Tag Archives: Buffalo Bills

Bills Defense No Match for Watson’s Magic

It had been almost exactly a year before.  The playoffs following the 2018 season began in Houston on January 5, 2019.  Coming off an 11-5 season that saw them win the AFC South, the Texans welcomed the Indianapolis Colts.

By halftime, the Texans trailed 21-0, on their way to a 21-7 loss.  The Colts had rolled up 85 rushing yards by halftime, on their way to 200 rushing yards.  Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson had managed just 90 passing yards.  He would finish his first playoff game completing 29 of 49 passes for just 235 yards (just 4.8 yards per attempted pass), with only one completion accounting for as many as 20 yards.

With deep threat Will Fuller on the sidelines, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins was getting extra attention from the Colt defense.  He finished that game with just 5 catches for 37 yards.

But that was last year.

Fast forward to January 4, 2020.  Again, the Texans had won their division (they were 10-6 this year), and again they would host the very first playoff game, spreading out the welcome mats for the Buffalo Bills – a team making only its second trip to the playoffs in a couple of decades.  Surely, things would be better this time around.

And they were.  Instead of a 21-0 deficit, Houston went into the locker room trailing just 13-0.  The Bills had rolled up an even 100 rushing yards, while sacking Watson 4 times and limiting him to just 49 passing yards, none longer than 11 yards – the Texans managed just 4 first downs and 81 yards of offense during that first half.

Yes, Fuller was out of the lineup again, and Hopkins – seeing coverage from Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White – was off to another tenuous start.  At the half, DeAndre was still looking for his first reception.

You will forgive the Houston faithful for feeling that they had seen this game before.

But things were about to get worse.

Not quite five minutes into the second half, Hopkins caught his first pass pf the game – and promptly fumbled it, giving Buffalo possession on Houston’s 38.

With 6:46 left in the third quarter, Buffalo sat on Houston’s 12-yard line with a third-and-eight.  They were one intermediate pass play away from sealing the home team’s fate.

A Legend Returns

Toward the end of October, Houston’s playoff future took a sizeable hit, when the Texans’ faithful learned that five-time first-team All Pro and three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt’s season would end early for the third time in the last four years.  The great J.J. had sustained another pectoral tear.

But reports of his demise would turn out to be somewhat exaggerated.  As the season wound down and the Texans were making their playoff push, Watt made it known that he believed he could be back on the field for the start of the playoffs – and true to his word, there he was.  In body, anyway.

To this point of the game, his production had been about what one might have expected from a player who had missed ten weeks.  Thirty-eight and a half minutes into the first Wildcard playoff game, Watt had 0 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 pressures – 0 anything.  Until this moment, with the season flickering in the wind.

That Moment

On this third-down play, Watt shot around Buffalo tackle Chris Clark before he could blink.  Josh Allen had just enough time to take the snap and look up before he was crushed for an 8-yard loss.  The home crowd – starving for something to cheer about – erupted.  Buffalo would still add the field goal that made the score 16-0.  Now, with the third quarter winding down, it would be up to Watson and the offense.

On cue, Deshaun lead the offense 55 yards in 7 plays, bringing them to a third-and-eight at the Buffalo 30.  The seasons of these two teams would pivot sharply on the next two plays.

On third-and-eight, the Bills blitzed from the edges, with Micah Hyde pouring in from the offensive right, and Matt Milano circling around from the left.  Both blitzers would get home.

Running back Duke Johnson tried to pick up Hyde, but Micah ran right through him, pushing Johnson back into Watson’s lap. Milano had it much easier, as no one blocked him.  Left tackle Laremy Tunsil had every opportunity, but was so focused on Jerry Hughes’ inside stunt that he didn’t even see Milano sprinting into the backfield behind him.  Both would end up hitting Watson, but they would be too late as Deshaun got the throw off less than a second before the contact came.

With extra rushers coming, White – in single coverage on Hopkins, in a close split to the right of the formation – took an inside position and backed off about seven yards.  He retreated even more as the play began – responding to DeAndre’s vertical stem – until Hopkins had pushed him past the first-down marker.  At this point, Hopkins cut to the sideline to receive Deshaun’s perfect pass.

With the first down secured, Deshaun faked a handoff to Carlos Hyde into the center of the line, causing an involuntary step to the right on the part of the entire defense.  Watson then pulled the ball in and sprinted around right end.

