As the 2019 season has progressed, one question has puzzled football fans around the country and Bills fans in particular: Are the Bills actually a good football team, or have they simply been playing a schedule full of cupcake opponents? Okay, I guess that’s two questions.
We now know the answer: The Buffalo Bills are a good football team.
The Cowboys hosted the Bills in their traditional Thanksgiving Day game. It was a big game for both teams. The Cowboys needed a win to get to 7-5 and to solidify their lead in the NFC East, their only road to the playoffs. They were coming off a discouraging road loss in to the Patriots and with questions swirling again about Jason Garrett’s job security. They needed a win to secure the season and maybe save their coach.
The Bills had been plagued all season long by the question. Yes, their defensive numbers were superb, but their opponents were more or less horrible. Yes, Josh Allen had had several good games in recent weeks, but not eye-popping.
At 8-3, the Bills were closing in on a wild-card spot in the playoffs, but if they were to go to 8-4, that position would be less secure, with dates against the Ravens and the Patriots in the next three weeks. The game in Dallas was an opportunity to answer the question: on the road against a quality opponent in a meaningful came with the nation watching. The Bills were playing America’s team in America’s game – Thanksgiving football.
By the time we’d finished Thanksgiving dinner, taken a first pass at cleaning up the wreckage in the kitchen and said goodbye to some guests, the game had begun. When I tuned in, the Cowboys were in the red zone, about to take a 7-0 lead.
In the next few minutes I had several distinct feelings: First, I had the usual Bills-fan dread, that I was watching my team at the very beginning of an ugly blow-out loss, one more embarrassment heaped on the franchise after decades of embarrassments. That passed pretty quickly.
I’ve gotten used to the fact that the Bills play good football but often come out of the gate slowly, getting a feel for the game before they get into a rhythm. Their fourth quarters are better than their first quarters.
Second, everything felt odd about the experience. I was watching the Bills sitting at home instead of in a sports bar, where I usually have to go for road games. Why? Because this game was televised nationally, at least figuratively if not technically in prime time. I’m completely accustomed to watching the Bills on some regional broadcast with no-name announcers and with more or less no one around the country watching. So what where those lovely blue and white uniforms doing on TV on Thanksgiving afternoon?
Third, by the second quarter, it occurred to me that I was watching the same team do the same things against the Cowboys that they’d done on Sunday against the Broncos and the Sunday before that against the Dolphins. Dominate? No, not exactly.
Just keep playing, making plays, staying in position, making tackles, showing some new looks. The Bills essentially were saying to the Cowboys what they’ve said to every opponent except the Eagles this season: “We’re here, we’re playing football, and we’re not going away. Beat us if you can.”
The Cowboys have, statistically speaking, one of the best offenses in the league – first in yards per game and now eighth in points per game. Still, following the Cowboys’ opening touchdown drive, it felt like the Bills were in control.
One Cowboy drive after another stalled as the Bills took the ball away, forced the Cowboys to punt or made the stop on fourth down. The Bills made the Cowboys look ineffective, despite the fact that the Cowboys were piling up 426 yards and 32 first downs. The Bills made the Cowboys look not much different than the Broncos or the Dolphins.
And the entire country was watching.
The Cowboys come at you with two of the best skill players in the league, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper. By the end of the game, they were after-thoughts. The Cowboys more or less abandoned their running game, so Elliott didn’t have a chance to pound away at the Bills. Cooper had some catches for some yards, but he looked and felt like just another receiver out there.
Their number three star, Dak Prescott, was exposed. He was asked to throw a lot, and he put up some numbers, but he, too, was neutralized by the Bills defense. He turned the ball over twice, and time after time or third or fourth down he couldn’t find a way to help his team.
Josh Allen, on the other hand, showed the country what excellent quarterbacking is all about. Even more so than against Denver’s solid defense the week before, Allen was in complete control of his team, managing the huddle, calmly directing the team at the line scrimmage, almost always correctly choosing to hang in the pocket or scramble, understanding where his receivers were and delivering beautifully thrown passes for completions. He kept the chains moving, so that five of nine possessions resulted in points and a sixth ended with a missed field goal.
As excellent as his passing was, it was Allen’s running game that made his day truly outstanding. His 15-yard touchdown run in the third quarter seemed almost ordinary, we’ve seen it so often, but it’s anything but ordinary. Getting yards in the red zone is always difficult, and Allen’s running adds a dimension that few offenses have.
