of these two teams in terms of overall talent, but that won't matter if they continue their error-prone ways.
The red zone. Another department where Buffalo has held a clear advantage over Sunday's foe. The Bills have put up touchdowns on 12-of-16 possessions within the opponent's 20-yard line, the second-best percentage in the NFL, while the Eagles have given up six points on a league-worst 80 percent (8-of-10) of red- zone drives on defense and really struggled offensively in that area in the San Francisco game.
Stopping the run. That seems like a tall order for both of these defenses, but doing so would certainly boost either team's chances of winning. If the Eagles are able to make Buffalo one-dimensional and unleash their furious pass rush on Fitzpatrick, it'll be tough sledding for the home team. Vick has shown he can be a bit error-prone when under pressure, and putting Philadelphia into an obvious passing mode would increase the likelihood of a miscue.
Always beware a desperate team, and the Eagles are in as close to a must-win situation as one can be in at this stage of this season. Buffalo's shaky defense won't be able to prevent Vick and Philadelphia's outstanding cast of playmakers from piling up the yards, but the Eagles have to cash in their scoring opportunities and take better care of the football to put their unforeseen struggles behind them. If that's the case on Sunday, then Philadelphia's recent losing ways stand a good chance of ending. The Bills' creative offense and resilient pedigree won't make that an easy task, but the more-skilled Eagles should prevail as long as they don't beat themselves with mistakes.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Philadelphia 31, Buffalo 24