There's no debating that there were a number of contributors in Buffalo's second straight victory to open the season Sunday against Miami. The Bills' defense was stifling in the first half as the Dolphins never crossed midfield or converted a third down. Boobie Dixon blocked a punt, Scott Chandler made a ridiculous, outstretched, toe-tapping catch in the red zone and Dan Carpenter hit five field goals. But the game was still in doubt until a pair of Clemson playmakers on Buffalo's roster broke the game open.
C.J. Spiller's 102-yard kick return for a touchdown and Sammy Watkins' 12-yard catch, run and dive for the pylon for a touchdown put the game out of reach in lifting the Bills to their first 2-0 start since 2011.
Buffalo had a 9-3 lead midway through the third quarter as Miami's offense had finally found some rhythm and put together a 13-play field goal drive. On the ensuing kickoff however, Spiller fielded the ball two yards deep in his own end zone, got some key blocks from Brandon Spikes and Frank Summers and was off to the races down the right sideline.
"That's the type of stuff we're looking for," said head coach Doug Marrone. "I think he's very dangerous back there. We were able to get a returnable ball and you see what he can do."
Spiller had seven kick return touchdowns in his college career at Clemson, four of which came in his senior season for the Tigers. After heaping credit on the 10 blockers in front of him on the play Sunday, Spiller explained how returning kicks comes naturally to him.
"It was something that I've done my whole life and I hadn't done in a while since I'd been here, but I felt very comfortable," said Spiller, whose first kick return for a touchdown as a Bill came in 2010 against the Patriots (95 yards). "I just had to kind of get back into the groove of catching it, making great decisions. After that it's just trusting your eyes and when you see it just try to hit it 100 miles per hour."
After Spiller got by kicker Caleb Sturgis there was little doubt anyone was going to catch him. His touchdown put Buffalo up 16-3. To Miami's credit they answered with their first touchdown drive of the game on the ensuing possession to cut the lead to six.
That's when Buffalo's offense put together their longest and most efficient drive of the day. Spiller got the drive started with a nine-yard catch and run. Two plays later Spiller ripped off a 47-yard sprint off left tackle putting the Bills in the red area at the Miami 16.
Three plays after that Sammy Watkins rubbed past tight end Scott Chandler coming left to right on a crossing route underneath. EJ Manuel hit him in stride and Watkins beat two pursuing defenders to the far corner enough to reach the ball inside the front right end zone pylon for a touchdown before he was pushed out of bounds for a score putting Buffalo up 23-10.
"Great game from Sammy," said EJ Manuel. "It happened that a lot of calls and progressions had him getting the ball and coming open. He did a great job running the route and getting open. I'm very proud of him. That last touchdown, he got in there for us on the third down. We call that a double whammy when you get a first down and get a touchdown in the red zone. That was huge for us, and that's what I expect from him. Great job right after the catch."
The catch was Watkins' sixth of the day and put him over 100 yards in the game at the time, marking the first time a Bills' rookie receiver did that since Lee Evans in 2004. He finished with eight receptions for 117 yards and the touchdown.
"It was a great call," Watkins said. "We knew they were in a man (coverage) and I used (Scott) Chandler as a pick and got across the field and I kept running and I saw green grass and EJ (Manuel) made a great pass, he dumped it down to me."
At the time of Watkins' touchdown catch he and his fellow Clemson alum accounted for 271 of the team's 426 all-purpose yards. Almost two-thirds of the team's production on offense and special teams had gone through the two Clemson products.
"Clemson prepared us, that's all I can say," said Watkins. "And it's just great to have us two on the same team at the same time. We've just got to keep working and keep running as a team."
"It was great. I'm very happy for Sammy to get his first touchdown," said Spiller. "He had an unbelievable game. Now you can start to see DBs respect him as a young player and that's what we need. We need him to continue to make plays like that along with the other receivers. It was a very special day for him to get his first touchdown and that's one of many."
Essentially in a span of nine minutes and 10 seconds in the third quarter Spiller and Watkins put the game away.
"The Clemson connection," asked Spiller with a smirk. "Yeah, that's what we do. We make plays. It was good, that little series, it was pretty much hit them with 28, hit them with 14. I guess they just didn't have an answer for us. The only thing I was thinking was, man, what it could have been like if we would have played together in college."
Spiller and Watkins are getting that opportunity now in Buffalo.