With Hopkins shielding off White down the sideline, and fullback Cullen Gillaspia throwing a sealing block on Buffalo’s Hyde to set the edge, an alley opened up for Watson as he sped toward the goal line.

He got as close as the six-yard line before Jordan Poyer plowed into him.  Defensive end Trent Murphy jumped on the backs of both at the five.  Micah Hyde finally showed up at the one – but it was, for Buffalo, an exercise in futility.  Watson was not to be denied, as he dove over the goal line, dragging Buffalo Bills with him.  It was the first of two “magical” Deshaun Watson plays that would decide the contest.

Yes, Watson.  The game was definitely afoot.

These were the first of 19 consecutive points that Houston would score, sending them briefly ahead, 19-16.  A late drive by Buffalo led to a tying field goal with five seconds left, and the game was headed to overtime.

A Little Overtime Magic

After each team held the ball for one fruitless possession, Houston began the final drive of the game from their own 17 with 9:02 left in (what would turn out to be) the only overtime session.  Less than five minutes later, Watson would turn in the play that this game will be remembered for.  Actually, though, the Bills lost this game four plays earlier.

Again, it would be a third-down opportunity gone awry.

There is 6:56 left in the period.  The Texans were still backed up on their own 19, facing a third-and-eighteen.  Any kind of stop here – and third-and-18 is about as comfortable a defensive position as one can hold – probably gives the ball back to Buffalo somewhere near midfield.

Playing almost a prevent defense, Buffalo backed six defenders to about the 40-yard line, leaving a 20-yard gap between the four pass rushers and the rest of the defense.  Circling out of the backfield, Duke Johnson found himself all alone as he gathered in Watson’s short pass – after which, of course, he began to streak immediately toward the first-down sticks, running headlong into the converging Buffalo defense.  The two forces met at about the 30-yard line, two yards short of the line to gain.

At that point, Duke picked a spot about equidistance between Tremaine Edmunds and Siran Neal, hitting that small gap with enough force to plow through those two gentlemen for the final two yards needed to sustain the drive.

Let’s be honest.  When the other guy converts a third-and-eighteen against you, you don’t deserve to win.

Four plays later, Houston is facing a second-and-six on Buffalo’s 44.  Into the game for Houston came a sixth offensive lineman (Roderick Johnson) to add to the pass protection.  Buffalo responded by rushing seven.  Coming off the corner un-blocked was Neal, who stormed unabated toward his target.  On the other side, Roderick Johnson’s attention was divided between Milano (again) and Murphy, allowing Milano to skirt rather easily around him.  He, too, was speeding towards Watson.

Neal arrived first, hitting Watson squarely in the back.  It was a twisting blow that forced Deshaun’s back foot off the ground and tilted him severely to the right.  Without any doubt, Watson would have gone down had that been the only blow sustained.  But before Deshaun could fall, Milano arrived and hit him from the same side – his right – that he was about to fall to.  Milano’s hit was exactly what Watson needed to stabilize him.  At the same time – like a human physics experiment – the energy from the two would-be-tacklers transferred through Watson’s body to each other, leaving Deshaun standing upright, while Neal and Milano ended up on the turf.

Now, Deshaun was rolling out of the pocket to the right when he looked up and happened to see running back Taiwan Jones standing all alone along the right sideline.

Taiwan Who?

Taiwan Jones had been the 125th pick in the 2011 draft, going to Oakland where he spent six unremarkable seasons.  He spent the next two seasons (2017-2018) in equal obscurity in Buffalo.

Now 31 years old, he drifted to Houston this year, where he was seen almost exclusively on special teams (the same role he had held in Oakland and Buffalo).  His only previous offensive action this season came in the meaningless Week 17 loss to Tennessee.  Jones had his only 9 carries and caught his only pass of the season in that game.

In the Wildcard game, he somehow managed to see the field for two offensive plays – one of them the biggest play of the season so far for the Texans.

His presence of the field put safety Micah Hyde in a quandary.  Jones lined up wide right, and Hyde lined up opposite him.  Jones was clearly his responsibility.  But, near to the line to that side was Hopkins – who had been getting the better of White for most of the second half.

With extra rushers coming, Hyde was obviously concerned about Hopkins.  Even as the play started and Micah began to retreat, he had his eyes on Hopkins.  DeAndre quickly got outside position on White, and began hurtling up-field.  Seeing this develop, Hyde abandoned Jones and provided tight inside-outside coverage on Hopkins.  Which was all well and good, but . . .

