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Defense helps Bills claw out 20-9 win over Panthers

It’s funny how things always seem to balance themselves out in the NFL. A few weeks ago, I don’t know if there were two plausible scenarios in which the Bills could’ve lost in uglier fashion against Miami and Cleveland. Now the football gods are sitting on the Bills sidelines. Last week, the Bills stung the Jets and “the Sanchise” in overtime. This week with the help of Jairus Byrd and Jake Delhomme, the Bills beat mistake-happy Carolina 20-9 to earn their second win a row, both coming away from Buffalo.

No one ever said wins have to be sexy and you don’t get any more or less style points for how you win. Luckily that’s not the case because the Bills have won two straight games ugly, most notably on offense. Statistically speaking, it’s almost a conundrum how the Bills managed to win. They were outgained 425-167, nearly a 3-to-1 ratio. Jake Delhomme threw for 325 yards, which was 86 more yards than Ryan Fitzpatrick has combined to throw for in the past two games. Carolina more than doubled the Bills in first downs, 20 to 9 and had the ball for almost ten minutes longer. But just like last week’s storyline against the Jets, the Bills made more timely plays and managed to make fewer costly mistakes than the Panthers.

All you have to do is look no further than this stat: 4-0. The first number is the number of turnovers by Carolina. The second number is the number of turnovers by Buffalo. Easy math: If you don’t turn the ball over and you’re opponent turns it over four more times than you do, chances are you’re going to have a good day. And good days for Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme seemed to have been left behind in 2008.

Despite throwing for 325 yards, Delhomme had another miserable Sunday afternoon. He was intercepted three times on Sunday, two by Bills rookie safety Jairus Byrd. Dating back to last January’s home playoff loss to against Arizona, Delhomme has now committed 21 turnovers in seven games. Not what the Panthers bargained for signing Delhomme to a five-year extension worth $12 million. The blame, however, must not be placed squarely on Delhomme, at least not all if it anyway. With a dynamic, scary one-two running back punch of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, curiously Delhomme dropped back nearly 50 times (44 to be exact). Kicker John Kasay missed two field goal attempts from 43 and 39 yards. Kick returner Kenny Moore capped of the Panthers’ self-destructing day with a fumbled punt late in the fourth quarter that allowed the Bills to seal it with a late field goal.

Delhomme attempting 44 passes, albeit having to throw from behind, was surely surprising if you take into account the monumental problems the Bills have at stopping the run. Just a week ago, the Bills gave up 318 yards on the ground to the Jets, 210 by way of Thomas Jones. But in this one, the defense held up. The Bills allowed just 116 total rushing yards on 25 carries. Running back DeAngelo Williams had 149 yards and one touchdown on 21 touches. He carried the ball 16 times for 89 yards. It was the first time since Week 2 against Tampa Bay the Bills didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher and held the opposition to under 150 rushing yards as a team. And that Bills defense that stood tall, they may have found the missing playmaker in the secondary they’ve been longing for in Jairus Byrd.

This is what the Bills envisioned when they selected Donte Whitner eighth overall; a ball hawking safety with the ability to make big plays and change the game. While the jury’s still out on Whitner, Byrd is making a strong case for defensive rookie of the year. In the four games he’s started Byrd has recorded five interceptions, two more coming Sunday.

The first interception came off a badly overthrown ball from Delhomme that Byrd returned 37 yards down to the Carolina seven yard line. Two plays later, Bills running back Marshawn Lynch gave the Bills the early 7-0 lead on a 7-yard run. The second pick came late in the third quarter off a Steve Smith deflection. On a high thrown ball by Delhomme, Smith’s outstretched hand deflected the pass and found Byrd again. The rookie returned the pick to the Carolina 27. Buffalo would march into the red zone and from two yards out, Fitzpatrick threaded a strike to Lee Evans to put the Bills on top 14-2. Two picks by Byrd that resulted in two Buffalo touchdowns. Two words: game changer.

Somewhere between proficient and pedestrian, Fitzpatrick went 11 of 22 for 123 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions. His best work came when it mattered most, the fourth quarter. His 2-yard touchdown pass to Evans put the Bills out in front 14-2 and Buffalo stayed there. On the Bills next possession, Fitzpatrick connected with Evans on a 50-yard strike that helped set up Rian Lindell’s field goal that gave the Bills the lead 17-2. In all, starting his first game of the year on the road against a team getting their confidence back after two straight wins, Fitzpatrick did enough to help rather than harm.

For the first time in five years, the Bills have now won two straight road games thanks in large part to the defense. The defense gave the Bills short fields to work with on a few occasions and the offense was able to capitalize with touchdowns instead of field goals. No matter what you think of the last two weeks, the Bills have forced 10 turnovers, nine by interceptions and the abundance of turnovers caused by the Bills is the No.1 reason Buffalo has a two-game winning streak. And hey, we’ve even had the good fortunate of having the other team fumble away a critical punt deep in their own territory. See what I mean about the football gods smiling on the Bills.

But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Yes the Bills have one two straight, but it’s still entirely too early to use the “p” word when it comes to this team. At 3-4, the Bills are at least giving themselves a chance to keep improving and keep playing better. Next Sunday, the Bills return home to Ralph Wilson Stadium with a chance to get back to .500 against the 4-3 Houston Texans.

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