December football is different. It’s intense. There’s an urgency about it that’s missing from the games earlier in the NFL season.
It happens every season. Fifteen or twenty teams are competing for a spot in the playoffs, or for home field advantage. Many of the teams that have been eliminated share the intensity because they don’t want to be embarrassed, they want to make a point, they want to build a resume for free agency, they want to close out a career with positives, something. Everyone feels it.
The fans talk about playing meaningful games in December. They want their team to be one of the fifteen or twenty looking to the playoffs.
It’s December football, and the Buffalo Bills have arrived.
The Bills arrived in Pittsburgh with a 9-4 record and persistent doubts about whether they are playoff material. The doubts were well earned, because, over the past 20 years the Bills had occasionally knocked at the front door of December football.
On rare occasions, they were admitted, only to be quickly booted out the back door and sent home. This year, the Bills’ weak schedule and inconsistent offense fueled the doubts.
Even though the Bills had led the AFC Wild Card race for weeks, few people believed in them. They didn’t believe even after the Bills played the Ravens essentially even the week before because, well, because the Bills didn’t win, and December football is about winning.
Winning requires execution at a high level, hitting harder, making the critical plays, playing through challenges. It requires heart, courage, and excellence. The Bills are all of that.
The Bills beat the Steelers 17-10 in Pittsburgh on Sunday night. A December Sunday night. They clinched a playoff spot by beating a team that has made a habit of winning December football games for decades. They beat a team that needed a win to climb even with the Bills in the race for the playoffs. They beat the Steelers with the Steelers fans making noise and waving those yellow towels and all of that.
It’s December football, and the Bills have arrived.
The Bills defense took over the game early and never let go. The Steelers had a touchdown drive of 69 yards, one other drive of 58 yards. The rest of the game they gained a total of 102 yards.
The Bills took the Steelers out of their running game and forced Devlin Hodges to throw. Throwing against Buffalo is a losing proposition. Opponents attempt passes against the Bills around the league average – about 34 per game, and the Bills have the second best passer rating of all NFL defenses.
Hodges attempted 38 and couldn’t figure out the Bills. As the pressure grew for the Steelers to get back into the game, he took more chances and turned the ball over. The Bills were in almost total control.
A couple of things stood out in the Bills defensive effort. First was the defensive line. They were tough against the run, pretty much the entire night. The gaping holes, the big cut-back lanes that they had allowed earlier in the season are gone.
Running against that line and those linebackers is a chore. And the front four was getting consistent pressure on Hodges without the blitz. The pocket kept closing in on him, increasing the pressure and forcing him to run and throw on the run, neither of which he does particularly well. Then, when the Bills blitzed, Hodges was in trouble right from the snap.
Second was the preparation for the game. If Hodges completed a pass, in rhythm and on time, there always was a tackler, and often two or three tacklers, arriving as the receiver tried to tack on yards after catch. There were more or less no yards after catch, particularly on multiple third down plays where the Steelers completed a pass short of the line to gain. The Bills defense knew what to expect and knew how to respond. It was impressive.
Sean McDermott’s conservative approach to football, or at least what many fans believe to be a conservative approach, was on display in all its glory against the Steelers. When Allen threw his interception late in the first half and was bailed out by the defense’s own take-away, McDermott had seen enough and ran out the clock.
In the second half, after White’s interception and 49-yard return with the Bills down 10-7, McDermott put the Bills offense into a shell – if they could get a first down rushing, fine; if they could get a touchdown rushing, fine; otherwise, they were taking the field goal and tying the score. The way his defense was playing, McDermott knew that getting points on the interception was much more important than getting the lead.
A few minutes later, with the score tied and after the defense stopped the Steelers on three plays, McDermott let Allen come out throwing, and Allen responded, first hitting Brown deep down the left sideline and then delivering a perfect pass to Kroft for the touchdown. I expect that when Daboll was giving Allen the play call for the TD, he told Allen that if there was any chance of a pick, throw the ball over Kroft’s head and take the field goal. Allen saw Kroft break free to the sideline and made a professional throw.
That was it for to McDermott. One more score would have put the game out of reach, but McDermott was content to run the ball and leave the game in the hands of the defense. The defense didn’t disappoint.
McDermott’s approach isn’t so much conservative as it is smart. It’s December football, and December football is about winning.
Having said that, McDermott’s conservative, game-winning approach can be nerve-wracking. The final minutes of the Steelers game were anything but comfortable; taking a knee while a couple of minutes run off the clock is a much more civilized way to end a game.
A really well prepared team wouldn’t give the Steelers a free timeout with a needless penalty; leaving the Steelers with more than a minute and half, instead of less than a minute, put the game at risk one more time.
McDermott’s approach is driven by where Allen is in his development as an NFL quarterback. Allen is a cannon, and I don’t mean just his arm – he has the throwing, running and leadership ability to blow up defenses.
How do we know that? He is tied with Russell Wilson for the league lead this season with the most game-winning drives (5) and most comeback wins (4). But he’s young and learning, so he’s a loose cannon.
McDermott has seen his cannon blow up in his face (like against the Patriots) instead of blowing up the defense. So what does McDermott do? He doesn’t risk things blowing up in his face unless he has too. He plays for the win, not for the highlights.
McDermott lets Allen practice managing the game, practice making the throws he needs to make without putting the team at risk. Allen gets to practice in the first half.
As soon as the Bills get the lead in the second half, practice time is over and McDermott is playing to win the game. Winning the game means don’t give your young quarterback a chance to blow up. As Allen develops into a more reliable weapon, I think we’ll see McDermott open up and go for the jugular.
We saw some of the loose cannon on Sunday night. Allen made three or four poor throws on plays that should have been easy completions. One of those resulted in an interception.
The decision making on the INT was fine, the throw was college-accurate when it needed to be pro-accurate. We know Allen can make all of the throws, because we’ve seen it. He needs the professional discipline to do it every time. Until Allen shows that discipline, with a second-half lead McDermott will take the ball out of his hands.
Cris Collinsworth analyzed Allen’s footwork on one play, talked about Allen’s base being too wide and whatever. I don’t know if he was right about all that, but he made a more important point, which is that Allen needs to recognize and understand what’s going on more quickly.
The extra time is what Allen needs to make the throw right, because he has the arm strength and throwing ability to make throws from all sorts of positions. Recognition and understanding is where Allen needs work.
The 2019 season isn’t over, and there could be a lot more to cheer about, but 2019 already is a success for the Bills. With this collection of players, 10-4 (even if it were to turn into 10-6) is a success, having clinched the playoffs is a success. (I’ll admit it: I clicked on the standings more than once the day after the game, just to see the small letter next to the Bills’ name, the letter that means the Bills have clinched something. Haven’t seen a small letter in a long time.)
More importantly, 2019 is a success for McDermott’s process. He has done what he planned to do, he’s gotten the results he expected he would get, and the process continues.
He doesn’t yet have all the talent he needs, and he and his coaches and players haven’t yet grown all the way into his system. As Collinsworth said during the game, we’re looking at the base on which McDermott is going to build his team, not at the finished product. It’s all what McDermott told us when he arrived, and it’s all happening.
Welcome to December football. Welcome to the playoffs. Welcome to the new era.
Editor’s babble: Mark is a card carrying member of our Bills old fart’s club. We remember the lean years before the lean years so to see this all come together at this point is joyful. We thank Mark for all 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 message board.