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The NFL season follows a predictable pattern: In September, a few teams explode offensively and a few teams are absolutely terrible. Some players (veterans you’d expect and some younger players you wouldn’t) have some spectacular performances. The trend continues in October, but less dramatically. Some team (this year it’s the Chiefs) struggles unexpectedly, and a few that had shown some promise (like the Bengals and the Chargers and Cardinals) appear to be the new powers.
Then November hits, and the real NFL season begins. There’s still a really bad team or two, but all of a sudden just about other every team becomes a tough out. The truth is that parity is real – even the weakest teams have very good football players, and they don’t like losing. And those explosive offenses? Well, every team has seen two months of film on them, and every team has seen what other teams have done to slow down the high flyers. When November comes, tough, hard-nosed football returns.
Reality returned to the NFL in 2021 in week 8. Okay, it wasn’t November yet, but it was close enough. It began on Thursday night, when the Packers took down the league’s only undefeated team. Welcome to the real NFL, Kyler Murray. You’re a spectacular player, but spectacular isn’t enough in the NFL. Let’s see how the next two months go.
Then on Sunday, other teams got punched in the face. Sorry, Bengals, the Jets were ugly for a month or more, but it’s time for real football with real football players, some of whom are really tired of losing. Sorry, Chargers, the masters of real football came to town and showed you how it’s done. Sorry, Browns, but Tomlin and Roethlisberger know a lot about November football, and if you want to play with the big boys, you have to step it up.
All around the league on Sunday, rough tough football was on display. Trench warfare. Hard, power running. Ball security. Courage in the face of adversity. Even the G.O.A.T. got his nose bloodied.
In the NFL, there’s preseason in the summer, warmups in September and October. The true regular season begins in November. Or in this case, on Halloween.
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The Bills entered the true regular season at 4 and 2, coming off a tough loss to Tennessee and a bye week. They needed a win for several reasons – to get back to winning, to keep pace with the rest of the AFC front-runners and well, because it was the Dolphins. Like a lot of AFC front-runners, they weren’t ready. They were prepared, but they weren’t ready.
The Bills seemed to think that the game would be a Halloween party – maybe a few scary moments, but mostly a lot of laughs and treats. But these weren’t some cute little kids coming to town. These weren’t the hapless Dolphins the Bills trampled 35-0 several weeks ago. That game wasn’t the blowout that the score would suggest; the Bills got two quick TDs in September and then stalled for most of the game, before blowing it open late. And the Dolphins, although still losing, had been playing better in recent weeks. They were hungry, and they have good football players.
The Bills’ offense did nothing in the first half. One 35-yard drive for a field goal. That was it. Fortunately, the defense came to play, and Dolphins’ offense stumbled just enough to match the Bills; the half ended 3-3. Devante Parker looked like the great receiver that he is, and the Bills were fortunate to keep him out of the end zone.
What happened? The regular season arrived, that’s what happened. The Dolphins were ready for it, and the Bills weren’t. The Bills seemed to think it was still October. The Dolphins came ready to play November football, and in the first half, they showed they weren’t going to roll over for the Bills.
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The good news is that the Bills aren’t just another NFL team. This is a Sean McDermott team, and Sean McDermott builds his teams for November football. And December football. He builds his teams like Belichick and Tomlin, to be tough and resilient in the face of the toughest challenges at the end of the season. It won’t always be pretty, but McDermott’s teams are built to rise to the challenge, week after week. They don’t always win (sometimes you get stuffed on fourth and one), but they don’t back down.
And so, in the second half, the Bills took over the game and put the rest of the league on notice: the Bills are who we thought they were. They forced three straight Dolphin three-and-outs in the second half, while the Bills’ offense was getting rolling. The Bills finished the game touchdown-touchdown-field-goal-touchdown. The Dolphins made it close in the fourth quarter with a touchdown and two-point conversion, but the Bills answered with a drive that made it a two-score game. Josh Allen’s touchdown at the end of the game truly was icing on the pumpkin donut, but it also highlighted the Bills’ offensive dominance. It may be November, but the Bills still can move the ball and score.
