Bills did just enough against the Bengals

Photo of TE Dawson Knox from buffalonews.com.

Every Monday morning, NFL fans in eight or ten cities study the stats, rewatch the video and listen to the commentary about how their team let a game get away from them.  Fans in eight or ten other cities continue to celebrate their team’s win, trying to erase from their minds the half dozen or so ugly plays that could have made the difference between victory and defeat. 

A kickoff return for a touchdown, called back. A gift two-point conversion.  A fumble ruled out of bounds, barely. A pass, inches too high, deflected off a receiver’s fingertips and intercepted.

Every week, it’s the same story.  Fans dealing with a loss, telling themselves they could have won. Other fans celebrating, having watched their team make enough plays to win. Just enough.

For Buffalo Bills fans so far in 2019, the Bills keep making just enough plays to win. They keep hearing the players say things like “we’re resilient,” “we’re built for this,” and “we’re built to win.”  

Those comments sound good, and maybe there’s something to them, but the reality is the Bills are 3-0 against teams that are a missed chip-shot field goal away from being a combined 0-9, having come from behind twice and nursed a lead to secure the win once. The Bills have had their moments, and a win is a win, but they still have a lot to prove.

Photo by Adrian Kraus/AP/Shutterstock. Buffalo Bills fans cheer during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, in Orchard Park, N,Y. – 22 Sep 2019.

And so it was on Sunday.  In their home opener, the Bills turned a totally dominant first half into a nail-biting, comeback win. The fans came prepared to make some noise, but they were strangely quiet before the game. 

The fans seemed to know that their team wasn’t some New England or Kansas City juggernaut, rolling over opponents with relentless precision. They seemed to understand the Bills were simply a bunch of emotionally charged over-achievers making enough plays to win games. 

In the first half, the Bills defense dominated. Like, really, really dominated. Late in the first half, the Bills’ leading tackler had only two tackles. Why?  Because the Bengals had gone three and out so often that they hadn’t run enough plays for anyone to have made more than two tackles. Time of possession in the first half almost was 30:00 to 00:00. Almost.

The defense kept asking the fans for more noise, and the crowd gladly obliged. Play after play, the noise rose from the stands, and Andy Dalton was forced to resort to hand signals to get his team organized. 

The highlight was Micah Hyde’s strip that the Bills recovered for their first takeaway of the day. Good as the strip was, it was Levi Wallace’s determination that made the play. Wallace was beaten off the line of scrimmage and out of position to make a play on the pass, but he recovered enough, just enough to get a piece of the receiver and hold on for the tackle. His determination was enough, just enough to give Hyde time for the second hit and the strip.  Pure grit. 

But all wasn’t right in Bills land, because the offense was struggling. The offensive line was giving the running backs precious little daylight, and all those wide-open five and eight and fifteen yard passes from previous weeks weren’t so wide-open. The Bills put together one nice drive for a touchdown and managed a couple of field goals for the 14-0 half-time lead. 

In the third quarter, things changed, dramatically. The offense continued to struggle, but what was more distressing was that for the first time in 2019, the defense looked vulnerable. The Bengals began attacking weaknesses in the defense that allowed them to get the ball to players in space. 

Joe Mixon and the Bengal receivers seemed to be running free in the Bills secondary, and it was all the Bills could do to stop 15-yard gains from becoming 60-yard touchdowns. The Bengals closed the gap to 14-7, tied it at 14-14, then took the lead 17-14 with four minutes left in the game. 

A lot of the noise had left the stadium.

Then the Bills offense went to work. Dawson Knox made the big play, a 49-yard catch and run. Knox’s determination ignited the crowd. Josh Allen made a couple of nice runs and Frank Gore powered into the end zone to take back the lead. With the extra point, the Bills were up by four.  It would have been three, except that in first quarter the Bills had gotten a two-point conversion on their first touchdown after a Bengal penalty.

Now here came the Bengals, needing a touchdown because of that two-point conversion. The crowd came back to life, louder than they’d been all day. Still, the Bengals found openings in the Bills defense and marched down the field, into range for a field goal which wouldn’t be enough. Forced to keep attacking, Dalton threw high off Auden Tate’s fingertips, Hyde tipped it and White had his second interception. 

A great win.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – SEPTEMBER 22: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills pulls up to pass the ball just before a hit by Nick Vigil #59 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the fourth quarter at New Era Field on September 22, 2019 in Orchard Park, New York. Buffalo defeats Cincinnati 21-17. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images).

