Image Credit: © Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
It’s Tuesday morning. Where have the days gone?
I got up at 6:30 Saturday morning and was on the road by 7:30. Then it was seven hours of driving in sub-freezing temperatures, freezing rain most of the day, slush on the highway, snowplows at 50 miles per hour. Stop at the hotel, then out to Orchard Park. I passed Schwabl’s on the way; they’re looking for a carver. Hmm. Maybe I could move to Buffalo and take the job.
At Highmark Stadium, it was forty degrees, with a steady 20 mph wind out of the southwest.
After the game, it was back to the hotel and watch the the Raiders and Chargers. To bed after midnight. Up the next morning, 400 more miles back home in daylight and good weather. Then there was college National Championship game.
Someplace in there, I watched the Bills beat the Jets, 27-10, take their second straight AFC East title and lock up the number 3 seed in the playoffs. What to make of the game? To be honest, I don’t know. It’s all a bit of a blur, but travel is only a part of the problem. The opponent is another part of the problem; the Jets had pretty much nothing to offer as serious competition. Rookie QB, leaky offensive line, inconsistent defense. Fans worried that the Jets somehow could pull off the upset, but really, how? If the Bills couldn’t beat the Jets, playoff seeding would be the least of their worries.
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And still, remarkably, the Jets were in position to win the game, down 3 points and with the ball in the fourth quarter. It didn’t seem right. Was I delirious from the drive? Weren’t the Jets at risk of setting some kind of 3-and-out record, and now they could take the lead? Well, not really.
Truth is, the game was only half of a game. As it happened, neither team could do much of anything on offense against the wind. Three points were scored against the wind – a 41-yard Tyler Bass field goal. Haack did some really ugly punting into the wind. Everything else in the game, offensively, was with the wind. Maybe it’s better to think of the final score as 54-20, which might have happened if each offense could have gone with the wind for four quarters. Or 6-0, if both offenses always went against the wind.
So, what happened? The Jets’ woeful offense was no match for the Bills’ statistically league-leading defense. The Jets gained 53 yards, earned four first downs. Okay, call it that much in two quarters; in four quarters with the wind, that would be a whopping 106 yards and eight first downs. The Bills simply smothered the Jets in every aspect of the game. Actually, it looked like the Jets played all four quarters into the wind.
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It was a field day for the defensive line. Sacks galore (more sacks than completions), tackles for loss. Ed Oliver looked All-Pro, Harrison Phillips was in the middle of the action play after play. Zack Wilson rarely could find an open receiver. The Jets were horrible.
The only knock on the defense was that once again it was burned for a long gain or touchdown on a quick-hitting run or short pass with no help deep. The reality is that it’s impossible never to give up a long one; every once in a while everything falls just right for the offense. Maybe the question should be how the defense is able to give up so few of those plays. (One site ranks the Bills 21st in explosive run plays allowed, 2nd in explosive pass plays.)
For large stretches of the game, the Bills’ offense looked pretty bad. Well, let’s say for large stretches of the game, Josh Allen looked pretty bad. Why? Because he was trying to throw against the wind in the second and third quarter. Except for the field goal drive to end the half and one deep throw to Knox, Allen did very little against the wind. He threw hard, to cut the effect of the wind, but by throwing hard, his timing was off. Receivers consistently cut too late, or looked for the ball too late – or probably more accurately, the ball arrived too early, and off target. Did Allen have a bad night, or was it simply impossible to deal with the wind? I’d bet on the wind.
The bigger question about all of Allen’s second- and third-quarter misfires is this: Why were the Bills passing? It was obvious if not immediately, then by late in the second quarter, that going against the wind was a losing proposition, and the only objective against the wind was to get ought of the quarter as soon as possible. So, why go three and out by throwing incomplete passes? Run the ball. You may still go three and out, but at least the clock keeps running. And if on some series you actually get a first down, run some more. The Bills needlessly extended both quarters, giving the Jets extra possessions, simply by passing instead of running.
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And, by the way, the running game was working. Singletary saw a couple of monster holes, and plenty of others big enough to get to the second level, and Allen was opportunistic. For a team that was unable to mount any kind of running game most of the season (other than living dangerously with Allen), here was another late-season game where running actually was an option.
With the wind, Allen was Allen. He ran the offense, under control, not flustered, taking the necessary time outs when things got out of sync. The touchdown throw to Diggs and the near-touchdown to Diggs were exquisite throws. He found Diggs often, and Beasley, too, and delivered accurate balls. Gabriel Davis was unusually ineffective, dropping a couple of balls and seeming to be off-page with Allen.
The path to the Super Bowl is brutal: New England, Kansas City, Tennessee. But the truth is that the path for every team is brutal. None of the Bills’ likely opponents is happy to see the Bills coming down the road. For every team, your very best may not be enough, and less than your best invites an early exit.
The formula for the Bills heading into the playoffs is clear: Be solid at every position across the defense and be tough to score on; on offense, be dangerous and find a way to score. For a statistically great team, the Bills don’t dominate, but they also won’t be dominated, not any more. They will be a tough out in the playoffs, and they could make a run.
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