Brian Griese and the Denver Broncos are expected to win. Drew Bledsoe and the Buffalo Bills are expected to entertain. Both missions were accomplished Sunday as the Broncos prevailed 28-23.
Griese satisfied the demanding home crowd and Bledsoe impressed them. Griese gets no slack from either his coach, Mike Shanahan, or anybody else on a team with Super Bowl designs.
"I told the team after the game that you've got to find a way to win. That's what separates the good teams from the great teams," Shanahan said.
After beating St. Louis, San Francisco and Buffalo, the Broncos are unbeaten and Griese has just won three games in a row for the first time in one season. His reward? He must now win No. 4 next Monday night in Baltimore.
Bledsoe, still enjoying his Buffalo honeymoon after arriving from New England, has lit up scoreboards against the New York Jets, Minnesota and Denver, creating excitement despite a 1-2 record. He knows it won't last.
"This has been an entirely positive move for me, but we've got to start winning, otherwise, this goes down the tubes," Bledsoe said.
After losing to two kickoff returns by the Jets, edging the Vikings in Minnesota, and playing the Broncos close in one of the league's toughest environments, the Bills get to go home and greet the Bears next week.
Bledsoe found himself behind 14-0 early in the second quarter Sunday and once again confirmed his reputation as a big-armed passer capable of coming from behind.
"You've got to give a lot of credit to Drew Bledsoe," Shanahan said. "He has a great deal of talent and he never let up."
Winners of only three games in coach Gregg Williams' first season, last year's Bills would have no reason to hope after running back Travis Henry's first-quarter fumble was returned 24 yards for a touchdown by Denver's lumbering defensive tackle Chester McGlockton.
Even after rookie running back Clinton Portis capped an 85-yard drive that put the Broncos up 14-0, the Bills made a game of it until Griese's 26-yard strike to receiver Rod Smith with 2:39 to play provided a 28-16 cushion. And even then Bledsoe guided a 70-yard drive and hit Eric Moulds for a 2-yard score to pull within five before the Bills failed to recover an onside kick.
Griese again rose to the occasion under pressure. A perfect 8-for-8 in fourth-quarter passing this season, he hit 8-of-12 for 73 yards and the clinching touchdown in the final period Sunday.
"Rod played an unbelievable game and made some unbelievable catches," Griese said. "Maybe not real long catches, but they were ones with guys hanging all over him."
In a throwback duel between two pocket passers, Griese led touchdown drives of 85, 80 and 80 yards. Bledsoe led touchdown drives of 80 and 70 yards. Bledsoe threw for 283 yards, Griese 211, and each passed for two touchdowns. Griese's efficiency rating was 103; Bledsoe's, 102.
The difference, as usual in Denver, was the Broncos' reliance on a running game. Portis, a second-round draft pick from Miami, gained 103 yards on 18 carries. Henry managed only 35 on 12 carries as the Denver defense and the 14-0 lead conspired to shut down the run.
"We felt if we did that and made it a one-dimensional game, good things would happen," Shanahan said.
Bledsoe said the Bills need to play better early in games. "We're digging holes for ourselves and leaving ourselves problems at the end of the game," he said. "Our defense played well enough to win."
Unlike the Broncos, the Bills are still allowed moral victories.
"We made some strides playing against a very good team," Williams said. "We played with urgency and we're fun to watch play. But we have to correct mistakes early."
The Broncos' defense, featuring linebackers who believe they are at least as fast as the Bears' linebackers, tried blitzing Bledsoe and paid for it twice on gorgeous completions of 44 yards to Moulds and 42 yards to Peerless Price.
"Obviously, we're disappointed we didn't win," Bledsoe said. "At the same time, I think our attitude is pretty good.
"We come back home and play, and we have a challenge because the Bears are a pretty good team."