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The Buffalo Bills are lost in the woods
But they can find their way out. Where does Sean McDermott go from here? We explore this, and rip around the NFL in our Morning After column.
The wins should be sweet. The losses should be bitter. With zero in-between.
The black-and-white nature of pro football is what makes this sport the most thrilling form of primetime entertainment in America.
Raw dejection out of Brian Daboll afterward told the tale.
Repeatedly, he cited the fact that the New York Giants’ 14-9 loss to the Buffalo Bills came down to one yard.
His offensive line is decimated. He was starting a backup quarterback (Tyrod Taylor) against the QB (Josh Allen) he helped reach superstar status. His team, 15-point underdogs, had essentially played one good half of football all season. The Giants have easily been one of the biggest disappointments this 2023 season, and he knows it.
“You don’t get trophies for trying,” Daboll said. “It came down to one yard. Just missed it.”
So, no, the Bills shouldn’t apologize for improving to 4-2. They’ve got two more winnable games on tap. The flailing New England Patriots are next. But it’s painfully obvious that all talk of this team’s “Super Bowl window” should be muted after such a comatose performance, after coming within one yard of an all-time loss. There is time to re-discover a championship formula, but as we sit here in mid-October? The Bills are lost on the back roads. Aimless. Their clubbing of the Miami Dolphins feels like a lifetime ago.
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Since extinguishing the best offense in the NFL, the Bills have lost their best defensive player (Matt Milano), best run defender (DaQuan Jones) and clearly have a massive Kaiir Elam Problem at cornerback. Every opposing quarterback will see a target on the 2022 first-round pick’s uniform. Offensively, Josh Allen can still thread impossible needles. His 15-yard strike to tight end Quintin Morris — noted football purist — saved Buffalo. Right there is why you don’t sanitize his game. Allen also short-armed a third-and-9 throw to Dawson Knox that would’ve eliminated the theatrics of New York’s final drive. Championship teams make that play.
Above all, the Bills’ relationship with running the football remains perpetually bizarre.
It’s worth repeating: An 17-game season allows for teams to wander aimlessly for a full month. The 2021 Los Angeles Rams didn’t even win a game in November before catching fire and winning a Super Bowl.
Simply, at this moment in time, the Bills do not resemble a serious contender.
“Sometimes, you’ve gotta find a way,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said. “You don’t have your A game. You’ve got to figure it out.”
We’ll hear this win spun as a testament to the Bills’ gritty resolve. More like flat-out survival — which is fine.
The Bills cannot lie to themselves if they’re interested in getting over the hump when it matters most.
Here’s a quick recap of everything that broke right for the Bills to eek past an injury-ravaged Giants team that’s arguably been the worst team in the NFL for 1 ½ months:
At the 1-yard line, at the end of the first half, Taylor infamously changed the play to a run. Saquon Barkley was stuffed. All 14 seconds bled off the clock, preventing the Giants from coming away with any points. Three points that came back to haunt the Giants.
At the 1-yard line, at the end of the game, the Giants understandably called a pass. Short yardage was a problem. Practically his entire route, tight end Darren Waller was held by cornerback Taron Johnson. This sight of cloth getting pulled typically leads to flags in any situation — ask James Bradberry — but the officials decided to swallow their whistles instead of giving the Giants another play at the doorstep. Of course, if the Giants got that field goal at the end of the half, they would’ve settled for another chip shot to win.
In the first half, Jalin Hyatt’s 43-yard reception was wiped out by a ticky-tack ineligible man downfield penalty most crews never flag. The Giants were forced to punt.
Linebacker Bobby Okereke, the best player on the field this night, was flagged for roughing the passer on this play. My 4- and 2-year-old kids have engaged in far more dangerous behavior dancing to Zach Bryan’s “Revival” in our basement. The NFL remains steadfast in its mission to tarnish its own product.
There are injuries. Then, there’s the Giants. Vet Justin Pugh, “straight off the couch,” was suddenly forced to play left tackle the 10th play of the game when Joshua Ezeudu departed with a toe injury. Pugh wasn’t kidding with his pregame intro quip. Before signing with the Giants on Oct. 4, he was selling real estate and hosting a podcast. He hadn’t started a game in 364 days. Hadn’t even played tackle since 2019. The Giants were already missing their second-highest paid player in left tackle Andrew Thomas (hamstring), in addition to center John Michel Schmitz Jr. (shoulder) and tackle Matt Peart (shoulder). An avalanche of injuries that got Daniel Jones’ neck hurt last week.
