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An Arrowhead meltdown
However you slice this numbing defeat, Sean McDermott is to blame. Meanwhile, Josh Allen is a star. Is the head coach holding back his quarterback?
When dealing with head coaches who prefer to say sweet nothings at press conferences, we don’t have a choice but to play mind reader. When coaches treat strategy like nuclear codes, we’re left to search for magic words. So, here we are. I suppose Sean McDermott isn’t obligated to explain why his team collapsed in such soul-sucking fashion those final 13 seconds of its 42-36 overtime playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s his prerogative.
But let’s not forget he’s not merely having a conversation with reporters via Zoom. He is speaking to the fans who fill the team’s stadium and herd the airport after wins and losses, fans who’ve endured an unfathomable amount of heartbreak yet continue to pour their hard-earned money into the business of the Buffalo Bills. (Not to mention that new stadium on the horizon.)
Seventy-two hours later, there’s been nothing. An explanation for what’ll forever go down as “13 Seconds” should be more requirement than nuisance. Given one more chance to explain what transpired at his season-ending press conference Tuesday, this was McDermott’s response:
“Our execution, I wish was different. Just like I said after the game, I wish our execution was different.”
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What a word. Traditionally, this is code for players being at fault. When coaches believe it’s the players who screwed up, not the X’s and O’s they designed, this is the handy-dandy verbiage. On the Packers beat, through several January collapses, we heard the drumbeat often from Mike McCarthy. So, into this Bills offseason, many questions remain unanswered. If we are to assume McDermott is putting those 13 seconds on the players, does that mean it was relayed to either special teams coordinator Heath Farwell and/or kicker Tyler Bass to squib the kickoff and that message never got through? Perhaps. Tyreek Hill (19 yards) and Travis Kelce (25 yards), of course, caught passes with shocking ease to tee up the game-tying field goal.
Kelce mic’d up in the moment is wild. The Chiefs weren’t only exceptionally calm those 13 seconds. They noticed the Bills playing soft coverage and took full advantage.
“They play it like that, that seam is open,” Kelce says after the first play.
There’s a loud “Do it ‘Kelc!’” from Mahomes presnap and then it’s as easy as catching a football from your Dad in the backyard:
Cornerback Levi Wallace failed to use proper leverage playing so far outside. With nobody even lined up wide, he still stayed out wide. As in “I’ll take one beer and a popcorn” wide near the concessions. That would’ve made sense if the Chiefs didn’t have timeouts, but they had two. They could use the whole field. With ample time to properly set up an alignment, Wallace was either told to line up in that spot or the coaches failed to communicate exactly where he should be lined up. Again, this wasn’t a helter-skelter situation. Buffalo had time. Rough those two players up, double-team them, do… something. In the prevent of all prevent alignments — across the board — the Bills handed KC free yards. And if McDermott and his defensive staff did flat-out put the players in this terrible spot, I’d certainly be pissed to hear “execution” as a player right now.
Yet under the guise of “execution,” technically, anything goes. Now that the offseason has begun, we shouldn’t hold our breath for a full explanation. However you slice it, parse it, agonize over it, these three plays are three unmitigated disasters.
The takeaway here is that those 13 seconds are another painful reminder that Sean McDermott is too often holding back one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Josh Allen has zero business losing this football game. In a pressure-packed moment, he was marvelous in completing 27 of 37 passes for 329 yards, four touchdowns, no picks and more clutch moments to remember. The meteoric rise of Allen has raised the bar to a standard the Bills have only dreamt of for two decades.
To get over the hump, they’ll need more from his coach in these playoff moments.
It’s easy to write this game off as an instant classic to be celebrated by all. This is one we’ll be talking about for years, and it no doubt had your heart pounding even if you didn’t care who won. But this is the sort of moment that defines a head coach, let alone one who’s defensive-minded. Not only that, but a coach who cut his teeth in the defensive backfield. Why again were the safeties playing so far back, too?
The Chiefs made Buffalo look silly most of the night, too, in totaling 552 yards, 30 first downs and going 9 of 14 on combined third/fourth downs. The Chiefs are a juggernaut and Mahomes — yes, the one that got away — is the greatest player on the planet, but does that mean we should all just write the night off as aw-shucks, instant-classic bad luck? The San Francisco 49ers made Aaron Rodgers look like a cross between Todd Collins and Billy Joe Hobert in winning, 13-10, at Lambeau Field.
