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It’s been four years since the Buffalo Bills last had a winning season, and even longer since they reached the playoffs. History says a victory on Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals all but guarantees those streaks will end.
Off to their best start in 16 years, the surprising Bills look to keep their perfect record intact when they visit a Cardinals team hoping to avoid a third straight loss.
While the Bills (4-0) were expected to make progress this year following three straight losing seasons, a perfect record after four games seemed unlikely considering they hadn’t started that well since 1992 during the glory days of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith.
Buffalo went 11-5 that season and reached the Super Bowl for the third time in four years.
“We still don’t feel like we’re anywhere near our potential,” quarterback Trent Edwards said. “We’re going in the right direction. But we still have a lot left to give. So I don’t know how good we can be.”
Seeking their first playoff appearance since 1999 in an AFC East that for the first time in a while seems wide open, the Bills are 4-0 for the sixth time in franchise history. Only the 1975 club failed to reach the playoffs while the 1980 and 1991 teams began a franchise-best 5-0 en route to the postseason.
Since the merger in 1970 with the AFL, 59 teams have started 5-0 with only four missing the playoffs.
Clearly, Buffalo has been helped by a favorable early schedule with its four opponents - Seattle, Jacksonville, Oakland and St. Louis - a combined 4-11 this season. Each team was dealing with either a key injury or an unsettled coaching situation when facing the Bills.
While a relatively easy schedule has played a role, the manner in which Buffalo has won bodes well for the rest of the season.
Last Sunday’s 31-14 victory over the winless Rams was the Bills’ third consecutive fourth-quarter comeback as they trailed 14-13 before Jabari Greer’s 33-yard interception return sparked an 18-point fourth-quarter surge.
That paled in comparison to the previous week against Oakland when Buffalo scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to erase two nine-point deficits in a 24-23 win. The run of comebacks began Sept. 14 at Jacksonville with the Bills scoring 10 unanswered points in the final four minutes.
“I think it’s done wonders for our confidence,” Greer said. “The way that we’ve come together as a team, I think it gives us momentum and gives us belief in ourselves to know we can win when the game’s not necessarily all in our control.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in Buffalo’s start has been Edwards’ play in his first full season as a starter. The second-year pro has the NFL’s third-best passer rating in the fourth quarter (136.6), trailing only Brett Favre of the New York Jets and San Diego’s Philip Rivers. Edwards has helped Buffalo score 45 points in the final quarter this season after it scored 64 fourth-quarter points in all of 2007.
Improving their defense also was imperative for the Bills to return to the playoffs, and through four games that unit has been far better than last season. Buffalo leads the league in third-down conversion percentage (19.2) and is limiting opponents to 15.8 points per game - a six-point decrease from 2007.
That unit will have to compensate for the absence of starting cornerback Terrence McGee, who suffered a knee injury against St. Louis. Originally listed as doubtful on Friday, McGee didn’t make the trip to Arizona after missing all three practices this week.
Sunday also will see Jauron’s team facing a short-handed opponent. Arizona (2-2) will be without two-time Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin, who suffered a fractured sinus as a result of a vicious, helmet-to-helmet hit from Jets’ safety Eric Smith.
Boldin, the NFL leader in TD receptions (5), is out indefinitely following surgery on Thursday.
The Cardinals will be happy to return home after losing games to Washington and the Jets on an East Coast trip that cost them a chance to start 3-1 for the first time since moving to Arizona following the 1987 season.
Sunday’s 56-35 loss to New York was particularly disappointing for the Cardinals and quarterback Kurt Warner, who threw three interceptions and lost three fumbles. Warner, though, didn’t get much protection as he was sacked five times.
“It’s a team sport so it’s the team’s fault,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Obviously we did not protect Kurt well enough. But there is enough blame to go around for everybody.”
Arizona’s defense also needs to shoulder much of the blame after Favre burned it for six touchdowns.
“We gave him five of those six touchdowns,” safety Antrel Rolle said. “It’s nothing we didn’t work on in practice. I need to communicate better. We need to be on the same page. There were a few times we weren’t on the same page and it cost us.”
The Bills have won four straight against the Cardinals, averaging 32.8 points.