Seven or so yards up field, Jones stopped and settled into the right flat.  Noticing this, Hyde dropped his coverage of Hopkins.  The problem was at this point he was a good ten yards away from the man he was supposed to be covering.  For about three agonizing seconds Micah stood in no man’s land, no longer covering either receiver as Watson was rolling out of trouble in the pocket.  At about the same instant that Watson noticed Jones, Hyde came to get him at top speed.

The rest would be for the highlight reels.

Hyde was still nine yards away when Jones caught the ball and easily eluded Micah.  Before him was a whole lot of green – at least for the next 34 yards.  The next play would be the field goal that ended the contest, 22-19 Houston (gamebook) (summary).

More Watson

The magical plays will retain most of the attention from this game.  I am more impressed with the rest of Watson’s performance than with those two plays.

Deshaun belongs to that breed of improvisational quarterbacks who are most dangerous out of the pocket.  One of Buffalo’s defensive objectives would surely have been to keep Deshaun in the pocket – and they managed this with great success.  The two big plays described were about the only times Deshaun escaped contain.  The rest of the game, Buffalo was very disciplined in keeping Watson in the pocket.

And that is where he beat them from.

Throughout the game, Buffalo presented Deshaun with shifting defensive looks, mixing in healthy doses of blitz (the Bills blitzed on exactly one third of Watson’s dropbacks – 13 of 39).  The challenge was for Deshaun to process the defense and make the correct throw before the pressure got home.

And the pressure was significant.  When he wasn’t missing stunts, tackle Laremy Tunsil was pushed around by Jerry Hughes, who recorded 3 of Buffalo’s 7 sacks.  Deshaun was also forced to scramble 7 times.  The Houston offensive line was far from dominant – a concern as they prepare for Kansas City.

But when Watson did have a chance to read the Buffalo defense, he did so with exceptional success.  Here are a couple of examples.

With 2:48 left in the first quarter, Buffalo gave Watson a pre-snap blitz look, with two linebackers in the A-gaps.  At the snap, the potential blitzers backed into cover-2.  But before Lorenzo Alexander could find his zone, Deshaun deciphered the defensive intent and completed an 11-yard pass to Darren Fells.

Later, in the third quarter, the Bills tried the reverse, showing cover-2, but morphing into a blitz.  Again, Watson analyzed the situation quickly.  Lining up in the secondary to give the cover-2 look, Micah Hyde actually had man coverage on DeAndre Carter – split off to the left.  Realizing that Hyde couldn’t get over to Carter’s flat route in time, Watson was throwing the ball to DeAndre almost as soon as Hyde was moving toward him.

For the game, Watson completed 20 of 25 for 247 yards and a touchdown – a 121.2 passer rating.  He was 8 for 10 for 144 yards when Buffalo blitzed, and 12 for 15 for 103 yards and the touchdown when they didn’t.

It bears pointing out that throughout the season, Buffalo maintained one of the NFL’s elite pass defenses.  Opposing passers managed just a 78.8 rating against them – third best in football – and the 9.8 yards they allowed per completion was the second best figure in the league.  Last Saturday afternoon, Mr. Watson answered a significant challenge.

This is how good Deshaun can be.  The question, now, is can he – and the rest of his Houston teammates – be this good on consecutive weeks.  Sustaining their high level of play has been a season-long struggle for this team – and things won’t get any easier as they now travel to Kansas City.

Kansas City is something of an enigma, itself.  They are a high-powered offense that can run the ball when they remember to.  Defensively, they started off poorly.  Through their first ten games, opposing passers rated at 92.9.  They showed a decisive vulnerability against the run – yielding 148.1 yards a game, 5.1 yards per rush, and 12 rushing touchdowns.  Seven of their first ten opponents scored at least 20 points against them, with four of them scoring at least 30.

During the six-game winning streak that they closed the season with, the Chiefs gave twenty points only once – allowing a total of just 69 points in those games.  The last six quarterbacks they’ve faced have thrown 5 touchdowns against 10 interceptions as part of a 63.5 rating.  Meanwhile running success has dropped to 95 yards per game and just 2 rushing touchdowns given over those games.

