My Buffalo Blues: Wild Card Edition

In their first home playoff game in 25 years, the Buffalo Bills held on to beat the Colts 27-24. Carrying a 14-point lead in the 4th quarter, Buffalo seemed to be in complete control. However, the 4th quarter was just shy of total disaster. 

When Stefon Diggs scored to make it 24-10 at the start of the 4th quarter, it looked that was the nail in the coffin. Despite a slow start, the Bills had played a great game up until that point and the momentum had clearly settled on the Buffalo sideline. Credit to Frank Reich and the Colts for not allowing that to be the end of their day. Buffalo did a great job limiting Jonathan Taylor to 21/78/1(3.7-YPC) and making sure Zach Pascal and T.Y. Hilton weren’t getting behind the defense (combined 5/69/1), but Indy rallied with a diverse set of tight end packages that got things moving again. Buffalo managed to tack on a field goal (sandwiched between Indianapolis TDs to Zach Pascal and Jack Doyle) that afforded them the lead and possession advantage heading into the final six minutes of the game, which brings me back to the playcalling I pointed out from the Steelers’ game in Week 14. 

After that matchup, I expressed my concern and frustration with Brian Daboll’s late-game situational awareness. Against Pittsburgh, the Bills were holding an 8-pt, 4th quarter lead when we got a look at Daboll’s philosophy for closing out a game. The Bills throw on 1st down more than any other team in the NFL but, when the time comes to close out the game, THE CLOCK IS YOUR FRIEND! Buffalo got bailed out by a pass interference call in Week 14, but the refusal to at least get the clock moving with a run on 1st down in that game kept the Steelers in it. I know Daboll is one of the hottest names as a head coaching candidate going into the offseason, but his situational awareness and scenario management leaves a lot to be desired. That brings us back to the Wild Card game on Saturday.

Up by 3 with 6:07 left in the game and starting from their 24-yard line, Daboll dials up a pass that was complete to Gabriel Davis for 13-yards and the first down. So, the clock is moving at least. Now on 1st down at the 37 and Daboll goes with a pass again and this time Josh Allen got sacked, but at least the clock was running. On 2nd & 15 the Bills are forced to throw now, which jeopardizes the running clock. Diggs hauled in the 1st down catch for 21-yards but was pushed out of bounds and the clock stopped, again. Trading the clock advantage to get into Indianapolis territory helped give the Bills a dominant advantage inside the final 5-minutes, or so you’d think. With 1st & 10 at the Colts’ 47-yard line and 4:39 left in the game, Buffalo could guarantee less than 4-minutes remaining in the game and risk almost nothing with a run. So, what did Brian Daboll do? He calls a fucking pass play again, and this time Allen is incomplete to Dawson Knox and only 4-seconds came off the clock. On 2nd down with a dead clock, at least Daboll ran the ball via Devin Singletary to get the clock moving again and he picked up the 1st down with a 13-yd run down to the Indianapolis 34-yd line. 

With the Bills in field goal range and only 3:50 left in the game, you’d think running the ball would be a priority now…but…you’d be wrong again. Daboll just couldn’t help but continuing to risk his team’s advantage in their most important game in 25 years. On 1st & 10 at the Colts’ 34, he sends in another pass play. When the defense knows you’re throwing on 1st down all the time, good defenses eventually get dialed in and, as he dropped back, Allen got swarmed by Denico Autry and fumbled. As the ball fell to the turf, seemingly in slow motion, my frustration with the playcalling was exemplified at that moment. Buffalo was fortunate to recover the loose ball, but they lost 23-yds on the play and, for some unknown reason, they called a timeout to stop the clock. Within a matter of minutes, an entire season was nearly flushed down the toilet because of Daboll’s hubris. 

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It all happened, seemingly in slow motion, as the Bills’ season was on the brink of disaster

Narrowly avoiding the worst-case scenario, the Bills faced a 2nd & 33 from their 43-yard line with 2:57 left in the game. The Colts only have one timeout remaining at this juncture, so what do you think Daboll did? He dialed up a damn pass play again and it was incomplete to Diggs, so the clock stops without Indy needing to burn their last TO and only six seconds came off the clock. Stuck in 3rd & 33, the Bills were forced to throw again but the 14-yd gain didn’t do much other than getting the ball back into Colts’ territory and Indy used their final TO to stop the clock at 2:38. All told, Buffalo barely took three minutes off the clock and wasted a golden opportunity to put an insurance score on the board. Daboll deserves credit for what he has done with the Bills’ offense in his time there but, as several teams look at him to fill vacant head coaching seats, that endgame philosophy is going to matter. 

