When the 4-2 Buffalo Bills face the 3-3 Washington Redskins this week on neutral ground in Toronto, it will be a clash of Cinderella stories, with both teams at critical make-or-break points in their seasons. When the clock strikes midnight, there will only be one glass slipper but this fairy tale is even more interesting than it may seem.
The main storyline centers on both teams having surprised the experts this season after they were universally picked to finish last in their respective divisions.
Having lost two of their last three prior to last week’s bye, Buffalo needs to show they are still on top of their game and worthy of all the early season excitement.
Washington overachieved early to get to 3-1, but has lost two straight and needs to stop the hemorrhaging, figuratively and literally, as they have been overwhelmed with key injuries.
Both teams are also stacked with unheralded, under-recognized talent, including surprising stars from Division III colleges. Under-appreciated quarterbacks who happen to have known each other since they were in grammar school also lead both teams.
When the Bills have the ball, under center will be Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Harvard grad who has shocked the league with his effectiveness leading the Bills to their surprising start, including a week three win over the AFC East rival New England Patriots.
After a few years as a journeyman backup and sporadic starter with teams like Cincinnati, Fitzpatrick has thrown for nearly 1,500 yards and has a 95 QB Rating to put the Bills in the hunt in the AFC.
At quarterback for the Redskins will be John Beck who was one year ahead of Fitzpatrick growing up outside of Phoenix. The two never squared off on the gridiron, but their friendship and competition in swimming and other sports goes back to second and third grade.
Beck gets his second start for Washington, after throwing for 279 yards, one TD and running for another score against Carolina last week. Among many doubters, Beck has established himself as the starter in Washington and, despite the loss last week, showed some signs of why Mike Shanahan likes him in his system.
Which team will finish the season with a better record?
Beck will be working with a young set of receivers and runningbacks now that Santana Moss and Tim Hightower have gone down with injuries. If the youngsters step up and Beck has another solid performance, the Redskins could get back on track.
Perhaps the most interesting storyline, and the most influential one on the game’s outcome, will be Division III alums Fred Jackson and London Fletcher, who will square off when Buffalo is on offense.
Jackson, who came out of Coe College, has been a key in the Bills success, rushing for over 600 yards and six TDs so far. Fletcher is the ironman inside linebacker (and former Bill) who graduated from Division III powerhouse John Carroll.
The Washington defense has to contain Buffalo’s potent offense, but this is a solid defense that simply couldn’t contain Cam Newton last week. They should be able to manage Fitzpatrick better and the Buffalo offense, which will make this one a great clash of Cinderella stories.