By coming away with another victory over a credentialed opponent last week, the Buffalo Bills showed once again they're now a team to be reckoned with.
One of the NFL's biggest early-season surprises will have another opportunity to sway any remaining doubters when the surging Bills head to MetLife Stadium for Sunday's matchup with the up-and-down New York Giants.
Buffalo hasn't produced a winning record in any of the last six seasons and last reached the playoffs all the way back in 1999, but is on its way towards possibly ending both of those dubious streaks with its performance thus far. The Bills have already matched their entire win total of last year with their 4-1 start and are presently tied with New England and San Diego for the best mark in the AFC.
Three of those triumphs have come at the expense of teams that reached the playoffs a year ago, including a thrilling 34-31 verdict over the powerhouse Patriots in Week 3 in which Buffalo rallied from a 21-point deficit.
"They have beaten the outstanding teams," said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin of this week's opponent. "They're down 21-0 to New England, so you know they are resilient, they can come back. They are doing a lot of really good things and deserve to be 4-1."
Buffalo was outgained by a 489-331 margin in total yards against the Eagles, but managed to come out on top by forcing five Philadelphia turnovers. The Bills intercepted Michael Vick four times during the game, with linebacker Nick Barnett returning one of those picks 31 yards for a key touchdown.
The Bills also registered four interceptions of Tom Brady in their late- September ousting of the Patriots and lead the NFL in both takeaways (16) and turnover margin (+11) through the first five weeks.
New York had also done well in that department in winning three of its first four contests of 2011, but returned to the error-filled ways that often plagued the team a season ago. The Giants had five giveaways in a forgettable 36-25 home defeat to Seattle this past Sunday, with quarterback Eli Manning throwing three interceptions on the afternoon.
The Giants turned the ball over a league-worst 42 times while just missing out on the playoffs in 2010, with Manning's career-high 25 picks the most of any passer last year.
Last week's sloppy showing has raised some questions about the Giants' validity as a contender. Though New York stands just a half-game out of first place in the NFC East right now, it's three wins have come against opponents that are a combined 2-12 on the young season.
The Giants have also revealed some cracks on a defense that's overseen by former Bills head coach Perry Fewell, particularly in stopping the run. New York has surrendered an average of 159.3 rushing yards per game over its last three outings, with the Seahawks racking up a season-best 145 yards on the ground in Week 5.
The unit figures to be challenged by a Buffalo offense that's amassed the fourth-most rushing yards in the league, with top back Fred Jackson having eclipsed the 100-yard mark in three of the Bills' five games.
Fewell served as Buffalo's defensive coordinator from 2006-2009 and compiled a 3-4 record after taking over as the club's interim head coach for the final seven weeks of that last season. He joined Coughlin's staff after losing out to current Bills sideline boss Chan Gailey for the head post prior to the 2010 campaign.
The Bills have a 6-4 edge in their all-time regular-season series against the Giants, but suffered a 38-21 home loss to New York when these teams last squared off back in 2007. The road team has won the last four meetings in this set and Buffalo has prevailed three straight times as the guest against the Giants, having come out on top in visits to the Meadowlands in 1990 (17-13), 1996 (23-20, OT) and 2003 (24-7).
The most famous meeting between the Giants and Bills took place in Tampa during Super Bowl XXV, when New York escaped with a 20-19 decision after Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood memorably missed a game-winning field goal try wide right.
Coughlin is 3-2 in his career against the Bills, including a 2-2 mark during his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995-2002. Coughlin's first victory over Buffalo was also the first playoff win in Jaguars history, a 30-27 verdict at Ralph Wilson Stadium in a 1996 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Gailey owns a 3-1 lifetime record against the Giants as a man in charge, with all of those games taking place while leading the Dallas Cowboys from 1998-99. Gailey and Coughlin have never gone previously head-to-head as head coaches, however.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Buffalo comes into the Meadowlands as the NFL's third-highest scoring team (32.8 ppg), in part due to the scoring chances the defense has generated, but also because it's displayed very good balance and gotten savvy play-calling from the creative and experienced Gailey. The well-traveled head coach has made excellent use of Jackson (480 rushing yards, 5 TD, 19 receptions), as the versatile back is averaging a healthy 5.3 yards per carry and is also an integral part of an efficient passing game directed by underrated quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (1233 passing yards, 10 TD, 4 INT). The journeyman and Harvard graduate has completed nearly 66 percent of his throws on the season and been sensational in crunch time, having recorded a 119.0 passer rating and no turnovers in the second half while orchestrating a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks. Stevie Johnson (28 receptions, 343 yards, 3 TD) is the headliner of a rather unknown cast of pass-catchers that have aided Fitzpatrick's cause, though the Bills will be without No. 2 receiver Donald Jones (16 receptions, 1 TD) for a while after he sprained his ankle in last week's win. Slot specialist David Nelson (23 receptions, 2 TD) will shift outside in Jones' absence, with practice-squad promotee Naaman Roosevelt (6 receptions) now asked to play a more prominent role. Buffalo has been outstanding within the red zone as well, scoring touchdowns on 15-of-20 possessions inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and all of onetime Giants tight end Scott Chandler's (12 receptions) team-best four scoring grabs have come in that area.