A few observations.

1.  When the Bills took the field, Harrison Philips led the charge onto the field wearing a sombrero in honor of Pancho Billa.   Great touch.  Boo to the Bills. They honored Ezra Castro, aka Pancho Billa, before the game. He deserved a half-time ceremony. Pancho Billa, a completely spontaneous creation of a single fan, and the Bills Mafia are special, fan-driven activities that the Bills would have created themselves if they’d thought of it. 

The Bills missed the opportunity to tell the fans at half time how important they are; instead, the Bills gave us frisbee catching dogs. The fans missed the chance to say thank you to Castro and his family by having only a pregame announcement (that most fans missed because the lines were so long at security). 

2.  Line play was the story of the game. The Bills had trouble getting the running game going, and they couldn’t protect Allen. The pass protection looked like 2018. Allen was on the run a lot. Meanwhile, the Bills defensive front four did a good job against the run but could mount no meaningful pass rush.  Dalton had all the time he needed for his second half heroics.  The Bills made a play here and there against the Bengals’ second half passing attack, and it proved to be just enough, but only their first half dominance saved them.

3.  Josh Allen was the story of the game. (Yes, I did that on purpose.)  There are two important things we know about Josh Allen: he’s a great play maker, and he still makes stupid plays.   The fumble was stupid. The interception was stupid. The deep throw to Foster that was nearly intercepted was stupid. The throw to Knox in the end zone could have turned out to be stupid.  

But, man, can Josh Allen make plays. The overthrow of Jones down the right sideline was a great play, escaping the rush and finding Zay. Yes, he overthrew it, but he was on the run, forward, and it was a really tough throw. He escapes pressure with the best of them, and he knows where he will find his receivers.  

What I like best is that his quick release and strong arm allows him to find receivers coming open over the middle and get the ball there before the window closes.   His receivers often catch the ball as it’s about to fly past them, because it’s coming at them with real pace. That ability allows Josh to complete passes that many QBs can’t.

And his running. The Bills are giving him just enough designed runs to force the defense to account for him. That makes everything just a little easier for the other ball carriers and for the receivers.  

How many fourth quarter wins does he have now?  I don’t track that stat, but it’s getting hard to ignore.  

4.  Everyone on the field plays north and south, up and down the field. Except Isaiah McKenzie, who seems to play the whole game east and west. Someone ought to track how many miles he logs going in motion, sometimes getting the ball, sometimes just attracting attention. Back and forth, back and forth.  

5.  Frank Gore is just a force of nature.

Photo of RB Frank Gore from pennlive.com.

6.  Cody Ford was really excited when Gore scored the game winner. After the game, when most players had left the field, he was high-fiving Bills fans around the Bengals’ side of the field.   For a minute it looked like he would circle the stadium, but then he turned and ran to the tunnel.  Ed Oliver and a couple other Bills were high-fiving fans on the Bills’ side.

7.  In the car after the game, I listened to McDermott’s press conference. He sounded emotionally drained. All he could say was it’s hard to win in the NFL, these guys have heart, we have a lot to work on. All true.

8.  It was hot in the Stadium. Hot days bring out the tight tee shirts, the tank tops, the short shorts, the Spandex zubaz.   A feast for the eyes. 

9.  The wind was blowing.  Bojo needs to learn to punt into the wind; those high boomers just come back to him.  I was surprised Hauschka didn’t have the distance on his missed field goal with the wind at his back.  The wind didn’t seem to affect the passers, although Allen’s overthrow of Jones might have been wind-blown.

10.  McDermott may have won the game by deciding to go for two.  A fan behind me said he wants to root for a team that takes the penalty and takes a shot in that situation. 

It’s a process. There’s plenty to improve on. But 3-0 with a chance to go up a game on the Patriots is exactly where the Bills wanted to be late in September.   

GO BILLS!!!

The Rockpile Review is written to share the passion we have for the Buffalo Bills. That passion was born in the Rockpile; its parents were everyday people of western New York who translated their dedication to a full day’s hard work and simple pleasures into love for a pro football team.

Editor’s babble: As always, thanks to Mark Korber for his contributions to our blog. You can’t find Mark on Twitter, but you can find him posting at twobillsdrive.com’s “Stadium Wall” Message Board.