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The Morning After: Finishing is the problem for Buffalo
Players melted in the heat, one by one, as Buffalo lost its seventh straight one-score game. This was a reality check for a Super Bowl favorite. Also, the Lions are still working on that "stench."
Six days apart, life in the NFL was summed up so perfectly up in the Buffalo Bills’ coaches booth. We saw offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey — a man who previously joked “I’d like to think I’m not too much of psychopath” — morph from one person to somebody completely else.
After blistering the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football with his playcalling on Sept. 19, Dorsey calmly organized his papers, took one last look at the scoreboard and couldn’t help but flash a thin, sly smile.
After the clock ran out in Miami? On Sept. 25? You’ve seen his meltdown by now. Dorsey chucked his headset, before then spiking his hat, his tablet and treating all papers in front of him like the cranium of a rival mobster in one of the Godfathers. Everything in front of Dorsey was destroyed. It looked like he was prepared to leave some permanent damage, too, before someone in the booth covered the CBS’ camera lens.
It was this kind of day for the Bills.
They outgained the Miami Dolphins 497-212. They had the ball more than twice the amount of time as Miami. Yet, none of it mattered because they couldn’t stop crashing and burning when it mattered most and, yes, the clock hit triple zeroes before the Bills had a chance to attempt a game-winning field goal.
Dolphins 21, Bills 19.
This is where we could spend time rattling off excuses because it was a ridiculously arid afternoon in South Florida and Buffalo’s injuries added up to comical proportions, but that sort of whining feels like an exercise reserved for Bills teams of old. A team quarterbacked by Trent Edwards or EJ Manuel. Not a Super Bowl favorite. Not a team we’ve all been justifiably fawning over these first two weeks of the season. The heat and the humidity were extreme, indeed. But this wasn’t the first time the heat index hovered around 100 degrees in Miami. Exactly one year ago, with conditions nearly as bad in this same stadium, the Bills waxed the Dolphins, 35-0.
Breaking: Football is a sport played in the elements.
That’s been the case for a century and that’s one of the million reasons why this sport is better than any other. Mayhem could be happening all around you and you’ve got to be mentally tough enough to handle it. If it’s a climate-controlled sport you prefer, please, change that dial.
Buffalo was down to all backups in the secondary, true. But the secondary wasn’t the problem. Those backups held their own. Bills killer Tyreek Hill finished with all of two receptions. Head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier deserve credit for getting these young DBs ready to play.
The team’s second-best player Stefon Diggs was saddled with cramps on the sideline at crucial moments, and he wasn’t alone. Players seemed to be melting all over the field. Yet, it’s not like this hot day snuck up on the Bills. Ownership has poured a ton of money into sports performance. Buffalo has been one of the best teams in the league when it comes to injury prevention.
There’s no reason for mass gloom and doom. One former Bills receiver was just telling me this week that he was hoping the team would lose — ASAP — to alleviate the pressure of an undefeated season. He thinks they’re that talented and, from experience elsewhere, knows how the pressure to win every game can add up. As long as Allen and Diggs are healthy, the Bills will contend.
More than anything, Sunday’s zany loss showed us again that the Bills remain a team searching… and searching… and searching for a finishing touch. They’ve proven more than capable of running opponents out of the building. When it comes to close games, something always goes wrong. It’s a weird dichotomy. The Bills either pour gasoline on teams and a light a match or lose on bizarre miscues late in the fourth quarter. Back to the middle of the 2020 season, the Bills have now lost seven straight one-score games. Only the Houston Texans have lost every one-score game over the same span.
If the Bills intend to win the Super Bowl, they’ve got to get to the bottom of this.
This 2022 season is about January and February for the Bills and they’re guaranteed to play close games through the playoffs.
Josh Allen was mostly brilliant again. He completed (42) and attempted (63) the most passes in his career, finishing with 400 yards passing and another 47 rushing. He continues to make the sort of plays nobody else can. Along a 17-play drive in the fourth quarter, Allen converted a trio of dazzling third downs. On third and 10 — on the run — he found Devin Singletary for 22 yards with a perfect touch pass. On third and 3, he froze an untouched Nik Needham to buy time before lacing a completion to Zack Moss. Props to Moss for ducking underneath a tackle short of the sticks, too. Buffalo’s backs ran hard. And on third and 5 — with 4:37 to go — Allen scrambled for eight yards. He caught the Dolphins in man-to-man, took off, and wasted safety Brandon Jones with a filthy crossover in the open field.
