The Bills really didn’t need to go for it. It was fourth and two on the San Francisco 28. They led 27-17, and they’d just run five minutes off the clock. A field goal would put them up by 13 points with ten minutes left. But Sean McDermott wanted more.
I imagine the conversation on the radio went something like this:
McDermott: “Bri, you got something for this?”
Daboll: “Oh, yeah!”
McDermott: “Do it!”
A few seconds later, Stefon Diggs made about eleven moves to get five yards open on a three-yard route, leaving Josh Allen with one more wide-open target. First down!
Two plays later, Allen found Gabriel Davis alone behind Richard Sherman – I admit it, I love to watch loud-mouthed players get beat! – for a 28-yard touchdown, and the game was over. The Bills gave up a late touchdown and won 34-24.
Two things about that fourth-down play stood out. One is named Diggs, the other, McDermott.
Diggs came to Buffalo, we thought, to be the glamor boy, the deep threat, the guy you see making plays on Sports Center, if you still watch Sports Center. Lately, he’s been doing the dirty work, and a lot of it. Last night, four Bills caught touchdown passes – none of them was named Diggs. Three Bills had longer receptions than Diggs.
Still, the passing game was all about Stefon Diggs. It was easy to see in his grass-stained uniform late in the game – he had been mixing it up all night. Tough contested catches, including his signature sideline toe-tap. Smart route running. Blocking – his perfect block on the goal line created the airspace for Dawson Knox to fly into the end zone and give the Bills the lead in the second quarter.
Diggs had 10 catches for 92 tough yards (he leads the league in receptions and is fifth in total yards). He leads a receiving corps that is such a threat to go deep that, together with Josh Allen’s arm and legs, opponents abandon man-to-man coverage. Only the best zones have been able to stop the Bills passing game.
Give that man a game ball.
As for McDermott, this is the man fans criticized as recently as last season for being too conservative, for running out the clock to end halves, for punting when he should have gone for it or kicked the field goal on fourth down. No one is complaining now.
On that fourth-and-two play, McDermott told his team there would be no hail Mary TDs in the Arizona desert this night. He told his offense he knew they could convert, and he told his defense he trusted them to win it if they didn’t. He had an offensive coordinator ready with the play, and he had players who could execute.
He had no fear going for it at fourth and goal from the one to open the game, the beginning of one of the most disastrous stretches in a Bills game since McDermott arrived. (Well, let’s say since Nate Peterman’s start against the Chargers.)
And he had no fear at the end of the first half. If ever there was a time to run the ball, run out the clock, and head for the locker room with the lead at the half, this was it. After the Bills’ spectacular drive to open the game, ending in failure at the one-yard line, after the 49ers’ equally spectacular drive deep into the red zone, after the brilliant Bills’ goal-line stand, after the Moss fumble and the 49ers touchdown, the Bills recovered. They put together a quick, long touchdown drive to tie the game, forced a punt, and drove for a second touchdown and the lead with less than three minutes remaining in the half. Just don’t give up a score, and we’re good.
The Bills forced a second punt and took over on their own ten with just over a minute left in the half. Last season, the Bills run the time off the clock and head for the locker room, happy to have escaped with the lead. That was last season. This season, it was Singletary, Beasley, Diggs, Beasley, Davis, Bass for three and a ten-point lead. It was what Rodgers does, Brees and Brady do, what Manning did. And now it’s what Allen does.
Let’s say it plain and simple: The Bills win over the 49ers was the kind of game that good football teams win: On the road, against a desperate, well-coached, physical team, a must-win game (they’re all must-win at this time of the season), and the Bills simply took control of the game and never let go. It was impressive.
And I haven’t said a word about the defense. I could write a completely different column about the equally superb effort on the other side of the ball. I know about all the adversity the 49ers have faced, and I know that Garropolo and Kittle weren’t on the field, but Kyle Shanahan is one of the very best coaches in the league, and there was no question that the 49er offense would show up, ready to pound the relatively weak Bills run defense. The 49ers wanted to control the game by running the ball, and the Bills defense simply wouldn’t let them do it. It was one of the Bills’ best defensive performances of the season. Consider these plays and players:
1. The goal-line stand has become a Bills’ staple. They simply will not allow you to run up the middle against them on the goal line. The stand in the first quarter was superb.
The stand in the fourth quarter was, of course, even better and deserves separate shout outs.
2. Fourth-quarter goal-line stand, first down. Butler penetration and monster tackle for a two-yard loss. He was blocked, but it didn’t matter; he was coming.
3. Fourth-quarter goal-line stand, second down. Incredible recovery and touchdown-saving tackle by Hyde. What a play! Toughness, determination, technique.
4. Fourth-quarter goal-line stand, third down. White chases his receiver across the end zone and outfights him for the interception.
5. The entire defense looks different when 58 is running around out there. The guy is just so good. Several plays I’d ask myself, “Who was THAT? Oh, it was Milano.” The defense McBeane imagined in the off-season was going to feature some three-linebacker sets, with Klein in the Alexander role. I think it’s coming.
6. I mention Edmunds every week, but that’s because there’s something to say about him every week. Now we’re seeing what the whole package can look like. He was all over the field against the 49ers, and he was hitting people with authority. Nice solid tackling, excellent pass defense, just all-round savvy play.
7. Beasley is superb. I thought he was lost for the game on the first hit, but he’s tougher than that. Like Diggs, he’s doing the dirty work.
8. Remember when Micah Hyde returned punts? I’d forgotten how good he is as a return man. Then he had his interception and reminded us all. He wasn’t going down until it was time to go down.
9. Remember when Tyler Bass looked shaky place-kicking? Balls off line, hooks and slices? He’s settled down and looks like the kind of guy the Bills expected when they drafted him. Interesting how the Bills use him on kickoffs – sometimes directional kicks to the coffin corner, with the coverage pinning the returner deep, sometimes long kicks into or through the end zone. He’s looked sound and effective for weeks.
10. Feliciano went down and the offensive-line play suffered. He’s a key guy.
11. Brian Daboll continues to draw up surprise plays, with the McKenzie touchdown and the Knox touchdown and the Knox inside shovel pass. His offense was ready.
12. Saved the best for last. Josh Allen.
9-3 with four big challenges left.
Editor’s babble: Still pinching myself. 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.