(If McDermott is able to work his usual late-season magic, if his team can continue to get better, then the league should be worried. Just short of the halfway point, the Bills are sixth in offensive yards per game, first in points scored per game, first in defensive yards per game and first in points per game allowed. Whew!)
What are the signs of a good November-ready NFL team? One is ball security. The Bills were going to win the game if they didn’t give away the ball. I’d been wondering whether this would be the game that Isaiah McKenzie coughed one up, and he almost did. It was a tough play and a ball he should have fair caught, but it was a play – and a muff - that Andre Roberts might have made, too. McKenzie’s been a rock, and the Bills survived the muff, so all was good. Allen waved the ball around wildly on one first-down run, but he tucked it away before the hit. He didn’t throw anything close to an interception. The Bills weren’t going to give it away.
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Another sign is that players step up. Mario Addison has become a special player for the Bills on defense. The Bills have stocked the defensive line with guys who can play, so no one needs to be on the field for every play. The rotation has evolved in a way that allows Addison to be a true pass-rushing specialist, and the effects are obvious. When Addison is on the field on passing downs, he’s applying relentless pressure. And he’s able to do it because Jerry Hughes has shown the versatility to flip from right to left defensive end and create his own pressure. Tua was under pressure all day, from the outside and from the endless combinations of inside rushes, led by Ed Oliver.
Tua had success with Parker in the first half because the Dolphins were getting the ball out quickly, before the rush got to him. In the second half, as the coverage tightened and Tua held the ball longer, he began to feel the heat. Why did the coverage tighten? Well, in part because Tre’Davious White was a man possessed, and not just because it was Halloween. He’s getting like that every week – serious intensity. And quarter after quarter, Levi Wallace’s coverage was better and better – by the fourth quarter he was there consistently as the ball arrived, working his hands, making the hit.
Dr. Jordan and Mr. Hyde were their usual scary selves.
And for years I’ve been hoping I’d see Tremaine Edmunds take down a running back in the hole with authority. Who was that masked man, stopping ball carriers all over the field?
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Sunday, Cole Beasley was the number one stepper upper. In the second half, play after play, Allen found Beasley and delivered the ball, and Beasley caught everything that came at him. Get open, catch the ball, get up field, take the hit, move the chains. Beasley is a great weapon when you have wideouts who attract the attention that Diggs and Sanders do. Defenses know that Allen is going to go deep if he can, and that gives Beasley plenty of room to work his magic. (Kudos to Beas, too, for deciding that it was time to get off social media. It’s good for him and good for the Bills to get rid of the distraction.)
Diggs was rewarded for all the gritty, dirty work he did on short yardage when Allen found him for a score with a picture-perfect throw on a classic Diggs route over the middle. Sweeney was ready for prime time. The offensive line survived another shuffle with Spencer Brown out, and then with Feliciano going down. The run game still didn’t work, but the pass protection was solid.
Josh Allen showed up for the the game dressed as the super-hero he is. Josh made some bad choices here and there, and he missed a few throws, but this was a gritty, MVP-type performance. The Bills were 6-13 on third down and 3-4 in the red zone, and a lot of that was Allen. His running was timely and extremely effective. His 12-yard run on the late field-goal drive was one of those plays that only Allen makes – he’s just so big and tough that he takes yards that no other QB gets. Daboll isn’t using Allen as the feature back; it seems like a surprise each time the flow starts one way and Allen gets to the edge behind a couple of lineman who have pulled and gone the other way.
In the pocket, Allen is showing great presence. He moves and slides to buy time. He knows what he wants downfield. His escape and short scramble to the right to get the ball to Davis for the first TD was classic Allen – he knew what he had, and he knew he needed to avoid the rush. He had the strength to break the tackle and make the easy throw. Allen finished with a passer rating over 100, and he is sneaking up into the top 10 in the passing stats.
All in all, it was a solid November-NFL win.
Jacksonville won’t be easy. No one is easy this time of year.
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