Of course, these teams in general (Chargers, Raiders, Patriots, Broncos and Bears) have been given to offensive struggles, so it’s difficult to say how improved the defense really is.

Can Houston beat the Chiefs?  Well, they actually did back in Week Six – and in Kansas City no less.  The Texans ran for 192 yards in that game.  The question is, can they approach that again?

I still have a hard time trusting Houston, so I will be surprised to see them win this game.  But they certainly have the talent to get it done.

Historical Note:

The most famous NFL matchup between Houston and Buffalo came on January 3, 1993 – 17 years ago.  That was the greatest comeback in football history as Buffalo erased a 35-3 third quarter lead on its way to a 41-38 conquest of the Houston franchise (then, of course, they were the Oilers – the franchise that has become the Tennessee Titans).  As all-time comebacks go, the Texans’ 16-point comeback on Saturday pales in comparison to the one authored Frank Reich all those years ago.  But for now, the Texans will count it as partial payback.

No One Beats the South But the South

Five of the eight teams that took the field for Wildcard Weekend represented the southern divisions of their respective conferences.  The AFC South sent Jacksonville and Tennessee and the NFC South was represented by New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta.  Of the five, only Carolina will not be advancing to the Divisional round as they were the only Southern team to play another Southern team.  Their 31-26 loss in New Orleans marking the third time they had lost to the Saints this season.

But – from an array of compelling numbers coming out of these games, the most compelling just might be 88.  That was the number of rushing yards that Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles amassed.  Those 88 yards were the most by any player in the game.  In fact, the quarterbacks combined for 119 rushing yards on 18 attempts (6.6 yards per).  All of the running backs in the game combined for 166 yards on 48 carries (3.4 yards per carry).

But what makes that number 88 so compelling is that it is one yard more than his total passing yards for the game.  Blake finished the passing portion of his evening with 87 passing yards on 12 completions in 23 attempts.  He averaged just 3.78 yards per attempted pass, and just 7.25 per completion.

And won the game 10-3 (gamebook).

The Jaguars have been a team I have been reluctant to buy into all year – primarily because I wondered if they could muster a sufficient passing attack to win a game against a quality opponent on a day when their running game stalled and their defense gave up some points.  Sunday against Buffalo, Jacksonville held the ball for only 9:49 of the first half.  Their three leading receivers on the season (Keelan Cole, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns) had no pass receptions among them, and each had only one pass tossed in his direction.  In the game’s second half, Blake threw only 8 passes while running 7 times.

Of all the winners from the Wildcard Round, Jacksonville is clearly the least impressive.

They won because the defense smothered Tyrod Taylor’s passing attack.  Taylor finished with a 44.2 rating.  Of the 37 passes he threw, only 17 were completed – and that for just 134 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  His yards per pass attempted (3.62) and per completion (7.88) were very similar to Bortles.

Maybe we’ll just say it was excellent defense.  Sure, we’ll stick with that.

The Jaguars live to fight another round, but the looming challenge in Pittsburgh is much tougher than the one they’ve left behind.

More Defense in the Coliseum

The 2016 edition of the Atlanta Falcons was an offensive juggernaut.  In seemingly effortless fashion, they blazed their way to 504 regular season points (an impressive 31.5 points a game) and then added 108 more in three playoff games.  Along with their point total, they led the entire NFL in highest average per pass (8.2 yards).  They were second in total yards and touchdown passes.  They were third in both passing yards and rushing yards.

Quarterback Matt Ryan finished with a frightening 117.1 passer rating; top receiver Julio Jones missed two games, but still finished with 1409 receiving yards; and running back Devonta Freeman piled up 1079 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards a carry.

Very deep, very balanced, and very scary were the 2016 Falcons.  On offense.

The defense, however, lagged.  Their rankings were a much more modest twenty-seventh in points allowed and twenty-fifth in yards allowed.  They ranked seventeenth against the run and twenty-eighth against the pass.  Opposing passers threw almost as many touchdown passes against them (31) as Ryan tossed for them (38), contributing to an opponent’s passer rating of 92.5 – much higher than you would expect to see against a contending team.

At various points this season, we’ve discussed some of the Falcons’ offensive struggles.  Although with much the same personnel, nothing has come quite so easily for them this year.  They checked in with 151 fewer points this year (353) and Ryan’s passer rating sank to 91.4 – still excellent, but much more mortal than 2016.  In their first playoff game this year they scored 26 points on 322 yards – both fairly pedestrian totals – in their 26-13 victory (gamebook).

