The ebbs and flows of the NFL season are inevitable. Ups and downs are part of life for almost every NFL team.
The Buffalo Bills (2-2) and San Francisco 49ers (3-1) have not been immune from those sorts of vicissitudes in the first month of the 2012 NFL campaign. Last week, however, both began to resemble the teams many were expecting to see this season.
Which was not good news for the Bills, but a pretty good deal for the 49ers.
We’ll see if last week’s pattern continues on Sunday when Buffalo makes the long trek to the Bay Area. A late week check of the Don Best Pro Odds notes that host San Francisco is a 9½-10 point favorite at almost all Las Vegas sports books, with the total mostly at 44½ shaded to the ‘under.’
Kickoff at Candlestick Park will be at 4:25 p.m. (ET), with CBS providing the TV coverage. Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots will be on hand to describe the action.
Buffalo certainly hopes last week’s 52-28 loss at Orchard Park to New England doesn’t linger. For the Bills’ sake it had better not, because after this trip to Candlestick, Buffalo has road games at Arizona and New England, plus a home game vs. unbeaten Houston, in three of its next four games. The Bills have their “bye” week on October 28, after hosting Tennessee, but it’s safe to say that the next month is extremely critical for the Bills...and the future of head coach Chan Gailey.
The loss to the Patriots was disturbing on a variety of fronts, not the least of which was allowing 45 points in the second half (and 31 in a 4th-Q meltdown) after assuming a 21-7 lead early in the third quarter. Along the way the Bills allowed a whopping 247 yards on the ground. Moreover, injury problems became a concern last week, and Buffalo likely plugs in a pair of new OL starters at Candlestick after LT Cordy Glenn and RG Kraig Urbik went down with ankle injuries against the Pats.
Perhaps the most alarming development last week was the regression of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick into the mistake-prone mess who struggled down the stretch last season when tossing an NFL-worst 23 picks. Fitzpatrick, who had not thrown an interception in his previous two starts after tossing three in the opening loss to the Jets, was guilty of four picks against New England.
The Bills were also held to a season-low 98 yards rushing against Bill Belichick’s defense, and top backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, both of whom having missed action due to injury this season, were each guilty of fumbles against New England.
For Buffalo to succeed, and for Fitzpatrick to avoid disaster, the Bills have to be able to run the ball effectively, and Fitzpatrick has to begin finding top wideout Steve Johnson downfield a bit more often.
All easier said than done, however, especially against the gnarly 49ers, who bounced back from their shock loss at Minnesota to throttle the overrated Jets, 34-0, last week at the Meadowlands’ MetLife Stadium.
The tale of that one-sided romp could be found in the rushing statistics, which reflected the sort of physical domination that head coach Jim Harbaugh stresses. San Francisco pounded for 245 yards rushing while conceding only 45 yards on 17 carries to the helpless Jet runners.
Given the maddening inconsistency of the Buffalo defensive front, and its shortcomings that were exposed last week vs. the Patriots, the scenario is a potentially-frightening one for the Buffalo defense this week.
Another concern for the Bills this week is that Harbaugh has developed a package of plays for 2nd-year backup QB Colin Kaepernick, the long-striding Nevada grad who was also a 1,000-yard-rusher in multiple seasons for the Wolf Pack. Kaepernick, used in “Wild Kap” looks, gained 50 yards on four carries last week vs. the Jets, but can also put the ball in the air, creating an extra concern for opposing defenses.
If there are some concerns for Harbaugh’s offense, it’s that QB Alex Smith has yet to detonate the big-play element the 49ers thought they were adding to their strike force in the offseason when acquiring the likes of WRs Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and rookie A.J. Jenkins, plus rookie RB LaMichael James from Oregon.
But it’s not been all that bad for Smith, who continues to manage games effectively and avoid mistakes (he has only one pick in four games). As long as Smith plays within himself, Harbaugh is unlikely to contemplate any QB change, and will be using Kaepernick only on occasion in a change-of-pace role. Moreover, the “O” could regain the services of beastly RB Brandon Jacobs, the ex-Giant banger who has been out with a knee injury sicne the second week of preseason.
Meanwhile, Vic Fangio’s 49er stop unit allowed only 145 yards of total offense to the Jets and ranks third overall in the league, allowing just 277 ypg. San Francisco, however, is not forcing TOs at the rate it did last season when finishing with an NFL-best +28 TO margin. The 49ers have forced only seven giveaways in four weeks and stand +3 in TO margin entering October.
Of course, what remains noteworthy about the Niners is their pointspread prowess, as they’re now 15-6-1 vs. the number since Harbaugh’s arrival last season. Included is a 9-1-1 home spread mark at Candlestick.
As for the Bills, they’re just 2-5 vs. the line their last seven on the road, and are also ‘over’ 9-4 their last 13 away from home.