Fewell's main priority will be trying to repair a suddenly-leaky run defense that was gashed for 98 yards on only 12 attempts by Seattle's Marshawn Lynch last Sunday, one week after Arizona's Beanie Wells powered his way to 138 yards and three touchdowns against the group. The Giants haven't had much trouble pressuring the passer, however, even with their stellar duo of ends Justin Tuck (6 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (6 tackles) each having been limited to just two games each due to injuries. Umenyiora has been a terror since returning from preseason knee surgery, with the two-time All-Pro amassing four sacks and two forced fumbles in his brief stint, while 2010 first-round draft choice Jason Pierre-Paul (27 tackles) stands third in the league with 6 1/2 quarterback takedowns over the first five weeks. Tuck, still hampered by a sore groin and a neck stinger, seems likely to sit out a third straight contest. New York registered six sacks against the Seahawks, pushing its NFL-best total to 18, but allowed a season-high 424 total yards in defeat.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Though Manning (1486 passing yards, 11 TD, 5 INT) had a rough day last week, he's been good more often than not over the course of this season. The highly- scrutinized quarterback enters Sunday's tilt third among signal-callers in yards per attempt (9.1) and fifth in passer rating (102.3), and did put up 420 yards and three touchdowns in spite of his four-turnover game against Seattle. He'll once again be working with a talented group of receivers led by the physical Hakeem Nicks (28 receptions, 412 yards, 3 TD), who showcased his skills with a 10-catch, 162-yard output against Arizona two weeks back, while counterpart Victor Cruz (19 receptions, 386 yards, 3 TD) has also emerged as a dangerous weapon as of late. The undrafted second-year pro has notched at least 98 receiving yards in three straight games, highlighted by a career-best eight- catch, 161-yard breakthrough in the Seattle loss, and is averaging a splendid 20.3 yards per grab on the year. Tight end Jake Ballard (10 receptions, 2 TD) has made a recent contribution as well, with the massive 275-pounder hauling in a touchdown reception in two straight weeks and providing an unforeseen downfield threat. The Giants' greatest problems on offense have been in running the football, as the team ranks just 28th in rushing yards (83.8 ypg) and is averaging a subpar 3.2 yards per carry, the second-lowest mark in the league. With noted bruiser Brandon Jacobs (116 rushing yards, 4 receptions, 3 total TD) possibly out a second consecutive game with a swollen knee, lead back Ahmad Bradshaw (286 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 3 total TD) will be called upon to handle the majority of the work on Sunday.
The Bills have given up yards in bunches this season, with the team's last four foes all surpassing over 450 total yards, but their 30th-rated defense (421.8 ypg) has compensated by being incredibly opportunistic. Buffalo has garnered a league-best 12 interceptions, with standout strong safety George Wilson (47 tackles, 5 PD) leading the way with three picks in addition to being the club's top tackler, and has scored a defensive touchdown in three straight tests. The secondary, which gets back veteran corner Terrence McGee from a four-game absence caused by a hamstring injury this week, has still permitted over 280 passing yards (26th overall) and 10 touchdowns via the air so far, and the Bills have managed an NFL-low four sacks on the year as well. Containing the run has been another issue, with Buffalo allowing 138.4 rushing yards (29th overall) per game and a porous 5.5 yards per carry, and Wilson and Barnett (42 tackles, 2 INT, 3 PD) have had to make too many stops well beyond the line of scrimmage.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Buffalo's 4-1 start has been fueled by the defense's ability to create turnovers, having recorded an astounding eight interceptions of the top two finishers (Brady, Vick) in last season's league MVP voting. In order to offset the crew's glaring deficiencies in other aspects, it'll need to remain proficient in that area during this weekend's clash with...
Manning. The Giants' chances for success are usually based on how their sometimes-erratic quarterback handles his chores under center, as this season has illustrated. He posted an excellent 8-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in New York's three 2011 victories, but has turned it over five times in the team's previous setbacks to Washington and Seattle.
Buffalo's offensive line vs. New York's defensive line. The Bills have been tremendous in protecting Fitzpatrick this year, as he's been sacked only three times in five games, but the Giants' formidable pass rush will be the group's toughest challenge to date. Rookie left tackle Chris Hairston did fine last week in his first career start subbing for injured regular Demetrius Bell, but draws a difficult assignment in Umenyiora this time around.
The outcome of this game will be decided on which Giants team shows up on Sunday. If it's the one that received high-caliber play out of Manning and kept its mistakes to a minimum during its three-game winning streak, New York should be able to handle the gritty but still-flawed Bills. However, if it's as careless with the football as it was a week ago, that would likely spell doom against a Buffalo squad that's extremely adept at taking advantage of its opponent's miscues. With a balanced offense fully capable of putting up points, the Bills are going to be a handful no matter what. If they can keep up their opportunistic ways for another week, another eyebrow-raising victory over a name opponent could be in the offing.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bills 34, Giants 28