It almost December and the Bills are on the better side of their natural .500 habitat - the one that gives Bills fans hope that there is life beyond the regular season. Of course the road ahead is challenging and there are no guarantees, but the Bills did what they had to do on Sunday and now have the opportunity to control their destiny.
Sunday’s win over Jacksonville was hardly a thing of beauty, but a win is a win, especially to a team that pretty much has to win them all. What many thought could or should have been a blowout turned out to be a surprisingly difficult victory – one that had fans squirming early and booing from the stands.
Lest I be accused of being too negative, I’ll say that I’m happy the Bills won – a win is a win, even if it has warts. Fans were treated to the plays they’ve wanted to see all season long: the bomb to Sammy Watkins, the breakaway touchdown by LeSean McCoy, the heads-up scrambling of Tyrod Taylor. I know I was on my feet for those plays – it’s why I watch the Bills.
It would, however, be silly to write-off all the issues the Bills had on Sunday just because the final result was the desired W. To ignore such things because of a win is dangerous – it turns a blind eye to some very real deficiencies in this team and sets you up for the big letdown in the following weeks.
Over the past two weeks the Bills have beaten two teams with a combined record of 5-16 and it hasn’t been pretty. In the next two weeks the Bills will face two teams that are a combined 15-7, starting with a West Coast trip to meet the Raiders (9-2) in Oakland and then home against the Steelers (6-5).
Buffalo has the talent to hang with just about anyone in the NFL and I believe they could beat any team on the proverbial “any given Sunday”. The truth is, in order to beat some good teams the Bills are going to have to play a lot better for a lot longer than they have been playing.
Sunday’s game is prime example of a game that could have easily been lost before the Bills even knew what happened. To say that the team started of slowly would be a massive understatement – the first half of this Jacksonville game was a perfect example.
In a game many thought the Bills would win going away, the Bills came out sleepwalking. The first Jacksonville drive set the tone early – Buffalo wasn’t going to win just because they showed up to their home stadium in uniform and in front of the fans. Jacksonville started their first drive on their own 25 and put together an 11-play, 75 yard drive down the field that used 6:45 in clock. The Bills wilted on three third down opportunities, giving up a 10-yard catch, a 27-yard quarterback scramble (from Blake Borltles, no less), to the final touchdown catch after it was shortened by a penalty. In short, it was an ugly sight to see Jacksonville go through the Bills defense like a hot knife through butter. To add insult to injury it was the Jaguars first opening drive touchdown in 25 games and first points on an opening drive all season!
Down 7-0 early at home, the Bills responded with a 3 and out that produced 5 yards of offense, a negative run and a sack – that knot in the stomach started early – it was going to be one of those games. Jacksonville ended their own next drive when a wide open Alan Hurns dropped a third down pass, and thus began a series of lackluster drives by both teams ending in punts. That the Bills couldn’t seem to move the ball, at home in a must-win game kept a sense of dread hanging over many of the Bills faithful – we’d all seen that movie before – the one where the Bills play like they’re running for the bus and lose a game you never really considered they’d lose.
The Bills finally got a break when Brandon Tate took a Jaguars punt and returned it 43 yards to put the Bills in scoring position. The Bills converted a 4th down to keep touchdown hopes alive, and were rewarded on the next play when Shady ran it in from 7 yards out. To add drama to the situation, Dan Carpenter missed the extra point, so the Bills went to the locker room down by a point.
The Bills have not been known as a time that makes brilliant halftime adjustments, but the team came out and looked much better in the second half – McCoy took the ball 75 yards to the house on the very first offensive play of the third quarter.
You would think that after a big momentum grabber like a 75 yard score the Bills, seemingly now out of their slumber, would have turned the corner and put the game away, but you’d be wrong. The Bills didn’t effectively put the game away until there were less than 5 minutes left in the game. Instead of blowing out Jacksonville, the game felt more like a hang-on win.
For a team that’s missed so many key players for so much of the season, it was great to have McCoy and Watkins available on offense and Marcell Dareus on defense and all played well – so why was this yet another ugly win?
The problems the Bills had against Jacksonville are the same ones they’ve had all season – a two-down defense, penalties, and a passing game that couldn’t seem to seal the victory.
Watching the defense has become increasingly maddening this season – there are a number of nice defensive plays on first and second downs that go for naught when the unit allows a third down to be completed. I don’t have an explanation for it. On third down the pass rush never seems to get to the quarterback, the defensive back is never close enough to break-up the pass and someone is always free at or beyond the chains to keep the drive alive. Whether it’s a predictable rush or corners being asked to play beyond their abilities on third down, drives seem to keep going until they score rather than being stuffed by a capable defensive unit.
Penalties have been an issue all season, as has been poor officiating. The crew on Sunday made some noticeably bad calls, including some that went in favor of the Bills. I can’t point to a specific call that really hurt the Bills on Sunday, but I also can’t remember a time when a team went a full 2 seconds past the expiration of the play clock and not a single official noticed.
And so we return to my favorite elephant in the room/beat a dead horse topic – the decidedly average play of Taylor. He did manage to lead the bills from behind – only the second time he’s been able to do that in 13 opportunities where the Bills have trailed by 4 points or more.
Tyrod had some great throws on Sunday – the 62-yard bomb to Watkins was a thing of beauty, as was his touchdown pass to Justin Hunter. He also made some great plays with his feet, rushing for a score and keeping drives alive. It’s hard for me to bash Tyrod when I see him make plays like those. In my defense I will say that the bar needs to be set high for a franchise quarterback and right now he is just not a franchise quarterback. Too often Taylor gets flustered in the pocket and takes off on his feet. He doesn’t anticipate receivers coming open very well and his vision for finding open receivers is very suspect. On the other hand, Tyrod is not forcing the ball into bad situations or causing turnovers. Taylor doesn’t lose games for the Bills, but he doesn’t win them, either. At this point I don’t think he’s worth the $27 million he’ll make next season if the Bills pick-up his option, but I don’t know what choice the Bills have – if Tyrod isn’t under center of the Bills next season, I don’t know who is, but that’s hardly a reason to let him have such a huge contract. There are 5 games to go and the Bills may need to win all of them to make the playoffs. There are some tough games on the schedule, and the table is set for Tyrod to show us what he is. If the Bills defense can hold Oakland to a reasonable score and Tyrod can lead the team to a win next week I’ll be very happy to sing his praises.