When most teams go five-wide, they have no legitimate rushing option; the Bills do. Allen’s speed and elusiveness demands that defenses account for him as well as all the receivers and other backs on the field, and if they don’t, he regularly takes advantage. His TD was a great play.
Even more remarkable, of course, was his three-yard run on fourth and one in the second quarter. It was a critical time in the game. The Bills had gotten a touchdown to tie the game, then took the ball from the Cowboys on the Lotulelei interception but failed to get points on the turnover.
Then Oliver forced the Prescott fumble, so the Bills had another chance to take the lead of a turnover. Here they were, 4th and one and faced with settling for another field goal attempt, meaning they would have gotten, at best, a total of three points out of two successive takeaways. Sean McDermott left the offense on the field and Brian Daboll decided to attack on the ground again.
I’m not proud. I’ll admit it: The instant Allen dropped the snap, I thought “typical Bills’ failure to execute on a critical play.” Then somehow Allen pulled the ball out of the pile and plowed into all that muscle, and I thought “nice hustle, kid, but there’s no saving this play.”
Then Allen lunged, stumbled and fell out of the pack for a three-yard gain and the first. It was every bit as good as, maybe better than, his leap over Anthony Barr against the Vikings last year. Talk about putting the team on your back and willing them to victory! It was the play of the game.
And then, in a piece of absolutely brilliant play calling, knowing that the Cowboys were reeling from Allen’s fantastic run, Brian Daboll called the perfect play: John Brown’s pass to Singletary off the reverse. The Cowboys were digging deep to make a play, and Daboll offered them, in their eagerness, an opportunity over-commit. They did, and the Bills, these new Bills who execute instead of stumbling when opportunity arises, executed.
Hauschka missed the extra point, but somehow it felt like the game was over. The Cowboys put together a nice drive to end the half but missed the field goal. When the Bills scored twice to open the third quarter, it didn’t just feel like the game was over; it was over.
A few shout outs:
1. Matt Milano does it week after week. Excellent open field tackles, blanket coverage on backs and tight ends.
2. The new-look defensive scheme utilizing an array of blitz packages is getting the job done in the QB pressure department. The blitz doesn’t always get home, but it generates a lot of pressure and some instantaneous indecision for the offense.
3. Really nice for Beasley to get 100+ yards and a TD in Dallas. That wasn’t a team objective going into the game, but how perfect was that?
4. I already talked about Allen, but really, it’s breath-taking how well he throws the ball. He’s consistently accurate now, with really nice touch. The throw for Beasley’s TD was outstanding. I don’t remember when or who caught it, but the throw when Allen scrambled to the right sideline and found his receiver also on the sideline was spectacular. Beautifully thrown footballs, play after play.
5. The entire pass defense was brilliant. White had Cooper most of the time, but not always. I like that strategy, because it means the offense has to assume it’s going to be White and then they have to adjust at the line of scrimmage. Maybe I’m just imagining it, but it seemed to me that Prescott wasn’t throwing over the middle much. I suspect teams have become wary about making plays over the middle because Edmunds, Hyde and Poyer are waiting for the receivers.
6. It takes more than highlight-reel plays, but there’s no denying the impact that Lawson and Oliver are having.
7. The Bills again stayed committed to the running game, and it does keep the defenses honest. Once again, Singletary showed that he can hurt the defense any time he touches the ball, and the Bills don’t let the defense forget it.
8. McDermott preaches “complementary football.” All three phases, etc. Another aspect of complementary football, it seems, is that no one needs to be great, because everyone contributes. Brown’s block on Allen’s TD run, Lotulelei’s finger on the Cowboys’ field goal try, players on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield talking to each other pre-snap. It’s 53 guys doing this together, not a team dependent on a half-dozen guys.
Number 9, number 9, number 9.
Let’s rock New Era Field and see if the Ravens can handle it.
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: I’m still trying to put the pieces of my brain back together again after ‘Spanksgiving’ at Dallas’ Palace. Thanks to Mark Korber for his great contributions to our blog. You can’t find Mark on Twitter but you can find him posting on twobillsdrive.com’s Stadium Wall. Bring on the Ravens!