Clinging to a 3-pt lead, Buffalo punted the ball back to Indianapolis with plenty of time for them to go down the field and get into game-tying field goal range or even get the go-ahead score. Fortunately, the Bills’ defense had played pretty well, despite giving up 14-points in the 4th quarter, and forced Indy into a 4th & 10 from their 37-yd line. With the game in the balance, Philip Rivers found Zach Pascal for 17 yards and a first down but when he got up and tried to run after the catch, the Bills ripped the ball out and recovered. However, even though the two officials nearest the play had spotted the ball for Buffalo, a different official ruled the play down by contact. The officiating imploded at this moment as they compounded one mistake with several more. 

Pascal’s knee is off the turf and Poyer has yet to make contact. That’s not “down by contact”

Firstly, all turnovers are automatically reviewed so the one officials’ decision to override their crewmates is tactically wrong. I’m pretty sure the league even instructed the officiating crews to rule in favor of the turnover on close plays in order to make sure the plays get reviewed. Secondly, this play happened inside the two-minute warning and should have been automatically reviewed regardless. So, Sean McDermott was forced to call a timeout in order to get the booth to review the play. Third, the north/south replay angle shows Pascal’s knee off the turf before he’s touched by Bills’ safety Jordan Poyer, who actually waited for him to get up for the very reason of trying to punch the ball out. So, even though there’s an angle that showed the runner was not down, it wasn’t enough to overturn the “down-by-contact” ruling. Clearly knowing some mistake had been made, the officials gave Buffalo their timeout back and attributed the review to the booth. It wasn’t the only instance of bad officiating in the game, but that play should have ended the game. Instead, the Colts would get an opportunity to win the game with a hail mary.

The last time the Bills lost, they were on the receiving end of the the highlight-of-the-year Hail Murray catch by DeAndre Hopkins. Regardless of how low percentage, unlikely, and miraculous that TD catch was, it’s tough to put that memory out of your mind as Rivers wound up for a desperation heave. The ball was emphatically knocked to the turf by Micah Hyde and the game was over. Crisis averted. 

I should have been ecstatic, celebrating the Bills’ first playoff win in 25 years, but all I felt was relief. Many fans in attendance openly wept and I don’t blame them, it was a big deal, but I had stared into the void and seen just how fragile a decisive a two touchdown lead in the fourth quarter was for this team. I see how good this team is and how much potential they have, but I also see the inexperience they have as a young group and how valuable that is in the playoffs. The bottom line is that the Bills won but I am left haunted by how close they came to losing. Hopefully, they won’t put themselves in a position again because it will eventually bite them in the ass. 

These two definitely have something special cooking

Not to be overlooked, Josh Allen really played a masterful game after getting off to a slow start. He ended up 26/35 for 324-yards and 2-TDs passing and added 11-carries for 54-yds and a TD. He made some incredible, tight-window throws in this game and came up with a ridiculous TD toss to Dawson Knox as he was getting tackled on a designed run that got blown up. It’s the kind of magical play that lets you know the sky is the limit for this kid. His partner in crime, Stefon Diggs, also got off to a slow start as well but wound up with 6-catches for 128-yds and the TD that put the Bills up 14 in the game’s final frame. 

Overall, the Bills played a very solid game. The Colts had really outplayed them in the first half but Buffalo still went to the locker room up 14-10 at the half. That let’s you know how good this team actually is. A lot of the credit goes to Leslie Frasier’s defense for that. They weren’t getting to Rivers at all thanks to a robust Indy O-line, but they made their tackles on the back end and even came away with 6.5 tackles for loss that helped stifle the rushing advantage the Colts brought into the game. Nyheim Hines torched them a bit in the 4th quarter but the Bills’ D went conservative with a 14-pt lead late in the game. Buffalo’s defense wound up giving up 168-yards rushing and 309-yds passing which is a lot higher than you’d like to see but a lot of that came when they relaxed in the 4th quarter. Overall, it was a bend and not break performance.

Taylor got his, but the Bills did a good job not letting it snowball

The Colts were a legitimate test, no doubt about it, and one of the toughest matchups in the playoffs. Indy showed why they were the only team in the playoffs to rank in the Top-10 on offense, defense, and special teams. I know their fans were upset with a Gabriel Davis sideline catch that was ruled inbounds, but the replay was borderline. It was another one of those calls that were so close, the ruling on the field is tough to overturn. They played well and they fought hard but, in the end, the Bills’ offensive superiority and underrated defense won the day. 

Performance Grade: B+

Thanks to the Browns’ embarrassment of the Steelers in the Sunday night matchup, the Bills will host the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round next Saturday night. Lamar Jackson got his first playoff win as Baltimore vanquished the ghost of last year’s playoff loss to the Titans. However, this idea I’ve heard floating around that Buffalo should be afraid of the Ravens doesn’t carry a lot of weight for me. The Colts are better than the Ravens on both sides of the ball and having that matchup first should hopefully prepare Buffalo for the rest of the postseason. 

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