Tyrod Taylor is always a compelling story. A class act. He’s also a 34-year-old journeyman on his sixth team that the Bills should’ve devoured for four quarters. As the coach who benched Taylor for Nathan Peterman, McDermott ought to know the QB’s blind spots better than anyone. Instead, Taylor outplayed Allen most of this game.
Here’s a fun fact, courtesy of OptaSTATS: The Giants are the only team in the Super Bowl era to total more rushing yards, more passing yards, fewer interceptions thrown, fewer fumbles lost and fewer missed field goals than their opponent and still lose the game. Before this game, teams were 134-0 when checking all of these boxes.
Where do the Bills go from here?
The defense sorely needs a playmaker who strikes fear in an offensive coordinator. Von Miller was back for his second game since tearing his ACL last Thanksgiving, but it was hard to tell. He registered zero tackles, zero anything on 27 snaps. Christian Benford supplied the unit’s best play, a pass breakup on Taylor’s perfectly placed deep shot to Darius Slayton, but Elam is a liability. Buffalo needs Dane Jackson back ASAP.
The offense appears broken. Allen’s rapport with Stefon Diggs is strong enough to beat many teams, but nothing else about this group is consistent. Back when McDermott was Daboll’s boss, he was often perturbed by the Bills’ lack of a running game. All along, the team makes investments in running backs — Devin Singletary (2019, third round), Zack Moss (2020, third) and James Cook (2022, second) — but too often strays away from the run when it’s needed. The Chiefs and Bengals are both armed with all-galaxy quarterbacks and both offenses have endured rough spells of their own the last few years. Whenever times are tough for Patrick Mahomes, we see McDermott’s old boss, Andy Reid, lean on Isiah Pacheco. A man who runs demonically possessed.
Same for the Bengals with Joe Mixon. Defenses dared Burrow to hand the ball off most of 2022, so he did.
It took a full half of sleepwalking for the Bills to realize they needed to bash away last night. One week after getting nothing in London.
Personnel is not the problem. GM Brandon Beane has done enough.
Moss, dumped in 2022, ranks second in the league in rushing yards. Wyatt Teller, dumped in 2019, blossomed into one of the best guards in football. One temporary solution should be getting the ball to James Cook, a true slasher averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Especially when it’s clear the passing game is short-circuiting. Let Cook find a rhythm in sloppy games like this and let his offensive line move forward for a change. Even four or five run-heavy games could feed an ass-kicking ethos the Bills have been missing every January. They’ll need this in their back pocket. As we’ve seen, an offense built to win in a dome only takes this group so far.
The dichotomy’s always strange. McDermott relishes ugly wins and seems to grasp the reality that his team will need to win a playoff game in a frigid blizzard, but nothing changes.
No, the Bills do not need to treat 2023 like its 1993. I’m not typing these words from a cave. There’s balance to strike with an elite quarterback. Whereas Reid found it through two title runs, McDermott has not.
This is the perfect time of year to unearth a rushing game, right when they’re completely lost.
Fans can blame coordinators all they want. It’s on the head coach to instill a true identity. Sunday’s near-disaster wasn’t about one specific play call.
Of course, there was only one happy head coach late Sunday night, and it wasn’t Daboll.
The Giants coach was not searching for positives.
“Yeah, it’s hard to,” Daboll said. “It was a competitive game. I thought we competed hard. … They’re all tough. You put a lot into it. But this is a hell of a football team that we played — in a great environment, a tough place to play. Sixty minutes, there was zero time on the clock. It’s a tough one.”
Meanwhile, inside the Bills locker room, McDermott called this “a good win” because his players know how to win “close games.”
He then said the Bills are a better team than they showed this night, and needed to get better.
He’s right. No longer is the goal to break playoff droughts and wear “AFC East Champs” t-shirts. Play like this against KC, Miami, Jacksonville, Cincy — pick your AFC contender — and the Bills will be one and done.
