Surprising Bills try to next step against explosive Chargers

( – It’s hard to imagine emerging from a defeat of the
reigning Super Bowl champions on a down note, but the San Diego Chargers might
be in that position – at least temporarily.

They put up 30 points and beat the Seattle Seahawks in a memorable Week 2 home
opener in San Diego, but the most telling moment at Qualcomm Stadium might
have been when leading rusher and offensive spark plug Ryan Mathews was taken
from the field on a cart in the fourth quarter.

The team announced on Monday that he’d suffered a sprained medial collateral
ligament in his right knee, but didn’t reveal how long he’d be sidelined or
exactly how severe the injury turned out to be.

The 2013 season was the first in which the 12th overall pick in the 2013 NFL
Draft played all 16 games, and the full schedule’s worth of health yielded a
career-best 1,255 yards on the ground.

Mathews’ status wasn’t specifically listed on Wednesday’s injury report, but
he didn’t practice and suggested he’d miss four or five

“Everyone recovers differently,” Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. “We’ve had
players who were supposed to be done for the season and the next thing you
know they come out there Monday or Wednesday and they’re practicing with
something torn or something broken or this or that. I don’t want to put a
timetable on anything.”

San Diego has a youthful substitute options in rookie Branden Oliver, or it
can turn to veterans Donald Brown and Danny Woodhead – or perhaps a
combination of all three, according to McCoy.

“We’ve said that we’re going to play all our backs, certain rotations, certain
number of plays,” he said. “We have confidence in all our players. That’s why
they’re here.”

Quarterback Philip Rivers leaned heavily on tight end Antonio Gates in the
defeat of Seattle, connecting with him on three scoring passes that boosted
Gates to AFC offensive player of the week recognition.

Gates has averaged one TD per game in four meetings with the Bills, and
actually caught two when last the teams met – in a 37-10 Chargers win three
seasons ago.

He’s got 13 catches and 177 yards to begin the 2014 season, which could make
him a go-to again facing a Buffalo defense that’s yielded 16 catches for tight
ends in two games, while QBs have compiled 590 aerial yards.

But while it’s been three years since they started 3-0 and 15 years since they
last saw the playoffs, the Bills are handling a surprise unbeaten start
(thanks to consecutive defeats of Chicago and Miami) with the mindset of a
team that figured it’d be there all along.

In fact, with an offense that’s scored three touchdowns in 10 trips into the
red zone – including one in six tries against the Dolphins, and five Dan
Carpenter field goals – there’s still plenty to improve upon.

“It’s sad to just be kicking field goals. That’s something we have to fix,”
rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins said, after scoring his first touchdown in
a 12-yard catch and ending with eight receptions for 117 yards in his second
NFL appearance.

Running back C.J. Spiller scored on a 102-yard kickoff return to headline a
yeoman special teams effort, which also included a blocked punt and a recovery
of kick that was muffed by the Dolphins return unit.

“How we played (Sunday) won’t win for us later in the season,” Buffalo guard
Chris Williams said.

The defense has also held up its end, generating five opposition turnovers and
recording six sacks. As a team, the Bills are up to fifth in the league
against the run after two games – allowing 83 yards per week – a full 23 spots
up from their 2013 finish at No. 28, allowing 128.9 yards per game.

The offense, meanwhile, is second-to-last in the league with 28 first downs
and quarterback E.J. Manuel has averaged less than 200 yards per game through
the air. Still, the second-year man from Florida State has been picked off
just once and sacked just once through two weeks, after averaging nearly one
interception and three sacks per game during 10 appearances in his injury
mottled rookie season.

“You’re never going to be perfect, but the good thing is we’re still coming
out with two wins versus two great teams,” Manuel said. “As long as we win,
I’m happy.”

Another reason to hold the parade reservations in downtown Orchard Park, the
Bills finished 6-10 after starting 3-0 in 2011 and wound up with a 7-9 mark
after a heady 4-0 start in 2008.

“To sit here and say, ‘Oh, did we expect to have people give us credit?’ Not
when you haven’t done anything for such a long period of time. I think we
understand that,” Buffalo coach Doug Marrone said.

“We’ve got to get better each week. And really, all of our focus right now is
the game that’s next, San Diego.”


Keeping it Tight

Martellus Bennett and Charles Clay put up numbers against the Bills from the
tight end slot in weeks one and two, so it stands to reason that a rejuvenated
Gates might continue the stretch. Wideouts Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd
figure to be the tasks of the cornerbacks, so Gates will probably be left to
with rookie linebacker Preston Brown, who has 12 tackles and a fumble recovery
in two games.

Grinding it Out

Limiting the effectiveness of Rivers and Co. gets a lot easier if the Chargers
don’t have the ball. And keeping the Chargers from having the ball gets a lot
easier if the Buffalo running game is able to get lanes cleared by a trenches-
winning offensive line. Left guard Williams, who’s signed for four years and
$13.5 million, plays a role in that and could use a rebound after a
challenging day against the Dolphins.


The Buffalo fans will claim it’s bias against the small market in Western New
York, but the objective observer – while impressed with the Bills’ two wins –
can still look and see holes when laid alongside a perceived AFC contender.

That’s no different this week, particularly with a Chargers team that went for
30 points and 377 yards against the best defense in football. Rivers gets it
done here, too.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Chargers 24, Bills 20