Revived Bills seek to contend against Steelers
In what can only be regarded as a matchup between the NFL's misfits and mighty, it doesn't take much for Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny to guess which distinction is meant for Buffalo.
Hint: It's not the mighty.
At 2-8, the no-name Bills might well be the league's antithesis to the perennial prime-time regular, model-of-consistency Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3), who travel to Orchard Park on Sunday.
''Anybody and everybody knows the Steelers,'' said Posluszny, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh. ''We're not the Steelers.''
Not even close. And yet at the competitive rate they've been playing of late, the Bills might no longer be the bumbling, lovable losers who opened their season 0-8, either.
That counts for something for a team enjoying a mini-revival by getting the most out of an offense that's clicking behind two former seventh-round draft picks - quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and receiver Stevie Johnson - and running back Fred Jackson, who went undrafted.
''We don't have the superstar names and we're not all first-round draft picks,'' Posluszny said. ''When you go through something like that (0-8), I think it brings everyone closer together. It comes to a point in time that we're the only people we got, and we believe in each other when no one else gives us a chance.''
So go ahead and discount them.
''Who cares,'' safety George Wilson said. ''Nobody's been giving us a chance. Keep it that way. We're going to be all right.''
Though the playoffs are all but mathematically out of the question for an 11th straight season in Buffalo, the Bills are finally showing signs of competence. After getting off to the third-worst start in franchise history, the Bills are on a two-game roll, and coming off a 49-31 win at Cincinnati in which they rallied from a 21-point first-half deficit.
If the Bills consider this game an opportunity to measure their progress, the Steelers have far higher expectations.
Tied with Baltimore atop the AFC North, the Steelers are one victory from ensuring the team's seventh consecutive eight-win season and, more important, taking another step toward securing a seventh playoff berth in 10 years.
This is no time to get caught looking past Buffalo, even with a divisional first-place showdown against the Ravens looming.
''Honest to goodness, I didn't even realize that we were playing Baltimore next week,'' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. ''It's that time of year when you have to start stacking up wins and start focusing on what you can do to be the best team.''
The Steelers began taking that step with a 35-3 rout of Oakland last weekend. The dominating victory was a necessary response a week after a 39-26 loss to New England - and at home no less, where Pittsburgh has lost only 87 times since 1970.
Coach Mike Tomlin shrugged off the lopsided margin of victory over the Raiders as meaningless.
''We're not trying to send messages,'' Tomlin said. ''It was important for us to win. We would have been equally as pleased had it not been 35-3.''
Tomlin then turned the tables on the discussion by focusing on the Bills, noting how their two-game win streak was preceded by three straight 3-point losses, including a 37-34 overtime decision at Baltimore on Oct. 24.
''I doubt Baltimore feels bad about that three-point win they had against Buffalo a few weeks ago,'' Tomlin said. ''If you look at the last five games or so from Buffalo, they're really shaping up and identifying themselves.''
Trouble for the Bills is, the Steelers' identity is already intact, particularly on defense.
Even with their loss to New England, the Steelers are allowing a mere 16.5 points a game. They're second in the NFL with 24 takeaways, tied for second with 30 sacks, and are difficult to run against. They've allowed an opponent 100 yards rushing only once this season (the Patriots with 103), and have allowed only one player to reach 100 yards (Baltimore's Ray Rice with 141 last season) in their past 44 games.
Bills coach Chan Gailey can appreciate how good Pittsburgh's defense is - and traditionally has been. As an offensive assistant under Bill Cowher in the 1990s, Gailey recalled how fortunate he considered himself for not having to face the Steelers' defense on game day.
Now that he's on the other sideline, Gailey was left to crack a few one-liners in his way of paying the Steelers their due respect.
On whether he thinks the Bills can successfully run the ball Sunday, Gailey shrugged and said: ''Nobody else has.''
Asked why he can smile while discussing the challenge ahead, the coach chuckled and provided a deadpan response.
''It keeps me from crying,'' Gailey said with a wink, befitting a loose team of misfits approaching the last half of a spent season with nothing left to lose.