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The Thread: The Buffalo Bills (and Josh Allen) have every answer
Allen torches Pittsburgh in the second half for a signature win, plus the Buccaneers' defense destroys, Patrick Mahomes detonates and Jalen Hurts dizzies as playoff pictures start to take shape.
All season long, there have been intermittent reasons to doubt the rise of the Buffalo Bills. Legitimate concerns.
The run defense craters.
The lingering absence of their own running game.
Sean McDermott coaches afraid of Patrick Mahomes.
Josh Allen reverts to his old reckless ways.
And yet, here they are. The Bills are 10-3 and fresh off their finest win of the season: a 26-15 slow bleed of the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers. They made one of the best teams in the NFL look downright blah. This game — more than any to date — should make locals believe that this team has a shot at reaching the Super Bowl. We’ll leave that Mahomes discussion for another day — the quarterback Buffalo passed on is obviously the bar for every team in the entire NFL. That matchup still looms. But on Sunday Night Football, the Bills had an answer for everything.
Specifically, No. 17.
His first half? Brutal. He missed throws. He threw a pick. He fumbled and, luckily, the officials missed it. At one point, Allen’s passer rating free-fell into the 20’s and you couldn’t help but wonder if he was spiraling right back into Texans Playoff Game mode, if the second half would be chock-full of bombs to the fullback and cartoonish laterals downfield. Gaffes, in the past, would compound. But not this night. Into the second half, Steelers coordinator Keith Butler sent a flurry of blitzes at Allen and Allen was completely unfazed. He finished with 238 yards and two scores with the right throw at the right time over and over again.
He was poised. He spotted Stefon Diggs in man-to-man coverage and made Pittsburgh pay. Repeatedly.
Two plays stood out here because these are two plays you wouldn’t have caught in the fourth quarter of that Houston loss.
Right after Ben Roethlisberger answered to draw the Steelers within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, 23-15, Allen had a brief relapse. The Steelers (again) blitzed him, thus leaving the middle of the field open for Gabriel Davis in one-on-one coverage and Allen… overshot him. Roethlisberger, of course, has made a career of making teams pay for such missed opportunities. Two plays later, on third and 10 with Cam Heyward barreling down, Allen calmly stepped up into the pocket to hit Isaiah McKenzie on a crosser for 12 yards. It just felt like the kind of play in the kind of moment the Allen of old never makes. That throw led to a field goal and a two-score lead.
And with 5:04 to go — Buffalo looking to ice this one for good on third an 11 — Allen was calm again when the Steelers sent Mike Hilton on a slot blitz. He patiently waited for tight end Dawson Knox leak free and dumped it off to him for 16. Buffalo melted the final 7:11 of the game away.
All in all, these are exactly the kinds of plays Kurt Warner said Allen needed to make at this stage of his career. He needs to think. Quickly. And make the right throw “over and over and over again” just like Tom Brady has done in countless playoff wins. It’s not necessarily the Wild West escape that’ll bring a Lombardi Trophy to Western New York. It’s the simple, yet clutch plays like these against a worthy opponent.
Heyward is one of the most underrated players in the NFL and swatted Allen’s arm on the pick earlier. Hilton is arguably the best blitzing corner in the NFL.
Neither was able to get this QB to shake in his boots with the game on the line.
And it is also worth noting that this all falls in line with the theme of Allen’s football life — all the way back to Wyoming. His head coach then, Craig Bohl, will be the first to tell you that Allen was constantly improving in college. He was greener-than-green those early days as a Cowboy.
Said Bohl, “He could run sideways, be 55 yards out and throw a dart in the end zone. And yet with some of the throws you think would be a little bit easier, sometimes his numbers weren’t efficient. Now, he made up for that in our game because he could make so many big plays. He may walk out of a game and throw 54 percent and then you look at the number of throws he had to the number of touchdowns and yards per attempt and they’re off the chart. But he did need to improve. I think some of that came from changing a mentality of being a gunslinger to being more of a refined quarterback. Coach (Brent) Vigen did a great job with him here. But I think the Bills have done an even better job of continuing to refine his skills. That’s all part of growing up.”
