ALL PART OF THE PROCESS

Photo from buffalonews.com.

The Bills lost to the Houston Texans Saturday, 22-19 in the AFC Wildcard game.  I’m numb, and I’ve already forgotten much of the game. I’d rather be numb than begin studying the game in detail, watching replays and analyzing players and coaches, because I don’t want to subject myself to the pain of reliving a game the Bills could have and probably should have won.

So how do I feel? I’m disappointed. Frustrated. Happy.  Pleased. Hopeful. Angry. Resigned. 

How can I not be disappointed, having watched a whole variety of head-scratching calls, plays and officiating decisions that cost the Bills the game?  And frustrated, too, with all of the “if only” thoughts that keep running through my head.

Happy and pleased? Really? You bet I’m happy. The Bills showed that they belong in the playoffs, that they can compete. Although they won’t say it, the Kansas City coaches are probably happy to be getting the Texans instead of the Bills.  

The Bills aren’t ready for a run deep into the playoffs, but they are tough to beat. I never expected them to be ready this year, and I don’t think Sean McDermott did, either. Of course, he wanted to go deep into the playoffs, but he also knew that he is building a team and that his building wasn’t going to be complete in 2019. The Bills’ best games are ahead of them. So I’m hopeful.

Angry? I’m angry about the officiating decision that opened the second half. I’m sure there are other calls that are worth considering – I simply don’t know the details of the rule on the Cody Ford block that cost the Bills a shot at the winning field goal, but there simply is no excuse for not enforcing the rules on the kickoff the way they are written. That was a fumble, an illegal forward pass, a safety, something. The Texans made a big mistake and the officials just gave them a pass. That’s wrong.  

So, what about the game?

Photo of Sean McDermott from sports.yahoo.com.

First, the Bills have heart and courage. Emotionally, they are off the charts. Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott built them that way, and we can expect more of the same next season. The game was over after the intentional grounding penalty and the sack killed what looked like Buffalo’s last drive with a minute and a half left in regulation.  

The Bills had every reason to pack it in and go home. The Bills’ defense had no reason to believe in their offense, but they banished those thoughts and instead gave up five, three, one and zero yards on four consecutive plays, giving the ball back to the offense. Banishing their own thoughts of their previous failures, the Bill’s offense executed a masterful drive, with two shots at the winning touchdown before Stephen Hauschka tied the game with five seconds left. 

Those defensive, offensive and special teams performances at the end of the game were heroic. 

Special teams? Yes. They made the field goal, of course, but more impressive was their ability to abandon the field goal and execute a spiked incompletion with Bojorquez under center when the Bills’ first down was confirmed with with 21 seconds remaining and the clock running. That was coaching excellence and player preparedness on display, championship-caliber execution under pressure. 

Some other points, in no particular order:

I’ve said all season that the offensive line is not good enough, and we saw it on Saturday.  I have trouble blaming Josh Allen for either the intentional grounding or the sack on what looked like the final drive in regulation, because both times defenders got to him essentially untouched.  He probably misread the defensive alignments and needed to be looking for those breakdowns, but they were in some way breakdowns along the offensive line. Allen did a pretty good job most of the day avoiding the rush, but he deserves better protection.

Allen was erratic, to be sure.  He looks like a superstar, delivering bullets to receivers through the smallest of windows, but the reality is that his judgment in making those throws is questionable.  Why? Because those throws don’t look any different than the two or three throws that were equally accurate that landed squarely in the bellies of defenders who just couldn’t hold on for the interception.   Allen was lucky.

Photo of QB Josh Allen from nhregister.com.

And Allen choked. After Ford’s penalty, the Bills called what looked like a hook and ladder, the plan being for Williams to catch a short ball on the right side, draw the tacklers and pitch to Singletary. It was a creative call, a play that had a good chance of gaining the 20 yards that the Bills needed to give Hauschka a shot. There was a lot of open field, because Houston was in a prevent-style set. It was an easy throw, and Allen missed it. It may have been Allen’s biggest mistake of the game. 

The truth is, as we’ve seen all season, that it’s hard for the Bills to win when they ask Allen to throw the ball 40 times in a game. His completion percentage drops, and his mistakes increase. Some of that is true for most QBs – when they’re throwing 40 passes, it means their team is losing, and they’re desperate. 

Part of Allen’s problem is he needs better receivers.  And some of it is that he needs better coaching – in the game-tying drive, Brian Daboll called the same deep route to Duke Williams two plays in a row because (a) that was the only deep route he had, or (b) he didn’t trust Allen to throw it over the middle and lose the field goal opportunity, or (c) he didn’t have the courage to call something else. Allen, by the way, did his job on those two plays, throwing the ball away. 

What about Allen’s attempted lateral to Knox? Well, in the modern NFL, coaches don’t want their players improvising like that, but give Allen credit. He knew he had Knox trailing the play – in fact, when Allen first broke containment, he looked like he wanted to pitch to Knox but Knox was ahead of him at that point.  As he was about to get tackled, Allen could see that the sideline was clear and that Knox would have a straight run for the go-ahead touchdown. Allen just waited too long to make the pitch, and when the instantaneous opportunity passed, he was supposed to know to hold on to the ball. It’s the kind of play that he will learn from.   

My biggest problem with the offense was that Daboll more or less abandoned the run. Singletary was hurting Houston regularly – not as well as Henry gashed the Patriots later on Saturday, but 19 touches was not enough. Give him another five or ten touches because it’s an easy way to take the ball out of Allen’s hands, and let the guy who looks like a consistent playmaker make some plays.  

McDermott tells his team to be fearless. It takes courage to stick with the running game, because in the heat of battle it’s tempting to go after chunk yardage with receivers who, if not great, still make plays. But the running game was working, and especially when the Houston pass rush kept beating Allen’s protection, giving the ball to Singletary could have changed the outcome. 

Photo from buffalonews.com.

The defense was, if not superb, at least playoff caliber.   Houston has a good offense with some big-time playmakers, and the Bills held them in check. The reality is that DeShaun Watson is a premier quarterback – he has a great arm, he’s accurate, he’s a good decision maker, and he is a tough, tough runner.  He’s going to make plays against you. The Bills contained him pretty well. Yes, Neal and Milano failed to get the sack on the play that essentially won the game, but Watson may be the only QB in the league who can make that play.  He’s just that good.

And just like Watson is going to make some plays, Hopkins will, too. The Bills held him to six catches and 90 yards in essentially five quarters. And the one long ball, a completion that admittedly hurt, was well covered by White – it took a perfect throw from Watson and an excellent catch for the completion.

What the defense didn’t do was make a signature play. They needed a second-half takeaway, or the sack on Watson on that final drive. They needed one big play from the defense somewhere, and they didn’t get it. 

Or, if they weren’t going to make a signature play, they needed to make the play on the final drive on third and 18 from the Houston 19 yard line.  As the television commentators pointed out, the entire defensive shell dropped too deep, leaving Johnson with 10 or 12 free yards.  That wasn’t a guy like Watson making a superstar play; that was the Bills giving a good ball carrier too much room to carry the ball. 

The game was a huge disappointment, but the season was a success. The Bills accomplished about as much as could be expected with an immature and still developing quarterback, and average talent on the offensive line and at wideout.  It’s a process, and the process will proceed. 

GO BILLS!!!

Editor’s babble: Still trying to regulate my heart rate since the game ended. Thanks to Mark Korber for all his terrific contributions this season. We look forward to more great commentary next season. You can’t find Mark on Twitter, but you can find him posting on twobillsdrive.com’s Stadium Wall message board. Thanks, Mark!