Then, the magic wore off. On fourth and goal from the 2-yard line, Allen had Isaiah McKenzie wide open to his right and… one-hopped it. The play before, he nearly threw an interception. It appeared he might’ve hurt his hand this drive but, afterward, Allen said he’s fine.
He’s not the only player with regrets this morning.
Linebacker Matt Milano dropped what would’ve been a pick-six at the end of the third quarter. Corral this gift from Tua Tagovailoa and the Bills lead 24-14. Instead, the Bills missed a field goal, the Dolphins scored a touchdown and that’s all the home team needed. Many mistakes were made: Allen’s bizarre attempt at a fake spike after a bobbled snap to close the first half, Gabriel Davis having a sure touchdown poked out of his hands at the last split-second in the end zone, Allen’s unnecessary roughness penalty for tearing Christian Wilkins’ helmet off and… where was Von Miller? While he sought to be a voice of reason after the game in explaining how a loss like this can help the Bills, it should also be noted that Miller was invisible up to a tipped ball late. He finished with zero tackles, zero sacks, zero quarterback hits.
And on the game’s final play, McKenzie was unable to get down in time.
There’s no denying that these Bills are talented enough to go scorched earth on any team, any day.
But there’s an art to finishing close games. It takes the perfect combination of factors.
A head coach who grasps the moment. Think Bill Belichick psyching out Pete Carroll in the Super Bowl, baiting the Seahawks coach into throwing at the goal-line. Seattle was stunned New England wasn’t calling a timeout, and panicked.
A quarterback who craves pressure. Despite his errant throw Sunday, the Bills shouldn’t worry. We saw Allen connect on a slew of clutch throws at Arrowhead last winter.
A team that’s prepared for the elements. Where this loss could sting most is if it takes away from home playoff games. By the third quarter, there was rampant huffing and puffing. The team did have one employee hold an umbrella over Allen between series — that helped. For the most part, this looked like a club from the North Pole that’ll need to get as many cold-weather games it can in the playoffs. More umbrellas, more fans, more anything on the sideline could’ve helped. Everyone knows how the Dolphins’ stadium is designed, with the home sideline in shade and the visitors always getting blasted by the sun. Overall, the Bills were still a team running on “E.” I can’t remember seeing this many players getting cramps and needing IV. Players collapsed with exhaustion at a rate that harkened back to the “Epic in Miami” of 1982 between the San Diego Chargers and the Dolphins. What a night that was for Kellen Winslow. It was wild chatting with players from both sides of that game for “The Blood and Guts.” Is playing football in such conditions ideal? No. But it’s part of the sport. Teams from Florida don’t exactly enjoy trudging through Western New York snow.
An acute awareness. From all 11 players in real time. That last play isn’t as cut-and-dry as the talking heads will make it seem this week. In retrospect, McKenzie admitted afterward he should’ve crumbled to the turf earlier to give the offense enough time to race up to the line of scrimmage and kill the clock. There were 18 seconds left at the snap and 13 when he caught it at Miami’s 48-yard line. He knew he needed to gain a chunk of yardage for kicker Tyler Bass and to do it while running toward the sideline. Miami deserves credit for relentlessly pursuing McKenzie in a way that kept McKenzie inbounds. With eight seconds left, our resident podcaster was tackled two yards outside of CBS’ field goal target line for Bass.
We’ll get into all of this tonight on “The Isaiah McKenzie Show” at Mister’s Bar & Lanes in East Aurora, NY. If you’re local, come on out. All episodes are posted here at GoLongTD.com, too.
If McKenzie would’ve given himself up around the Miami 45 with 10 seconds, Bass could’ve attempted a 62-yarder. Or Allen could’ve heaved one to the end zone. His extra effort to Miami’s 41 came back to bite him. A subtle love tap from Miami’s Jaelan Phillips didn’t help, Buffalo ran out of time and… yes. High above, the offensive coordinator promptly lost his mind.
Right when it looks like the Bills are going to tear through the division, the conference, the league and welcome Rob Johnson back for the Super Bowl parade, reality fries them in Miami.
Deep breath, Ken.
This remains a team fully capable of bringing a Super Bowl trophy to Western New York, but more close games are inevitable. The Bills are 2-1 and travel to Baltimore next. It’s hard to envision this game being a blowout either way with how well Lamar Jackson is playing. As the calendar turns, these close games might even be played in 100 degrees or 55 MPH winds or a monsoon or two feet of snow or God knows what else.
There’s no manual for how to navigate a one-score game. Finishing is more of an attitude winners adopt over time.
Sunday was painful proof that the veteran-laden Bills are still figuring it out.