But, while the offense has been up-and-down, over the last two weeks a surprising development has taken place.  As the end of the regular season has bridged into the playoffs, the Falcon defense – especially their pass defense – has become Atlanta’s most noteworthy unit.

Two weeks ago, they smothered Cam Newton and the Carolina passing game.  They allowed just 14 of his 34 passes to be completed, while harvesting three interceptions.  Newton’s passer rating was a humbling 31.5.  Then last week against a high-flying Rams team (on the Rams’ home field no less) they shackled Jared Goff with a 77.9 rating as Goff completed only 24 of 45 passes for 259 yards.

Over the last two weeks, two very dangerous passing attacks have combined for 38 completions in 79 attempts (48.1%) for 439 yards (5.56 yards per attempt).  Newton and Goff combined to throw 2 touchdown passes against 3 interceptions for a combined passer rating of 57.9.

Against the Rams, they were everywhere – blanketing LA’s receivers like few teams have been able to all year.  If this is who the Falcons are now, they presents a strong challenge to their remaining opponents.  The offense has been sporadic, but that explosive team from 2016 is still in there somewhere.  If they can play elite pass defense, it significantly raises their stock.

Of all the teams playing on Wild Card Weekend, the Falcons looked most like the team that could force its way into the Championship Round or beyond.

I still think, though, that this is a team that could be handled by the team that is willing to keep running the ball against them.  A defense that values speed and quickness might struggle to hold up for four quarters against a team that keeps running at them.  The Rams finished with 115 rushing yards in a game where they only ran the ball 16 times.

With a backup quarterback running the offense, Philadelphia may not have a balanced enough offense to hurt Atlanta with their running game.  Should the Falcons make it past the Eagles, it will be interesting to see what challenge awaits them in the Championship Game.

Adventures in Officiating

Officials – as you may have heard – are human, too.  Even the good ones make mistakes.  In the replay era, many of those mistakes can be caught, but not all.  When an officiating crew has a rough afternoon it’s bad enough.  When their bad day seems to tilt in favor of one of the teams, it can lead to significant frustration.

Unfortunately, three of Week Sixteen’s most important games were marred – to a greater or lesser degree – by curious officiating.

Kelvin Benjamin’s Touchdown that Wasn’t

Apparently the weekend’s most controversial call was the replay that overturned a touchdown that Buffalo’s Kelvin Benjamin seemed to score against New England.  Buffalo, here, is fighting for its playoff life and the Patriots are trying to tighten their grip on the number one seed in the AFC.

There are 6 seconds left in the first half, and New England is clinging to a 13-10 lead.  But the Bills have third-and-goal from the Patriot 4 yard line.

The Bills line up with three receivers bunched to quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s left, and Benjamin split out all by himself to the right, where he would be singled up against Patriot corner Stephon Gilmore.  Just before the snap, Gilmore backed up into the end zone in a position to hem Benjamin against the sideline.  Taylor lofted the ball to the very back right corner of the end zone, where Benjamin looked for all the world like he caught the pass that would give Buffalo the lead at the half.  Field Judge Steven Zimmer – with the play in front of him – was convinced enough to raise his arms for the touchdown.

Moments later – when the touchdown was reversed – there was consternation on the Buffalo sideline.  Yet, watching the replay, Kelvin didn’t catch the ball cleanly.  He reached with his right hand and batted the ball back toward him.  He did drag the left foot along the turf. But only while the ball was fluttering back toward his chest.  Once he secured the ball, Benjamin tried again to drag the toe.  But it hit against the heel of his right foot instead.

A lot of people in the NFL fandom get quite exercised when calls like this go New England’s way – and I get that.  Hating New England is a trendy position to take.  And this touchdown certainly could have stood.  It was exceedingly close.

But there was sufficient evidence for an overturn – and Buffalo settled for the field goal and the halftime tie.

Patriot quarterback Tom Brady threw only 9 passes in the second half – completing all of them for 105 yards and another touchdown.  He finished the game completing 21 of 28 passes (75%).  Meanwhile, the Patriot running attack ground away at the Bills.  Running back Dion Lewis rolled up 83 yards in the second half on his way to a 129-yard afternoon, and the Patriots finished with 193 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns to finish off Buffalo 37-16 (gamebook).  The Bills finished 0-for-4 in the red zone, and scored no offensive touchdowns on the day.  Even if the replay had upheld the Benjamin touchdown, it’s exceedingly hard to beat the Patriots scoring just one offensive touchdown.

