WHAT: Buffalo Bills at San Francisco 49ers, NFL Week Five.
WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7.
WHERE: Candlestick Park, San Francisco, Calif.
SPREAD: 49ers -9.5
PREVIOUS RESULTS: The Bills lost to the New England Patriots, 52-28. The 49ers beat the New York Jets, 34-0. The Bills last played the 49ers in 2008, with San Francisco visiting Buffalo and leaving with a 10-3 win.
BILLS ON OFFENSE: The 49ers might have as daunting a defense as the Bills will face this entire season. They allow just 277 total yards per game, good for third-best in the NFL. They're especially good at holding a lead, as their pass defense allows a meager 198 yards a game.
The Bills have wasted numerous drives this season, key among them the drive ending the first half week that ended with a C.J. Spiller fumble at the one-yard line, allowing the Patriots a beam of light they quickly grabbed. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick says the Bills need to hold onto the ball – they have 10 turnovers in their two losses – and grind it out in an effort to keep the Niners' defense on the field:
"It is interesting to see that and to see that they have been very successful at it. That is another thing with this team. They are able to possess the ball and sustain long drives. You have to be able to take advantage of when you have the ball. You have to be able to take advantage of putting seven points instead of three on the board. That goes into it, too. We have to be able to do a good job of that this week."
After three weeks featuring a dominant running game, the Bills' ground attack sputtered last week, with Spiller leading the team with a paltry 33 yards. That forced Fitz to throw, contributing to his four-interception effort. Even though the Bills played from behind in the final 20 minutes of last week's game – propelling Fitz to a more-impressive-than-they-were 350 passing yards – running back Fred Jackson said he and Spiller need to be the offensive leaders:
"Yeah, I mean it is something that is going to control the game. If we can go out there and get a ground game established, it will take the pressure off a lot of people. Also it will be a good thing for us to do."
Consider numbers from the Bills' two wins:
Week Two: Fitzpatrick 178 passing yards, Spiller 123 rushing yards.
Week Three: Fitzpatrick 208 yards, Tashard Choice 91 yards.
For the Bills to have a chance against one of the league's premier teams, Buffalo needs to put less of the onus on Fitz. When there's a balance – not even a balance, so much as an imbalance slanted toward the run – the Bills have a much better shot. The ground game will be hurt with the loss of linemen Cordy Glenn and Kraig Urbik, but the run is still Buffalo's strength.
Now that both running backs are back in the lineup again, coach Chan Gailey said he has to figure out a rotation to get them both adequate touches. He said it could take two to three weeks to completely figure that out, but they won't spend much time on the field together.
BILLS ON DEFENSE: This is where Bills fans can worry.. Buffalo allowed two interchangeable parts – Steven Ridley and Brandon Bolden – to each rush for 100 yards last week for the Patriots.
And they're not even good in the ground game.
San Francisco loves to slow down the game on the ground, milking the clock with first down after first down. Their 167 rushing yards per game are good for third in the NFL. They're led by Frank Gore (326 yards, three touchdowns), but a proven backup has emerged in Kendall Hunter (120 yards, 4.6 yards per carry).
Defensive tackle Kyle Williams said the Niners are tough to plan for because even know their opponents know San Francisco is going to stuff the ball down their throats, opponents can't stop it:
"They line up and they will come off on double teams and try to knock you off the ball. They try to be physical. They want to run the ball no matter what you are in and to step up their pass game. It will be a big challenge."
Like the Bills, the 49ers prefer to keep the ball out of the hands of their quarterback when possible. But San Francisco is better at it. Alex Smith's 178 yards per game are 30th in the NFL, yet he boasts a healthy 98.1 rating because the Niners rarely rely upon him to solely carry the load.
Even with San Francisco does throw, the attack is mainly over the middle. Smith's favorite target has been tight end Vernon Davis (15 catches, 197 yards, four of the team's five receiving touchdowns), and anyone who watched the Bills last week knows how vulnerable they are to pass-catching tight ends.
OUTLOOK: The Bills have an easy schedule overall, but they're entering the toughest stretch of it now. They will stay out West this coming week before playing at Arizona next weekend and play four of their next five games overall on the road. For the Bills to leave the West Coast at 2-4 would be disastrous for their playoff chances.
"That is exactly right. The East Coast-West Coast thing is harder. It is not an easy thing, so that adds to it as well," Fitzpatrick said. "The fact that we are playing two teams in a row here that take care of business at home, that will be tough for us."
In Jim Harbaugh, the Niners have the best coach in the NFL not named Bill Belichick. He took a team with a few strengths and completely built around those strengths, creating a power team that even Gailey admitted this week he'd like his team, in some way to be.
The Bills essentially got laughed off the field last week. All week, they had to answer questions about their mental toughness. They're professionals, and more talented as a team than last year, so look for an inspired performance out of Buffalo this week.
Just don't expect it to be enough against one of the NFC's favorites to make the Super Bowl. San Francisco loves slowly squeezing hope out of opponents, and Fitz has unfortunately shown he isn't consistently capable of leading comebacks, especially against really good teams.
PREDICTION: 49ers 28, Bills 21.
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