My Buffalo Blues: Week 14 – Evaluating the Bills’ Performance, with Love, on a Weekly Basis

As snow flurries fell on Orchard Park Sunday night, the Buffalo Bills earned a monumental win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, 26-15. While the victory gave the Bills a two-game lead in the AFC East (with three left to play) and opened the door to the #2 seed in the AFC, it’s bigger than that. It may sound a little exaggerated, but this was the biggest win of the Sean McDermott era in Buffalo. 

There was definitely a party atmosphere when this one was over

Ending the Bills’ 17-year playoff drought in 2017 was a big moment in Western New York, but they basically backdoored their way into the playoffs that season. Buffalo did beat an Alex Smith-led Chiefs playoff team but, had the Bengals not beaten the Ravens at the last minute of the final week of the season, the drought would have continued into 2019. Even last season, as a 10-6 playoff team, their win over the Titans was a solid W over an eventual playoff team, but it was one of the few. 

Making the leap from a talented team to a legitimate Super Bowl contender doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a lot of work and effort. It starts with winning the games you’re supposed to win, then winning some games you weren’t supposed to win. Then it requires consistency and execution to the point where you’re constantly giving yourselves a chance to win in the toughest of matchups. Once you start winning those truly challenging games against the best teams in the league, that’s when you have something special. Through four seasons, a win over one of the truly elite teams had eluded the Bills. That changed Sunday night in Buffalo. 

There was an undeniably weird start to the game as a distinct playoff atmosphere hung in the cold night air. The teams traded punts to get things started as both defenses were locked in. Pittsburgh came in with the more highly-touted defense and their early pressure from Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt had the Bills’ offense looking stunned early on. 

The early pressure from the Steel Curtain was getting to Josh Allen, resulting in this compromised throw

Josh Allen has shown a tendency to let the nerves get the better of him in big games and he looked a little overwhelmed early, struggling with his accuracy to start this one. Buffalo has demonstrated solid pass protection all season but Heyward and Watt were wreaking havoc. On the Bills’ second possession, Heyward was able to get to Allen’s throwing arm which resulted in a compromised throw to Cole Beasley that was intercepted by Mike Hilton. Fortunately, the play started near midfield so the pick wound up working as a punt. The defense held, so the turnover wasn’t as costly as it could have been. 

The early part of this game was all about the defenses as the team would trade punts back and forth (7 total in the 1st quarter), as the two teams jockeyed for field position. It was still scoreless, at the end of the 1st quarter when the Bills caught a break on a fumble that was ruled incomplete on the field. On a 3rd & 11 from their 26-yard line, Allen’s arm was once again hit during the throw but his hand was empty going forward and the Steelers would have had clear recovery deep in Buffalo territory. Instead, Corey Bojorquez bombed a 54-yard punt, the Bills’ defense held and the offense would get the ball back, pinned deep in their territory. However, the football gods made sure to enact some fast-acting karma. 

The ball was knocked loose on this play and should have been ruled a fumble

Starting from their 9-yard line, Buffalo was trying to work their way out of danger when a pass to tight end Dawson Knox went awry. Allen had thrown to him on the prior play but it was high, incomplete, and Knox had a rough landing. On 2nd & 10, he got his hands on the ball but was sandwiched by a pair of Pittsburgh defenders and the ball squirted out of his hands like a greased pig, bobbled around, popped up, and eventually collected by Cameron Sutton for the Steelers. This should have been ruled an interception because Knox never appeared to secure it, but a turnover nonetheless. The Steelers took over at the Bills’ 30-yard line and punched in the touchdown on a 19-yard pass to James Washington three plays later. You know how I feel about omens and that was a bad one. Fortunately, it was still early in the game and it was only 7-0. 

The teams traded 3 & outs before Buffalo would get their first score on a 9-play, 56-yard drive that resulted in a Tyler Bass field goal inside the two-minute warning. The Bills got another favorable on-field ruling as an illegal formation penalty, by rule, was overruled by a roughing the passer foul that was about as borderline as it gets. The hit wasn’t forceful and while it was below the waist, it wasn’t in the area of the knees that should induce a flag. It may not have changed the result of the drive as BUF was already within field goal range, but it’s the second week in a row where Allen has gotten the benefit of the doubt on a relatively soft contact call. As a Bills fan, I’ll take it but as a football fan, I’d like to see more uniform enforcement of the roughing the passer criteria.   

Taron Johnson saw this one the whole way

Anyhow, it was 7-3 as the half was winding down and the Steelers were going to try to put some extra points on the board. The Buffalo defense had gotten close to a couple of Ben Roethlisberger throws in the first half but just missed. After a Mario Addison neutral zone infraction set up 2nd & 5 for Pittsburgh, nickel corner Taron Johnson keyed in on an out-route throw intended for JuJu Smith-Schuster, jumped the route for the pick, and took it 51-yards to the house. Bass would miss the extra point but, just like that, the Bills somehow had the 9-7 lead heading into halftime. 