Merry Christmas to the Los Angeles Rams

In Tennessee the fading Titans spent Christmas Eve struggling for their playoff lives matched against a Rams team that is right in the thick of the NFC playoff picture.  In fact, a victory in this contest would punch the Rams’ playoff ticket for the first time since 2004.  The officials (it was Walt Anderson’s crew) didn’t do the home team any favors.

At the center of the controversy was a handful of penalties that should have been called, but weren’t.  Two of them came on Titan punts.  Twice in the second half, Rams special team players pummeled Tennessee punter Brett Kern.  Both times Anderson claimed the kicks were partially blocked.  It is unlikely the first one was.  It is clear the second one was not.

That second missed roughing-the-kicker penalty was probably the more costly of the two.  There was 7:31 left in the game and Tennessee trailed by four.  They had fourth-and-ten at midfield.  The call there gives them a first down on the Ram 35-yard line.

If there was a call more galling to the Titan faithful than either of the missed roughing-the-kicker penalties, it could well have been the missed false start.

There is 7:13 left in the third quarter, with the game tied at 13.  The Rams are on the Tennessee 13-yard line, and have decided to go for it on fourth-and-one.  As they lined up to run the play, tight-end Tyler Higbee – lined up to the left side – flinched.  All of the Titan defenders on that side of the field started pointing and leaping desperately – trying to will the officials to throw a flag.

But they missed it.  False starts are almost never missed.  I don’t actually remember the last time I saw an offensive lineman get away with a false start.  But this one they missed.

Adding injury to insult, instead of being fourth-and-six (forcing a field goal try), the Rams ran the ball right into the area where the Tennessee defenders were flipping somersaults to draw the flag.  Ram running back Todd Gurley burst through the distracted defenders for a ten-yard gain.  On the next play, Jared Goff tossed the touchdown pass that gave Los Angeles the lead.

Sometimes It’s Best to Just Play

So.  Yes, it was an egregious error by the officials.  They should have stopped the play and assessed the penalty.  But increasingly the players are trying to officiate their games as well as playing them.  They spend endless energy reaching for their imaginary flags, as though they had some secret power over the officiating crew.  Usually it’s just harmless posing.  On this occasion, the Tennessee Titans would have been better served if they had just focused on stopping the play.  Had they stopped the Rams there, not only would Los Angeles not have scored the touchdown, but (since it was fourth down) they would not even have had the opportunity to kick the field goal.  That one stop – had Tennessee focused on it – may well have won them the game in spite of the officiating.

Sometimes, it’s best to just play.

There is one noteworthy exception to this rule, and that is the case of pass interference.  I like to believe this isn’t true, but I swear there are times when the official waits to see if the receiver complains before he throws the flag.

Of course, we can’t let this game pass without mention of the onside kick that wasn’t.

Immediately after Tennessee had tied the score at 20, they ran a hurry-up onside kick.  As soon as the official made it to the sideline after marking the ball for play – and while the Rams were still congregating on their sideline – the Titans rushed to the field and bounced an undefended on-side kick that they recovered around the fifty.

Unfortunately, they caught not only the Rams, but the officiating crew off-guard.  A flag was thrown.  A conference was held, and Walt and his crew decided that the play didn’t count because the Rams had called a time out.  Of course, they hadn’t – and after some further discussion the time out was restored to Los Angeles, but the play still never happened.  And this is probably just as well for the Titans, as one member of the kickoff team was certainly off-sides, at least half never set, and a couple were running forward with the kicker.

Still in all of this, Anderson and his crew seemed to be several ticks behind.  To some degree, they seemed that way the entire game.

Gurley’s Big Day

Of course, Tennessee might have won anyway if they had found an answer for running back Todd Gurley.  His 22 rushes for 118 yards added to his 10 catches for 158 yards.  He scored two touchdowns, one of them an 80-yard scoring play off of a screen pass.  It works out to 276 yards from scrimmage on 32 catches.  He was the driving force in Los Angeles’ 27-23 victory (gamebook).

Early Presents for the Saints

But of all the teams saddled with a lump of coal on Christmas Eve, the most frustrated may have been the Atlanta Falcons.  They spent the afternoon in New Orleans.

