Bills and Lions share underdog persona
Toronto, Canada – On the outside they appear to be two the automobile. The other Buffalo wings.
Yet, for all their differences, these towns share a common bond.
For the better half of a decade, the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills seemed destined for failure, as their tortured fan bases can confirm, with neither club qualifying for the postseason since the turn of the century.
Suddenly, however, the Bills and Lions share a connection with the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers that no one else in the league does -- they're undefeated.
In possibly the most unanticipated turn of events, the two floundering franchises appear to have solved their woeful ways and seem poised to return to gridiron greatness, much to the delight of their beloved fans. Yet, how each squad has made its respective transition is worth noting, as both clubs have taken rather distinct routes.
For Detroit, the turnaround is hardly a shock to even the most casual football fan, as the Lions were the darling pick to rise from the ashes to become contenders by a number of insiders and gridiron junkies heading into the season. Looking at the roster, it's hard to argue with popular opinion.
What's not to love? Built around the arm of quarterback Matthew Stafford and his array of weapons -- whether it is one of the league's most dynamic wideouts in Calvin Johnson, or versatile running back Jahvid Best - the Lions' offense is in position to make an impact this year, barring injury, of course.
It doesn't hurt that the defense is anchored by one of the most feared pass rushers in the league, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Mention of his name makes opposing quarterbacks cringe, garnering the respect of his peers in just a single season and setting the table for a dominating force to be on either side of the ball for the Lions.
For all the high expectations thrown on the usual cellar dwellers of the NFC North, the Bills entered the 2011 campaign with the same lack of support from anyone outside of the greater Buffalo area -- Toronto included -- that has followed the club since the days of Jim Kelly came to end.
Foreseeing Buffalo would be the top team in the vaunted AFC East after three weeks would be possible just if a crystal ball were involved. Knowing the Bills would be the conference's lone undefeated team only seems likely with the assistance of a time machine.
Behind a late-blooming QB in Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills have collected a number of intriguing pieces -- wide receiver Stevie Johnson, running back Fred Taylor and tight end Scott Chandler to name a few -- and appear to be buying into head coach Chan Gailey's approach.
Though they may not have been heralded as the next big thing, like their NFC counterparts, the Bills have been the most resilient unit this year, overcoming huge first-half deficits en route to impressive victories.
Despite what may look like two unique squads simultaneously figuring out their winning dynamic after years of futility, both franchises have made significant improvements in similar categories.
Just a year ago, both teams sat in the bottom half in terms of points scored per game, averaging fewer than 23 points in a contest. In contrast, both sides are now in the top five in points per game, averaging well over 30 points.
Take a deeper look at the offensive breakdown and it becomes apparent that, though these inferior teams acknowledged the need to put more points on the board, they went about it in a very different manner.
Unlike the Lions of old, where running the football was paramount to the team's identity through the Barry Sanders era and Billy Sims before him, the new-look lineup is predicated on getting vertical and converting down field through the air.
Though the Bills have always been known to be able to balance between the run and pass, it's been some time since that blend equated into a winning strategy for the City of Good Neighbors. This season that mix appears to be in order, with a bit more emphasis on wearing teams down with their powerful back Jackson, which in turn opens up more short routes in the middle of the field for slot receivers like David Nelson.
The biggest gap between these two improved sides is clearly on the defensive end, where Detroit prides itself on shutting people down, holding opponents under 16 points a game on average -- good for third overall in the NFL this season.
Both teams have stories of an intriguing tale, climbing through the ranks and making the most out of the situation. But which of them has made the more significant improvement?
Considering the Bills have nearly matched their win total from a season ago -- winners of four games in 2010, they did not collect win No.3 until Week 14 -- suggests the team mainly unscathed in the offseason is certainly better than anyone expected, for the time being.
On the other hand, the Lions continue to develop a complete team on both sides of the ball, overlooking the big name free agents in hopes of landing the special gem for half the price. Of course, that only works in theory and the biggest obstacle for the young team is staying healthy, otherwise a return back to a six-win campaign is in store.
Before either franchise receives its coronation as the tops in the NFL it must be said that for all the losing these teams have endured over the years both organizations have also faltered after promising starts.
It was 2007 when Detroit, led by Jon Kitna, blew a 6-2 record midway through the season only to stumble to the finish line a pedestrian 7-9. Not to be outdone, the fans in Buffalo can hardly forget a perfect start to the first four games in 2008, as Trent Edwards was looking like the player the Bills expected him to be. But the Bills struggled and won only three more contests.
For what it's worth, these two teams could be giving us a glimpse into the future. Fans may get a sense of deja vu reminiscent of the mid-90's during prouder times for the franchises, otherwise history could very well repeat itself, and misery loves company.