This was a breezy day for Mahomes, who was only sacked twice, hit two other times and also scampered for 69 yards and a touchdown.
Let’s be sure to give credit where credit is due. We wrote in late November that the Bills were a soft football team after they suffered a 41-15 pounding at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts. Overall, they showed mental toughness in nearly coming back to beat Tampa Bay on the road, blistering New England twice and going toe-to-toe with the Chiefs. The Bills even discovered a run game out of thin air with both Allen and running back Devin Singletary supplying some needed physicality.
McDermott deserves credit for this. The season appeared to be careening off a cliff and the Bills did make the final eight.
There were still too many discouraging moments in this playoff loss, the sort of loss that makes you wonder if Allen will need to shine in spite of his head coach.
The Bills finished the regular season with the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL, but that was boosted by feasting on a weak schedule. Head coaches and quarterbacks should both justifiably be judged by how they perform in the playoffs. Allen took a massive step forward in this department this January, while McDermott took a massive step backward. That’s problematic long-term, especially with the Bills likely to lose offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, a coach who has overseen Allen’s maturation from Day 1 to today. The fear would be that the Bills become the Russell Wilson-Pete Carroll Seattle Seahawks. For most of Wilson’s career, one way or another, he’s often been held back by his head coach. They’ve been a team that too often prefers to punt wins away.
In a shootout like this, every possession is so valuable. The Bills had two questionable punts, KC had one and that also might’ve been the difference in the game. To start the game, McDermott went for it fourth and 2 from the 50 and fourth and goal from 1 and, boom, it paid off.
Then, he punted on fourth and 4 from his 49 and fourth and 1 from his 34. Both decisions led to Chiefs touchdowns. Quite possibly, McDermott thought this was becoming a different type of game in the moment but why overthink it? It’s Mahomes. It’s Allen. Of course, both teams are scoring in the 30s. Punting was akin to turning the ball over this night. With the heater Allen was on, those two fourth-and-shorts — as friend of the program, Kurt Warner, would say — are “layups.”
Brief moments of not believing in his own MVP-caliber quarterback continue to cost McDermott.
And about overtime. Sure, each team probably should have a chance to score a touchdown. This still could’ve been the five-year culmination, the perfect climax for the defense McDermott built. It’s loaded with veterans and high picks. For the 2021 season, the Bills had 23.08 percent of their salary cap allocated to the defensive line alone — second-most in the NFL. They’ve also drafted four defensive linemen in the first two rounds since 2019.
The investments were made for this moment and Mahomes drove 75 yards in eight plays without breaking a sweat.
Andy Reid took his old assistant (and Leslie Frazier) to school.
Now, the Bills have seven months to stew over the loss, a loss that’s more of a gut-punch than the Music City Miracle. When we had wide receiver Eric Moulds on the Go Long Podcast, he said he still believed the winner of that Buffalo-Tennessee game was Super Bowl-bound. He might be right. That ‘99 defense was loaded. Here’s an oral history of that defining moment in franchise history, too. If you lived in Western New York, you remember where you were when Frank Wycheck threw the, uh, lateral to Kevin Dyson.
Thirteen Seconds, however, leaves a deeper bruise.
This tends to be a very Rob Johnson-friendly space. But, no, Johnson is not Josh Allen.
In Josh Allen, this 2021 Bills team would’ve instantly been the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl if they squib and make a tackle. It’s a shame Allen will not have that opportunity given how exceptional he was playing. In theory, yeah, he should have more bites at the apple but nothing’s guaranteed for the game’s best quarterbacks. After Rodgers won the Super Bowl in 2010, everyone assumed he was only getting started. He hasn’t even been back to the game since and might’ve ended his Packers career with a whimper last weekend.
McDermott said on Tuesday that hopefully this is all part of the team’s story. Maybe he’s right.
But this is a strange league and no two teams are ever the same.
The 2021 Bills had an opportunity and, in 13 seconds, they vanquished that opportunity.