On that ‘stench’
Go Long spent last week with the Detroit Lions in Allen Park, Mich. I chatted with all of the offensive linemen about transforming this franchise one bruise at a time. ICYMI, here’s Part I and Part II. This is a team genuinely trying to rebuild from the inside-out and Penei Sewell didn’t hold back. The team’s cornerstone tackle says he’d literally “die” for his teammates.
Winning at Minnesota could’ve been a perfect tipping point for Dan Campbell’s club, too. Instead, the 28-24 defeat was a reminder that the Lions are still trying eradicate what Taylor Decker described as a lingering “stench” from this franchise’s years of losing.
Campbell has pushed so many of the right buttons as the head coach but made a costly mistake in this one. On fourth and 4 from the Vikings’ 36 — leading 24-21 — he opted for a 54-yard field goal attempt. The kicked sailed wide right and Minnesota capitalized. Quarterback Kirk Cousins found K.J. Osborn for 28 yards before then hitting the same receiver for 28 more yards on a game-winning touchdown.
At his press conference, Campbell wasted zero time pointing the finger at himself.
“I hate the decision,” he said. “I wish I would’ve put it back in our hands offensively.”
Kicking in this spot is exactly what Decker described. A remnant from the past. Truly believing in your players means going for it on that fourth down and refusing to let the Vikings touch the ball again.
“I regret that decision 100 percent,” Campbell continued. “I hate it. I do feel like I cost our team. I really do.”
That’s a start. Sure beats the tap dance we usually hear from head coaches who screw up.
As Campbell said a few moments later, there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs through the course of a 17-game schedule. What’s being built in Detroit still strikes me as something different than anything the organization has had. It’s just on everyone — from the head coach to the players — to operate as an alpha during those critical two or three moments that decide a game. The reason Detroit has hope is that this team has taken on the personality of their head coach. On this fourth and 4, Campbell temporarily lost sight of this.
The Lions are on the right track.
We can say it out loud: The Jacksonville Jaguars are for real. That was a thorough beatdown in L.A. Shelling out $259.5 million free agency is paying off. GM Trent Baalke deserves credit for spreading the resources around, too. He didn’t overload on offense or defense. Remember when Shaquille Leonard and others mocked the Jags? It was wrong then and clearly wrong now.
Was it pretty? Hell no. But Green Bay’s 14-12 win over Tampa Bay is exactly how this team needs to play and win in 2022. With a defense that flies to the ball (De’Vondre Campbell was the best player on the field). With Kenny Clark wreaking havoc (the self-described best nose tackle in football had two sacks). With Aaron Rodgers making a play late. Winning this way takes a new level of patience from the quarterback but it can work.
Russell Wilson described last night’s 11-10 win over San Francisco as a “terrific game.” He is wrong. This pillow fight set the sport back decades. We saw firsthand why Kyle Shanahan was willing to give up three first-rounders for Trey Lance. What a shame the former North Dakota State QB will now go most of three years without playing football. Jimmy G is, sadly, Jimmy G. He’s a 30-year-old who still makes a litany of rookie mistakes. The difference in this game was the 49ers quarterback pulling an Orlovsky by stepping out of his own end zone for a safety.
What is Washington going to do at quarterback? Granted, it does not all fall on Carson Wentz’s shoulders but this was a brutal stat line: 211 yards on 43 attempts, nine sacks, no touchdowns.
The Colts aren’t dead yet! Matt Ryan drove his offense 76 yards on 16 plays deep into the fourth to knock off the Kansas City Chiefs. His 12-yard touchdown to Jelani Woods with 24 seconds left earned Indy a game it needed in the worst way. These are the Colts we expected heading into 2022. The Ryan of 2016 is long gone but if the 37-year-old can still mount a few fourth-quarter comebacks maybe that’s all the Colts need.
Stephon Gilmore served as the closer. Blanketing JuJu Smith-Schuster, his textbook PBU led to an interception that closed the game. The former DPOY wants to go down as the best corner of this generation. Plays like that help his cause.
Good luck finding another player with more highlight-reel plays from Week 3 than Philadelphia’s DeVonta Smith. He plays four inches and about 25 pounds heavier than he is. Three games in, the Eagles look like the most complete team in the NFL.
All season long, subscribers can hang out with Jim Monos and myself for our midweek podcast in Western New York live at Fattey Beer Company. This week, we’ll be at Fattey’s Orchard Park location Wednesday night at 8 p.m. (EST). As always, you can watch and listen to the full replays here at GoLongTD.com, and wherever you get your pods — including Apple and Spotify.
Our Week 3 wrap-up podcast is up ‘n running.
Previous “Morning After” columns…