Overall, these looked like two quarterbacks heading opposite directions. Roethlisberger had a rough night under-throwing receivers. That pick-six was ugly, too. The Steelers aren’t at full strength on defense — getting linebacker Vince Williams back from the COVID list will help — but they’ve got to be worried about their offense after back-to-back duds. Wideout Diontae Johnson, the team’s best player of late, had two early drops and it was like he disappeared from the offense completely. That shouldn’t happen.
Speaking of that Texans playoff loss, here’s one other nugget I wasn’t able to fit into our Allen series at Go Long. Running back Devin Singletary was pretty blunt on the subject, admitting the loss was still on his mind. Sometimes, soul-crushing losses like that can set a franchise back a season. Even two. Clearly, in Buffalo, that loss has been motivation for all the right reasons — Singletary made a point to re-watch the game last offseason himself.
He faced it head-on, like many Bills likely did.
One play in particular irked Singletary for a while — his 38-yard reception late in the fourth quarter. He wishes he would’ve cut across the field.
“I still have that nasty taste in my mouth,” Singletary said. “I haven’t really gotten over it yet. It’s still in my mouth. But it’s all good. You use that as fuel. … Mentally, we’re going to be stronger. We know what it takes to get there and we just have to keep working. Because we know we’re better than that game. We felt like we were supposed to win that game.”
At this rate, Buffalo will host that first playoff game.
Its quarterback should look a lot different in that game, too.
What matters most in Tampa
We probably should not forget about Tom Brady this time of year. Things have not gone perfectly down in Tampa. Far too often, it seems like Bruce Arians wants to run one offense (pressing the defense vertically) and Brady would like to run another (death by a million paper cuts). But for all of the oxygen wasted on that debate, it’s pretty clear there’s enough talent on the Bucs offense for the two to meet in the middle and score enough points.
The real conversation we should be having is on defense. For a good two-month stretch, Todd Bowles’ unit looked Super Bowl-bound. Then, came the 38-point meltdown against the Saints. Then, they surrendered 376 yards to Jared Goff. Then, poor Carlton Davis was embarrassed by Tyreek Hill.
A win over the Minnesota Vikings hardly is reason to breathe a sigh of relief but this Bucs defense looked like itself again.
Tampa Bay held the Vikings to 14 points. Dalvin Cook never busted loose on his 22 attempts — his longest carry of the day went for 14 yards. And — most importantly — the Bucs sacked Kirk Cousins six times and hit him 12 times with 10 (!) different players recording at least one pressure, per Next Gen Stats. Ndamukong Suh had nine and Shaquil Barrett had six. If they’re harassing quarterbacks like this in the playoffs, the Bucs can beat anyone.
With the game still in doubt — Minnesota trailing 23-14 but threatening inside the 10 — Cousins had three defenders in his face before he even finished his play-action fake. Antoine Winfield Jr. (feel old?) timed up his blitz perfectly, Cousins had no clue he was coming, and the rookie chopped the ball loose. Cousins fell on it. And the next play, a third and goal from the 20, Cousins was sacked again.
The 48-yard field goal attempt was wide right. Game over.
An elite pass rush just changes everything. The Bucs have one.
“It was hunting time for the defensive line,” head coach Bruce Arians said at his postgame presser. “I just thought we got after him. Our secondary played good. We got after Kirk. He didn’t stand in the pocket very often very long. That’s what we can do. If we get rid of the running game, get ‘em in a two-score game, that in the ballgame we should be getting after him.”
It’s all about being hot and healthy in December. With only Atlanta (twice) and Detroit left on the schedule, the Buccaneers should be both.
The MDF (Mahomes Detonation Factor)
Everything can be going wrong. Patrick Mahomes can be throwing picks. The defending champions can be trailing 10-0 and all of a sudden, boom, the Kansas City Chiefs are leaving you in the dust.
I cannot remember any team with any quarterback with the ability to just detonate like this.
