Un­der new coach, are Bills fi­nally con­tenders?

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - LEADING OFF - Mike Jones USA TO­DAY Sports

Some­one for­got to tell Sean McDer­mott and the Buf­falo Bills that re­build­ing projects are sup­posed to fea­ture hard-to-watch de­feats, ap­par­ent steps back­ward and more ques­tions than an­swers.

The first-year coach led his team to a 35-14 blowout vic­tory over the Oak­land Raiders on Sun­day, im­prov­ing his record to 5-2 on the sea­son and 4-0 at home. It’s the Bills’ best start since 2011 and their first 4-0 open­ing at home since 1995.

Up in Western New York, the long-suf­fer­ing fan base is hold­ing its col­lec­tive breath, un­sure if this suc­cess is for real. McDer­mott’s postgame news con­fer­ences fea­ture ques­tions from lo­cal re­porters ask­ing why they should be­lieve this team is dif­fer­ent from years past, as the fran­chise holds the long­est ac­tive post­sea­son drought at 17 years.

As he re­peated Sun­day, McDer­mott won’t com­pare his squad to its pre­de­ces­sors. He is con­cerned only with build­ing this team and lay­ing a foun­da­tion for suc­cess in years to come.

He ap­pears to be well on his way to­ward do­ing just that.

The fore­most pri­or­ity has in­volved chang­ing the cul­ture. The for­mer Carolina Pan­thers de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor has per­suaded play­ers to buy into his “One-11th” mantra, which means each mem­ber of a unit has to fo­cus on do­ing his re­spec­tive job while re­mem­ber­ing that he is part of a group and his con­tri­bu­tion leads to the greater good.

Work­ing along­side another for­mer Pan­thers fig­ure in firstyear gen­eral man­ager Bran­don Beane, McDer­mott hasn’t been afraid to make un­pop­u­lar de­ci­sions. He opted against re-sign­ing cor­ner­back Stephen Gil­more and line­backer Zach Brown. He traded wide re­ceiver Sammy Watkins, de­fen­sive back Ronald Darby and, most re­cently, de­fen­sive tackle Mar­cell Dareus.

Lean­ing heav­ily on de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Les­lie Fra­zier, McDer­mott has built an ag­gres­sive and op­por­tunis­tic de­fense that’s lim­ited op­po­nents to 16.4 points while record­ing a league­lead­ing 17 take­aways.

Mean­while, with Ty­rod Tay­lor and LeSean McCoy lead­ing the of­fense, the Bills have found bal­ance, par­tic­u­larly in the last two weeks when they scored 30 and 34 points, re­spec­tively.

The Bills will be tested in the sec­ond half of the sea­son with two games against the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots and one against the New York Jets, whom they’ve beaten once, as well as matchups with the New Or­leans Saints and Los An­ge­les Charg­ers.

McDer­mott and the play­ers like the di­rec­tion they’re headed.

“When you put the time in and you care about one another (and) you de­tail your work, you give your­self a chance,” the coach told re­porters.

MORE THAN BREES

Don’t look now, but the Saints ex­tended their win­ning streak to five games with a 20-12 win over the Chicago Bears to move to 5-2.

Yes, much of New Or­leans’ suc­cess has come thanks to the hero­ics of Drew Brees and an of­fense that’s still among the league’s elite with 390.4 yards and 27.3 points per game. But the Saints also can thank an im­prov­ing de­fense for much-needed sup­port.

The unit stum­bled out the gates, giv­ing up 32 points per game dur­ing a 0-2 start. But in the five games that have fol­lowed, the Saints have lim­ited foes to an av­er­age of 16 points while record­ing 11 take­aways.

Sun­day’s per­for­mance from the group was cru­cial be­cause the of­fense turned the ball over twice in the fourth quar­ter.

New Or­leans’ de­fen­sive play­ers took a bit to jell this sea­son; they have taken strides each week and have grown a more ag­gres­sive mind-set.

“The con­fi­dence you gain is through ex­pe­ri­ence,” coach Sean Pay­ton ex­plained af­ter Sun­day’s win. “You start to see it in front of your eyes, the growth and the con­fi­dence. Hope­fully we can con­tinue that. ... They were up for the chal­lenge.”

NO BRYANT, NO PROB­LEM?

Mike Tom­lin and the Steel­ers ap­pear to have weath­ered another bout with dys­func­tion, and Pitts­burgh ex­tended its win­ning streak to three games af­ter top­ping the Detroit Lions 20-15 Sun­day night.

The of­fense did just fine with dis­grun­tled Mar­tavis Bryant benched. Rookie JuJu Smith-Schus­ter recorded seven catches for 193 yards and a touch­down to serve as a strong com­ple­ment to An­to­nio Brown.

There seems to be enough balls to go around for th­ese three re­ceivers, if Bryant can ac­cept that. If the coach can main­tain co­he­sion, Pitts­burgh should run away with the AFC North.

TI­MOTHY T. LUD­WIG, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Coach Sean McDer­mott and the Bills are 4-0 at home for the first time since 1995. Buf­falo’s 5-2 start is their best since 2011.

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