Lions, Bills, Redskins bucking their recent NFL history at 2-0

September 24, 2011

Two wins to open an NFL season don’t always mean much. The games that ultimately will shape the season’s outcome still are months away, and no one should be clearing space at any team’s headquarters for a shiny, new Super Bowl trophy just yet.

But for three franchises that have spent more than a decade in football purgatory, the modest accomplishment is much more meaningful than usual.

The Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills haven’t reached the NFL playoffs since the 1999 season, the league’s longest current postseason drought. That is also the season when the Washington Redskins last won the NFC East, although they managed to make two wild-card playoff appearances since then under former coach Joe Gibbs.

But now the Lions, Bills and Redskins are among the seven NFL teams with 2-0 records entering this weekend. Hopes have been buoyed for each that better times could be at hand.

“We’re trying to make a name for our team,” Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said at a midweek news conference where he could have been speaking for any of the league’s early-season surprises. “The only way you get respect in this league is to go out there and play. We’re trying to earn everybody’s respect by our play on the field.”

The NFL’s 2-0 teams also include the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and two AFC heavyweights, the New England Patriots and the New York Jets.

And there are the Houston Texans, one of the three NFL teams — along with the Bills and Lions — that have failed to reach the playoffs since the league realigned its divisions in 2002. But the Texans lost their underdog status when it became clear that quarterback Peyton Manning would be missing from the Indianapolis Colts’ lineup. The Texans are now favorites in the AFC South.

Big changes to the playoff field from one season to the next are the norm in the NFL; that is one of the reasons for the league’s popularity. In each of the last 15 seasons, at least five teams have made the playoffs that hadn’t qualified the previous year. That hasn’t helped the Lions and Bills in recent seasons. But now they have a statistical factor on their side: Since the NFL expanded its regular season schedule to 16 games in 1978, 65 percent of the teams that started 2-0 have reached the playoffs, according to the league.

‘It’s very early’ for Bills

The Bills haven’t had a winning record in a season since 2004. Their followers long for those now-distant glory days when their pitiable performances didn’t come until the Super Bowl. But they’ve won six of 10 games since an 0-8 start last season. Their 79 points are the most in the league through two games this season and they have eight touchdowns in 10 trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. Fitzpatrick, the Harvard product who began his NFL career as a backup in St. Louis and Cincinnati, is tied with the Lions’ Matthew Stafford and the Patriots’ Tom Brady for the league lead with seven touchdown passes.

“It’s been good the first two weeks but you’ve got to keep it going,” Bills Coach Chan Gailey said in a conference call with reporters. “Things turn in a hurry. . . . We’re not a dominant team yet. We hope to be there one day.”

National attention was focused on the Bills this past week after they followed a lopsided opening triumph at Kansas City by rallying from a 21-3 halftime deficit to beat the Oakland Raiders, 38-35, at home last Sunday.

Marv Levy, the coach who led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls — and four straight defeats in that game — from 1991 to ’94, attended last weekend’s game and said he was encouraged.

“It’s very early,” Levy said by telephone. “But it’s always better to be 2-0 than 0-2. It’s been a long time, but the enthusiasm is really bubbling. It’s exciting. They’re very resilient. I think they’re for real.”

The Bills will have to play four games this season against the Patriots and Jets, their AFC East rivals. They take a 15-game losing streak against the Patriots into Sunday’s meeting in Buffalo.

“It’s a tough division the Bills are in,” said Michael Irvin, the former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver who now is an analyst for the NFL Network. “You have to go through New England. You have to go through the Jets. The Bills may come down to earth this week. . . . Buffalo has a scheme that’s beating your scheme. The Patriots and Jets, they have guys who can beat your guys. That’s when it’s going to get tough for Buffalo.”

Draft turns Lions’ way

Irvin seemed more convinced about Detroit’s staying power. “I think the Lions are just a beast of a team,” he said. “They have the best defensive lineman in the game right now in Ndamukong Suh. . . . In this league, if you can control the line of scrimmage with your down linemen without having to blitz so much, you can play with anybody. Detroit can play with anybody, if Stafford stays healthy.”

The Lions haven’t had a winning record since the 2000 season and were 0-16 as recently as 2008. But the team once known for its failed first-round draft picks, including quarterback Joey Harrington and wide receiver Charles Rogers, has seen more recent prized draftees, such as wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Stafford and Suh, turn into genuine NFL standouts.

“We have a lot of players that are experienced,” Lions Coach Jim Schwartz said at a news conference. “We have some good younger players. They’re not going to change their work habits, their practice habits, their tempo, any of those things, just because we’ve won a couple games.”

The Lions, who play Sunday at Minnesota, have won six straight games dating to last season. Stafford threw four touchdown passes in last Sunday’s 48-3 win over the Chiefs, the largest margin of victory in a regular season game in franchise history. The top overall choice in the 2009 NFL draft, Stafford has struggled to stay healthy in his three seasons. But he’s had at least four touchdown passes three times in his first 15 NFL games. The only other quarterback ever to manage that was Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton.

“There’s no patting yourself on the back in the NFL,” Stafford told a group of reporters in the Lions’ locker room at midweek. “You’ve got to go out and get ready to do it again on the next Sunday.”

Redskins grow as team

The Redskins have the early lead in the NFC East entering their game Monday night at Dallas, coming off victories at home over the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals. When they went 6-10 last season in Mike Shanahan’s first year as their coach, some in the sport wondered if Shanahan would become the latest high-profile coach to fail to recapture the franchise’s Super Bowl past.

But Irvin said the Redskins “are a clear-cut indication of what can happen when a team can focus on what it needs to,” after ridding itself of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and quarterback Donovan McNabb. With the Giants, Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles already suffering significant injuries, Irvin said, the Redskins’ chances in the division shouldn’t be dismissed.

“The Redskins are the only undefeated team in the division and they look the most healthy,” he said. “That gives them a great opportunity. When you talk about talent, I look at the Eagles, the Cowboys, the Giants. When you talk about a team, it’s the Redskins right now.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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