Like they have done so many times this season, the Bills came out strong in the 3rd quarter and put points on the board. Andre Roberts opened the half with a nice kick return that gave Buffalo excellent starting field position. Similar to last week against the 49ers, Brian Daboll made a concerted effort to get Stefon Diggs the ball more in the second half. On the 8-play, 68-yard drive, Diggs had 4-catches including a 19-yarder for the TD where he made Steven Nelson fall in coverage. It was very nice to see him get the score in a year where leads the league in catches as I’ve been begging for more targets for him in the red zone. I was a big fan of his before he arrived in Buffalo, so it’s been great watching him succeed this season.

Definitely feeling this Stefon Diggs energy

Now it was 16-7 and the Bills had a two-possession lead and all the momentum as a quick 3 & out from the Steelers cemented the point. Roberts returned the punt past midfield only to have it brought back on a block in the back penalty, but the Buffalo offense had excellent starting field position again anyway. Diggs gashed the middle of the Steelers’ defense for big gains again and in only four plays, Allen found rookie WR Gabriel Davis for the TD to put the Bills up 23-7. While still technically only a two-possession game with plenty of time remaining, the 16-pt lead seemed nearly insurmountable. 

Gabriel Davis has been a great addition, especially with John Brown on injured reserve

The teams would trade punts and use up what was left of the 3rd quarter in the process before the Steelers could respond. They finally put together a 10-play, 81-yard drive that culminated with a Smith-Schuster TD about three minutes into the 4th quarter. Tight end Eric Ebron caught the 2-pt conversion and it was back to a one-possession game. Pittsburgh had won 11-games in a row for a reason and you knew they were going to make a push eventually so it wasn’t surprising to see them get back in it. It was with that 8-pt lead where things got stressful.

When the Bills got the ball back, there were 12-minutes left in the game so the clock was their friend. For some reason, Daboll decided to start the drive with a pass play. Beasley caught it to keep the clock running, but it’s needlessly risky in a game where they were in control. I understand and appreciate wanting to go down the field and put the game away with a score, but scenario management is important too. Zack Moss would pick up the short-yardage 1st down, but then Daboll would dial up a pass again, this time incomplete to Davis so it was 2nd & long with the clock stopped and they almost have to throw again. Incomplete. Facing 3rd & 10 Allen would find Isaiah McKenzie to move the chains and restart the clock, but they were very close to giving the ball right back to the Steelers with plenty of time and no insurance score. Incomplete passes are bound to happen, but you’re not doing yourselves any favors by refusing to guarantee a running clock on 1st down.  

After the conversion, Daboll would send in a pass play on 1st down once again and, at that point, I’m vocalizing my displeasure at the television. An incompletion to Beasley stopped the clock again and I couldn’t do anything other than shake my head and ask myself what the hell Daboll was thinking. A 2nd down run restarted the clock but on 3rd & 5, Allen passed up a wide-open Beasley right in front of him for the 1st down and decided to huck it to the end zone for Knox. It’s not so much that I don’t like the aggression, it’s the lack of situational awareness that’s troubling (the Falcons had blown a 7-pt, 4th-quarter lead to the Chargers in a similar fashion earlier in the day). If not for a pass interference call to bail them out, Bass would have had to try a 53-yard FG, in less than ideal weather conditions, under a ton of pressure. The Bills would squander the 1st & goal opportunity from the 1-yard line and end up kicking a short FG to get the lead to 11-pts. All told, the 11-play drive only took a little over 4-minutes and gave PIT a chance with 8-minutes remaining in the game. 

A solid run game is invaluable when it comes to closing out games

The Steelers had their chance, but they only ran three plays before the Bills’ defense clamped down. On a 3rd & 4, Big Ben tried to throw a back-shoulder fade to Washington but Levi Wallace already had outside leverage and hauled in the interception. Buffalo would take the field and this time they would bleed the clock with 1st down runs. The pick flattened the Steelers’ spirits and they didn’t offer much resistance at the end. The Bills would end the game in victory formation having made a pretty loud statement that they are the #2 team in the AFC. 

While the defense looked great and the offense got it together down the stretch, what impressed me the most was the resolve the Bills showed in the face of adversity. In the past, those turnovers in the early moments tended to snowball. Here, was saw a team that was ready for the moment and the national stage. It wasn’t a flawless game by any means but Buffalo proved themselves to be one of the elite teams in the NFL right now and they are still getting better.

Performance Grade: A+

The Bills head to Mile High Stadium for a Saturday afternoon showdown with the Broncos. It’s one of those games that Buffalo is supposed to win but Denver is a tough out. Altitude is going to play a factor so it’ll be imperative for the Bills to get out to a lead early. They’ve won six of their last seven so let’s hope they aren’t in for a letdown game after the emotional high of a huge win. 

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