This time last year, I wrote that an opening day loss wasn’t necessarily a harbinger of things to come. But Week 1 isn’t meaningless, and no team knows that better than the Chiefs. Last season, Kansas City pulled off the biggest upset in Week 1 and rode a hot start directly into a division championship.
This past weekend, no team exceeded expectations like the Buffalo Bills. The Bills were initially listed as 6.5-point underdogs to the Chiefs, although speculation about Matt Cassel’s injury drove the point spread down to 3.5 points by kickoff. But by either measure, a 34-point victory was nothing short of shocking. The Bills covered the point spread by either 40.5 or 37.5 points, depending on your perspective. The largest opening day ”cover” in modern history came in 1997, when the Jets shocked the Seattle Seahawks, 41-3. The Jets were coming off a 1-15 season and were 6.5-point underdogs in Bill Parcells’ first game with the team. The season ultimately ended with a 9-7 mark.
From 1978 to 2010, only seven teams (1) were an underdog in their season opener, (2) covered the point spread by at least 30 points, and (3) won 6 or fewer games in the prior season. Five of those seven teams ended up winning at least half of their games, and two (the ’00 Eagles and ’06 Ravens) made the playoffs. The Bills have a good chance to run their record to 2-0, as the schedule makers did Al Davis’s team no favors. Oakland has to make a cross-country trip on a short week and play in Buffalo with a 1 p.m. kickoff. A win over the Raiders win would set the stage for the biggest game in Buffalo in years, a Week 3 showdown against the Patriots. So what was the key to the Bills’ success?
They’re not going to make anyone forget Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, but the Bills have a nice set of triplets. Ryan Fitzpatrick was flawless against the Chiefs and passed for four touchdowns; since the start of last season, Fitzpatrick and Tom Brady are the only quarterbacks with three games with four passing touchdowns or more.
Fred Jackson has been underrated by many the past few seasons, including by his own coaches. Jackson has a career 4.5 yards per carry average, and recorded the 8th 100-yard rushing game of his career on Sunday. Steve Johnson had a breakout season last year, his third in the league, gaining 82 catches for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns. Johnson had 66 yards and a score against the Chiefs.
But the Bills’ defense didn’t play second fiddle to the offense in Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City’s first three drives ended with three punts and 20 total yards. Five more drives ended in punts, with all of them gaining 20 or fewer yards. The Bills intercepted Matt Cassel, stripped Jamaal Charles, and allowed just one touchdown.
Are the Chiefs horrible? Are the Bills great? Is neither team, to quote Denny Green, who we thought they were?
On the surface, the 2010 Chiefs were a much stronger team than the Bills. Kansas City won the A.F.C. West and had a 10-win season, while Buffalo stumbled to an 0-8 record and ended the season tied for the second-worst record in the league, at 4-12. But dig beneath the surface, and these two teams weren’t nearly so far apart.
Buffalo had the hardest schedule in the A.F.C. last season, while the Chiefs had the conference’s most forgiving slate of opponents. According to Pro-Football-Reference, the difference between the Bills’ and the Chiefs’ schedules was worth, on average, 7.5 points per week. Consider this: both franchises went winless in 2010 against teams with 10 or more wins (Buffalo, 0-9; K.C. 0-2, including playoffs). Each team won 75 percent of its games against teams with six or fewer wins (Buffalo 3-1; K.C. 6-2). Against teams with seven to nine wins, the Bills went 1-1 with Fitzpatrick at quarterback (1-2 over all), while the Chiefs went 4-3.
Here’s another reason to be optimistic about Buffalo. In 2010, the Bills had the worst turnover margin in football, a metric that — although long accepted in certain football statistical communities — is often misunderstood by football fans. Jason Lisk recently examined all of the teams with the worst turnover margin in the league for every season since 1990. On average, those teams won just 4.6 games, but the following season, the group averaged 7.9 wins. Turnovers play a huge part in explaining whether a team wins or loses, but is not a strong predictor of future performance. Teams with terrible turnover margins tend to lose a lot of games, but are also unlucky; as such, they are usually good picks to outperform public perception the next season.
Thanks to a brutal schedule and a horrific turnover margin, the Bills won only four games in 2010. As any Chiefs fan will tell you, it’s a new season. Buffalo’s offense looks more than capable, while the defense looked significantly improved. Buffalo wasn’t a trendy pick this off-season; bringing back Chan Gailey and Fitzpatrick looked more like a concession than a plan. But the Bills were a tough out last season — recall that Johnson dropped the potential game-winning touchdown in overtime against Pittsburgh last season — and with an easier schedule and more talent, they are capable of being the surprise team in 2011. It’s far too early to understand the playoff picture, but the A.F.C. West and A.F.C. South seem unlikely to send multiple teams to the playoffs. Edging out New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh or the Jets may be too tall a task for the Bills, but don’t be surprised if Buffalo keeps at least one of those teams sweating until the final weekend.
As for the Chiefs? It’s been an ugly couple of months in Kansas City. First, Jonathan Baldwin and Thomas Jones made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Then Todd Haley and the fantasy football community continued to exchange fisticuffs. Kansas City went 0-4 in the preseason, and lost starting TE Tony Moeaki for the regular season in the process. In the opener, Kansas City’s promising young safety Eric Berry was lost for the year. The Chiefs defied expectations last year, in large part thanks to a soft schedule. I don’t like to overreact to Week 1, but the 2011 Chiefs seem more likely to resemble the 2009 squad than the division-winning champion version from last year.
Chase Stuart contributes to the Pro-Football-Reference.com blog and to Footballguys.com.
This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.
PHOTO: The Bills’ Ryan Fitzpatrick passed for four touchdowns. (PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER AIKEN/GETTY IMAGES)