It feels like you’re watching a basketball game and basketball, as the saying goes, is a game of runs. Before you can even call a timeout to figure out what the hell’s going on, the Chiefs have the “40 Minutes of Hell”-like, full-court press on you and it’s suffocating. It feels impossible to even get the ball across halfcourt. There’s literally nothing you can do.
Some skeptics might look at Mahomes’ three interceptions Sunday and declare he’s no longer the MVP frontrunner. Here’s thinking Sunday should solidify his case because of that innate ability to drain opponents of all hope, all life. Their 33-27 win over Miami wasn’t nearly that close with the Chiefs flipping that 10-0 deficit (in the middle of the second quarter) into a demoralizing 30-10 lead (by the middle of the third quarter). Seriously, it’s like the Chiefs can lollygag for any amount of time and win going away.
Mahomes backpedals and backpedals, waits and waits, and yawns and eats some steak with ketchup — with a defender or two right in his face — before releasing the ball at the last second to average a whopping 11.6 yards per attempt on Sunday.
There are so many plays to choose from. He threw for 393 yards. This play, a 15-yarder to Sammy Watkins, might’ve been my favorite. Check it out here at the 6:04 mark of the video. It’s comical. Tyreek Hill motions behind him. He fakes a one-handed flip to Travis Kelce. And then Mahomes glides right up into the teeth of the Dolphins defense to hit Watkins.
Imagine being Brian Flores. He’s been a Coach of the Year candidate all season, flustering the likes of Jared Goff (65.9 rating) and Jimmy Garoppolo (15.7 rating) with ease to keep Miami in the playoff picture. And, for a while there, his complex scheme seemed to be working against the high-powered Chiefs, too — Jerome Baker even took Mahomes down for a 30-yard sack on third down.
Next thing he knows, Flores has zero answers. None.
Because nobody ever does.
Clarity in the NFC
It was not pretty but a not pretty win was exactly what the doctor ordered for the Arizona Cardinals.
One of the NFL’s most exciting offenses seemed to come to a screeching halt with three-straight losses but, on Sunday, Kyler Murray and co. had a very bleary-eyed, callous-palmed, dirt-in-the-fingernails 26-7 win over the surging New York Giants we haven’t seen out of them in years. Murray threw for 244 yards, ran for 47 and was sacked only once with no turnovers. The defense? Daniel Jones had only 11 completions and was sacked six times — five by Haason Reddick. Five!
After going five games without one sack or one QB hit, Reddick wrecked the Giants’ offense. He said he cried after this one, and why not? The Cardinals (7-6) needed this win and can now get a little distance from Minnesota (6-7) and Chicago (6-7), who play each other next week. As for that NFC East slugfest (or pillow fight, depending on your vantage point), Washington now has a game up on the Giants.
At the top? Green Bay’s now in the No. 1 spot. There won’t be any fans in the stands but if the Packers can hang onto that spot over New Orleans, you have to think that the cold weather will be a massive advantage. Drew Brees has played light years better in his home dome than anywhere else through his career. Speaking from experience, I can promise you that Wisconsin cold is just a different cold. There is absolutely no way to prepare for it. (I think I got frostbite just thinking about it again here.)
What a 2020 it’s been for Giants safety Logan Ryan, from creating his own training camp while unemployed to all the death threats to his wife’s emergency surgery. Here’s that story at Go Long, in case you missed it. I wanted to circle back on Ryan quick here because there are, no doubt, tons of people around the country who admire Ryan for reasons that have nothing to do with football. He and his wife founded “RARF,” the Ryan Animal Rescue Foundation, that promotes pet adoption throughout the country.
It’s a fantastic cause, one Ryan knows he’ll be fighting for long after he’s done playing football.
Ryan has donated six-figures to animal welfare and says he’ll match any donation anybody does.