Bengals defense changes the calculus
For all of the obsessing over Joe Burrow’s calf muscle, the strangest sight in Cincinnati the first month of this 2023 season was actually on defense. Lou Anarumo — a man who deserves to be a head coach in the NFL — has been a mad scientist the last two seasons. No coordinator flustered elite quarterbacks in the AFC quite like him. Most telling? The Bengals defense almost always rose to the occasion in clutch situations. Red zone. Third down. One minute left.
If Joseph Ossai doesn’t pop Patrick Mahomes out of bounds in the AFC Championship Game, there’s a very good chance these Bengals represent the AFC in both Super Bowls. Yet, Anarumo’s crew began this season getting whacked by the Cleveland Browns (24 points, 350 yards), Baltimore Ravens (27 points, 415 yards) and Tennessee Titans (27 points, 400 yards).
The Bengals hosted a Seattle Seahawks team riding high on Sunday.
And while the offense was stale much of the game, the Bengals defense reintroduced itself with a bang in a 17-13 win. After two TD drives to start the day, Burrow’s crew gained only 89 yards on 33 plays. It didn’t matter because the Bengals defense allowed only three points on four goal-to-go possessions for the Seahawks.
This unit amassed 13 quarterback hits. Five by Sam Hubbard alone.
When D.J. Reader, a human boulder, is anchoring the middle of this defense… and Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson are applying heavy pressure… and Mike Hilton is a threat to blitz from the slot… and Cam Taylor-Britt is shutting down one side of the field, Cincinnati will keep stealing wins while the offense figures itself out. Taylor-Britt was particularly phenomenal this game, from blanketing Tyler Lockett in the end zone on third down to snatching a diving interception to crawling inside the head of D.K. Metcalf.
The Bengals knew they’d lose core players to free agency and drafted replacements, like Taylor-Britt, a year in advance.
The way this season started, they’ll happily take a 3-3 record into the bye.
“It’s almost like, just because a team gets in there to the three-yard line, it’s not ‘Here we go, it’s seven points,’” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “I really think our defense believes: ‘Worst case, we’ll hold ‘em to three here. Best case, we’re getting the ball out.’ Going back to that New England game last year, you always feel like these guys have such an attitude to get that ball out and not be satisfied giving up any points. It’s ‘turnover on downs’ and it’s ‘get the ball out.’ I feel that. We didn’t strip the ball out or anything, but we tried. I’m really proud of the job our defense did. They stepped up big time.”
Football is ugly
The end of the Cleveland Browns 19-17 upset win over the San Francisco 49ers was beyond painful. Where to begin?
Let’s start with Kyle Shanahan’s demons resurfacing. After a Browns field goal cut the lead to 17-16, the 49ers head coach melted a grand total of 25 seconds off the clock with a pass-pass-pass sequence reminiscent of his Super Bowl gaffe with the Atlanta Falcons seven years ago.
The next drive, the Browns were treated to another favor.
This, courtesy of the officials. (Sensing a theme in this Monday column?)
Down by one point, facing third and 10 from his own 26, quarterback P.J. Walker sailed a pass over Elijah Moore with safety Tashaun Gipson simultaneously delivering a hard hit to Moore’s shoulder. Emphasis on shoulder. Despite being nowhere near Moore’s head/neck area, the veteran safety was flagged for unnecessary roughness. A 15-yard penalty that kept the drive alive.
More ugliness followed. The Browns advanced to the 49ers’ 13 and a Walker brain freeze opened the door for Shanahan’s crew. Instead of sliding and forcing a San Francisco timeout, the backup QB dangerously rifled an incompletion into heavy traffic. Which supplied the 49ers ample time once Cleveland kicked its go-ahead, chip-shot field goal. With only nine completions on the day leading into this drive — missing Deebo Samuel (shoulder) and Christian McCaffrey (oblique) — Brock Purdy finally came alive with completions of 25, eight, nine, and… kicker Jake Moody missed his second field goal of the game from 41 yards out.
I suppose there’s no grandiose take to share here. It’s worth noting that some games make you want to puke, and this was one of them.
Earlier, officials also called P.J. Walker for intentional grounding. It was clearly a fumble.
Purdy is going to struggle against an elite defense if three of those Monstars around him go down. We knew that. The only thing that can stop the 49ers from winning the NFC is injuries, and health has been a problem throughout Shanahan’s tenure.
