The Buffalo Bills followed up their worst game of the season last week against Tampa Bay with one of their best games of the 2013 campaign.
E.J. Manuel threw for two touchdowns and ran for another and the defense made several big plays Sunday as the Bills beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 27-20.
Manuel got off to a slow start, but he finished with 193 passing yards and two touchdown passes. He also rushed for 37 yards and a score against Jacksonville.
But it was the defense that was the difference in this game. The Bills sacked Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne five times and forced three turnovers in the win.
One of the biggest plays of the game came late in the fourth quarter when Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepted Henne's pass in the end zone. That capped off a goalline stand for Buffalo, which included a tackle for a loss by Jim Leonhard.
While the Bills improved to 5-9, their long playoff drought continues. With the Miami Dolphins' win Sunday over the New England Patriots, the Bills were eliminated from playoff contention.
Here is this week's Buffalo Bills report card:
GRADING THE UNITS
OFFENSE - B-
This wasn't looking pretty early on. E.J. Manuel was missing throws, the Bills couldn't get the running game going and the receiving corps was struggling.
The Bills offense were inconsistent at times, but they were clicking on all cylinders for most of the game. Manuel led three touchdown drives — 72, 80 and 94 yards — and took advantage of the Jaguars' struggles on offense. They also established the run, with Fred Jackson rushing for 80 yards and C.J. Spiller chipping in 67 yards.
One of the keys for Manuel against the Jaguars was reestablishing his connection with fellow rookie Robert Woods. Woods, a wide receiver, had a good relationship with Manuel earlier this season before both went down with injuries. It has taken time for the duo to get back on track, but they had success Sunday. Manuel hooked up with Woods five times for 82 yards and a touchdown.
The Bills haven't always had a balanced attack this season. The passing offense has struggled, while the rushing attack has been inconsistent at times. But on Sunday, the Bills had a balanced attack. Once E.J. Manuel settled in, the Bills were able to move the ball down the field through the air. And with Jackson and Spiller's effectiveness, the Bills had a solid ground attack, too.
One weakness to point out: The offensive line did get flagged a few times Sunday. One of the biggest problems for the Bills this season has been the offensive line. Improving the o-line should be one of the team's top priorities in the offseason.
DEFENSE - B
When your defense registers five sacks and forces three turnovers, chances are you're going to win the game.
The Bills got an interception early in the game — a nice pick by Aaron Williams — and another late in the game by Stephon Gilmore.
Williams made another big play in the third quarter. Jaguars running back Denard Robinson ran up the middle for 24 yards and was on his way to scoring a touchdown. But at the 1-yard-line, Williams punched the ball out of Robinson's hand. The ball rolled out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.
It was a huge play for the defensive unit, which gave up 354 yards against Jacksonville. While the pass defense was solid — the Jaguars had 195 passing yards against the Bills — the run defense gave up 159 yards. If you're looking for something the Bills need to address in the offseason, it's the run defense. That might not require signing or drafting more defensive players. But will require coaches to look at ways to tighten up on run plays. They can't keep giving up big running plays week after week.
But run defense aside, this was a big game for the Bills defense. They have forced turnovers and pressured the quarterback all season. The defense has allowed the Bills to compete in many games this year. And on Sunday, the unit was a big reason why the team won the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS - B-
Dan Carpenter made two field goals Sunday, but he missed a 54-yard attempt in the first quarter. Carpenter had enough leg to make the kick, but missed it to the right.
Carpenter had a couple of touchbacks on kickoffs. But when he didn't kick it deep enough, the Bills did a good job covering the return. That has been the norm this season. Buffalo, namely Marcus Easley, has done a great job covering kickoffs. Rookie defensive back Duke Williams made a nice tackle covering a kick Sunday. Plays like that help Buffalo win the field position battle.
Brian Moorman had a good day punting the ball. He kicked the ball four times, with an average of 45 yard per kick. While his longest punt went for 53 yards, he did have a 27-yard punt in the third quarter.
COACHING - B-
Head coach Doug Marrone's team lost two in a row after their Week 12 bye and the Bills' playoff hopes were dashed. But the Bills, especially individual players, still have a lot to play for.
Sunday was a good victory for Marrone and the Bills. While the Bills struggled early on, the defense played well and eventually the offense got going. It was good, all-around effort. There's still plenty to work on, but Marrone should be pleased with the performance.
I have been critical of offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett this season, but he called a good game Sunday. One of his best play calls game in a goalline situation. With Fred Jackson and Frank Summers in the backfield, E.J. Manuel faked to Jackson and tossed it to Summers in the flat for a touchdown. The Bills have had issues in those situations this year, but Hackett found a nice solution to the problem. Buffalo has a deep backfield, with Jackson, Spiller and Summers. They utilized all three early and often against Jacksonville.
On defense, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine deserves praise for his game plan against the Jaguars. While the run defense needs some work, the Bills put pressure on Chad Henne, sacking him five times and intercepting two of his passes. The Bills also forced a couple of fumbles, including that key forced fumble near the goalline.
The Bills played well on the field, but the coaches deserve a lot of credit. They bounced back and prepared their team for this road game against Jacksonville. There's still a lot of work to do, but this team is improving in some key areas. That's a good thing. It shows the coaches are doing their jobs.
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
OFFENSE: E.J. Manuel. The Bills rookie quarterback had a rough outing last week against Tampa Bay, but bounced back with a solid effort against the Jaguars.
While Manuel threw an interception early, he played well from that point on. He had 193 passing yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 37 yards and a score.
DEFENSE: Aaron Williams. Williams had an early interception, but he made arguably the play of the game when he stripped Denard Robinson of the ball at the 1-yard-line and prevented a Jaguars touchdown. He was injured late in the game, but finished with four tackles and a pass defensed.
E.J. Manuel. This criticism will be brief, but Manuel got off to a horrible start Sunday. He missed some throws and threw an early interception. While he rebounded later in the game, he can't afford to get off to poor starts against most teams in the NFL. Accuracy can be an issue at times for Manuel. That's something he can work on heading into the 2014 season.
STAT OF THE GAME
Bills rushing attack makes a comeback. The Bills rushed for nearly 200 yards Sunday — 198, to be exact — in the win over Jacksonville. Four players were key to the rushing attack, including Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Jackson rushed for 80 yards, while Spiller added 67 yards on the ground. Quarterback E.J. Manuel ran for 37 yards and a score and fullback Frank Summers had four carries for 14 yards.
STAT OF THE GAME II
Buffalo Bills balanced sack attack. According to the Buffalo Bills Twitter account, the Bills are the first team to have four players with eight or more sacks since the 2006 Baltimore Ravens. It's the first time the team has achieved the feat since sacks became an official stat in 1982.
The players with eight or more sacks: Mario Williams (12), Jerry Hughes (9), Kyle Williams (8) and Marcell Dareus (8).
The Bills (5-9) will return to western New York next week for their final home game of the 2013 season. At 1 p.m. Sunday, the Bills will play the Miami Dolphins. Right now, it appears the game will be blacked out on local television. But that might change this week if the team can sell enough tickets to prevent the blackout.