“We’re always trying to make rescuing cool,” Ryan says. “Rescue animals — the animals that got kicked to the curb, the animals that weren’t bred and weren’t cute to do this or they didn’t do that or the puppy mill got broke up and now they’re in a shelter looking for a second chance — I want to make those animals cool. That’s our whole mantra right now: Rescuing is cool. It’s the way to go. It’s the trendy thing. And it’s not even trendy. It is the way. We’re cancelling cancel culture. We’re cancelling breeding like cigarettes. Like, it’s not cool to do anymore. It’s not cool to breed animals.
“For me to be a young black athlete and the face of rescue, I’m probably the only one. Usually, it’s older, middle-aged white women of money who donate — nothing’s wrong with that. Cathy Bissell, so many people I’ve met like that do tremendous work. But I’m the only one like me in this field. That I’ve seen. On the forefront. Who actually does it. So, we’re working on grants and thinking of ways to get minorities involved. Help young back and Spanish and Latino girls and boys get into animal rescue and animal welfare.”
This is a passion, not a side project. Ryan adds that he and his wife make 100 percent of the decisions. Rescues have been doing great through the pandemic — with people looking for a companion — so the Ryans have shifted attention, now, toward retention.
As written in Friday’s feature, Ryan and his wife were turned down at 30-plus apartments in New Jersey because they owned a pit bull. One good thing did come of that all, though. After he brought that story to the public, Ryan started a “breed restrictions are wrong” movement. His foundation now has a database where people can find apartments in their communities that do allow pit bulls and/or other large breeds.
What about those Ohio State defensive linemen? Joey Bosa. Nick Bosa. Chase Young. All absolute monsters in the NFL. Young looked like a wide receiver streaking into the end zone on his scoop and score. On another play, he actually dropped into coverage before then cannon-blasting into backfield for a sack. He’s going to be a problem for a very long time.
Jalen Hurts exceeded the wildest of expectations against one of the NFL’s best defenses. He was good enough through the air (167 yards and a TD with zero sacks and zero picks) but he drove the Saints mad on the ground, too, with 106 rushing yards in a 24-21 win. The Eagles have a franchise-altering decision to make at quarterback this coming offseason with $128 Million Dollar Quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles cannot easily move on from Wentz’s deal — it doesn’t even technically kick in until 2021. And they’ve made it seem, at least publicly, like they view this benching more as a reset than a transition. For good reason, too. Financially, the Eagles have every reason to do everything in their power to fix Wentz — as covered at length by the local media here. Of course, if Hurts keeps playing like this things could get very interesting. He was taken in the second round for a reason.
Desperate times in Chicago. The general manager, the head coach, the quarterback, everybody is on the hot seat. For one day, anyway, Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy and Mitchell Trubisky had a reason to smile. They ended a six-game losing streak with a blowout win over the hapless Texans. The optics were good. Trubisky threw for 267 yards and three scores with a 126.7 rating against one of the quarterbacks fans wish the Bears drafted instead (Watson). Is it all too little too late for this trio? Maybe. But we’ve also seen coaches fight for their jobs before this time of year, and stick.
It’s time everyone considers the Indianapolis Colts legitimate contenders. That was one absolute 44-27 demolition of a win over the Las Vegas Raiders. Right when most all thought Jonathan Taylor was in the doghouse, he emerges and smashes the Packers for 114 total yards, Texans for 135 and Raiders for 165. And when Philip Rivers has a productive running game to work with, he’s still dangerous at 39 years old.
A casual 215-yard rushing day for Derrick Henry. He’s up to 1,532 on the season with six games to go. We are not a math website but that means if he averages 156 a game these final three outings, he’ll be the eighth player in NFL history to eclipse 2,000.
Few players in recent Packers history have been quite as polarizing with a fan base as Marquez Valdes-Scantling, with the occasional drop and his overtime fumble in Indy. But MVS just keeps coming back. Last week, his block helped spring Aaron Jones on a clinching touchdown. On Sunday, he hauled in a back-shoulder throw for a score in Detroit. He’s got the size to make that type of catch and the speed to burn you deep, too. It just feels like he’ll need to make a play with the season on the line in January and I think the Packers are pretty confident he’ll make that play, too. Kudos to Matt LaFleur for sticking with the former 174th overall pick all along. Such trust is going to pay off.