The Browns’ defense is ready to contend. The Browns offense is not. Walker was the third quarterback they’ve started the last three games. Obviously, they’ll need Deshaun Watson back to start thinking playoffs. And not only that. They’ll need Watson to once and for all rediscover the play style that got him this unprecedented $230 million guaranteed. When he returns is anyone’s guess. He hasn’t practice in 24 days with a shoulder bruise.
There was a fourth quarterback selected to take over a team in the 2023 class. We examined Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson in last week’s feature, but remember Will Levis? The quarterback out of Kentucky, drafted 33rd overall, has been buried behind Ryan Tannehill and Malik Willis on the depth chart. Tannehill exited the Titans’ 24-16 loss to the Ravens in London with an ankle injury and was hobbling around on crutches afterward. Tannehill was quite honest, too. He admitted he couldn’t push off his foot, hence one badly underthrown ball that was picked off. Rather than be a “sitting duck,” Tannehill pulled himself out. It’s the same right ankle that ended his 2022 season. The choice should be obvious: Play Levis. During the Titans-Vikings joint practices, Willis indicated he was in a completely different mental state this season. In our chat, he said, “They think, ‘He’s trash.’ No, I just needed to learn the offense.” This was ugly. Willis completed four passes and was sacked four times. His resistance to throw the ball was troubling. Tennessee has a bye week and Tannehill will have an MRI done, but gosh it’s hard to imagine Willis is a substantial upgrade over Levis. These two weeks should be used as two weeks to prepare Levis for his first start.
Everything seemed to go right for the Patriots in so many championship moments. Pete Carroll doesn’t give the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line in the ’14 Super Bowl. The Falcons can’t help but pass in the ’16 Super Bowl. Dee Ford is flagged offsides on a Tom Brady pick that would’ve ended the ’19 AFCCG. This season has become Bill Belichick’s penance for it all. New England officially entered the Caleb Williams Sweepstakes with a brutal 21-17 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. How about this sequence. With 2 minutes left, quarterback Mac Jones unloads his best pass of the season. That’s no exaggeration. Jones has been abysmal — benched in back-to-back games — but somehow flicked this gorgeous ball in-stride to DeVante Parker on second and 12, down 19-17. And… Parker dropped it. Catch this and the Patriots are one first down away from field-goal range. Instead, the Patriots then took a delay of game penalty and were sacked for a safety. Game over.
Desmond Ridder was a wild ride in Atlanta’s 24-16 loss to Washington. On one hand, he threw for 307 yards. He incorporated both Drake London (2022, eighth overall) and Kyle Pitts (2021, fourth overall) into the passing game and made more decisive throws downfield than he ever has in his young career. On the other, you cannot throw three interceptions in a one-score game. The second was a brutal floater into the end zone with five minutes left, moments after he badly missed MyCole Pruitt for a TD. The third appeared to suck the life out of head coach Arthur Smith himself. The Falcons are 3-3. Considering the NFC South remains wide open, could Taylor Heinicke get the call soon? He might.
No Sauce Gardner. No DJ Reed. And the New York Jets still found a way to shut down the Philadelphia Eagles. Robert Saleh isn’t wrong to say his defense has “embarrassed” all quarterbacks along its early-season gauntlet. If anything, the defense’s performance week-in, week-out adds salt to the wound. As it turns out, a C+ or B- version of Aaron Rodgers honestly might’ve been enough to get this Jets team to the playoffs, after all. The Eagles rushing attack — typically a machine — mustered all of 80 yards. Jalen Hurts was forced to throw 45 times and threw three picks. This isn’t a Super Bowl-winning formula, but the Jets sure will be a pain in the ass for every opponent.
Both quarterbacks taking the field at Raymond James Stadium were written as ghosts. Jared Goff, abandoned by the Rams. Baker Mayfield, discarded by the Browns. (And Panthers, and Rams.) Throughout this battle of first-place teams, only one QB appeared rehabilitated. This 20-6 Lions win, Jared Goff was again exceptional. He completed 30 of 44 passes for 353 yards with two touchdowns, finding Amon-Ra St. Brown for four third-down conversions. Tampa Bay’s Baker Mayfield wasn’t wrong in his postgame assessment: “I sucked today. We sucked today. It was awful. … The offense, we just need to pick our shit up.” Starting with the QB. He threw for only 206 yards on 37 attempts and missed Trey Palmer deep twice. Those two plays make this a completely different game.