As the game began, Atlanta found itself trailing the Saints for the division lead by one game, and – since they had beaten the Saints two weeks earlier – a win here would give them the tie-breaker.  So they were playing Sunday afternoon for no less stakes than the division title.

This game came with an extra-helping of irony.  The Falcon win two weeks earlier came with the Saints being flagged 11 times for 87 yards (against only 4 penalties called against Atlanta), and ended with a frustrated coach Sean Payton rushing onto the field to try to get a time out called.  The Falcons had been given 9 first downs off Saint penalties that day.

From the very beginning, it was evident that things would be much different in this game.  The Falcons drew three penalties in their first two offensive series – including a phantom unnecessary roughness penalty against Devonta Freeman.  They were subsequently penalized 3 more times in their next offensive series.  Over those first three series, Atlanta pushed for 89 yards of offense, but gave back 59 of them in penalties.

For the game, Atlanta ended up with 10 penalties for 91 yards, while the Saints were only flagged 3 times for 30 yards.  But this wasn’t to say that the Saints played a clean game.  Notable among the plays the Saints got away with were two fairly obvious pass interferences against Julio Jones.  Julio was also involved in the most head-shaking play of the day.

On the very last snap of the third quarter, Atlanta – trailing 20-3 at the time – had third and goal on the New Orleans 6-yard line. Quarterback Matt Ryan tolled to his right and rifled the ball to Jones, standing a yard deep in the end zone.  Just behind Jones was Saint cornerback Marshon Lattimore.  As the pass arrived in Jones’ hands, Lattimore pushed him out of the end zone.  Jones made the catch, but Down Judge Steve Stelljes called him down at the half-yard line.

A myriad of replays from all angles seemed to show that Julio had caught the ball with at least half of the ball over the line.  But it wasn’t convincing enough for the replay official to overturn.

As with many other opportunities presented to Atlanta that afternoon, the damage could have been mitigated if they could have pressed their advantage.  Facing fourth-and-inches for the touchdown that would put them back in the game, Freeman was buried in the backfield and the ball went over on downs.  Devonta Freeman was in the eye of the storm the entire game.  He had fumbled away an earlier chance at the one-yard line (in addition to getting called for the phantom penalty).

For the game, Atlanta scored just one red-zone touchdown in four such opportunities.  In half of their trips to the red zone – and both of their goal-to-go opportunities – Atlanta came away with no points at all.  Additionally, the aroused New Orleans defense sacked Ryan 5 times and held Atlanta to just 2 of 13 on third down.  That – in combination with the inconsistent performance of Peter Morelli’s crew – pushed the Saints to a 23-13 victory (gamebook).

Summary

My belief going into the weekend was that the teams that ended up winning these games were the teams that I thought were the better teams, so part of me wants to suppose that the Patriots, Rams and Saints would have found ways to win anyway.  It’s easy to say that about New England, as they dominated the second half of their game.  But the other two contests were quite a bit closer – ten points in the case of the Atlanta game, and Tennessee fell just four points short of their upset.  Close enough that a reversal of any of those calls would certainly have profoundly affected the game.

With one game left in the season, Buffalo, Tennessee and Atlanta all still have playoff chances.  Tennessee and Atlanta both face significant challenges (Jacksonville and Carolina, respectively).  The Bills immediate task (beat Miami) is easier, but they will be playing on the road and will need substantial help (beginning with Cincinnati beating Baltimore).

In all cases, these teams will be hoping for more consistency from the officiating crew.

Tyrod’s Last Interception

As the game got progressively farther and farther out of reach, the New Orleans defense dropped into deeper and softer zone coverages.  With 8:41 remaining in the third period, already leading 24-3, and with Buffalo facing a third-and-12 from their own 23, the Saints rushed only three while the other eight members of the defensive unit started backpedaling at the snap.  Among those dropping into coverage was 299 pound (listed) defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins – who took one step to rush the passer, and then dropped back.

Deep into the zone, wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin (lined up wide left) and Deonte Thompson (lined up wide right) began running their deep crossing routes.  In the slot to the right, Jordan Matthews curled wide open into the right flat – but on third-and-12 a flat pass would be fairly inconsequential.

Also aligned right was tight end Charles Clay.  As he started to run his underneath route, he noticed Rankins standing there, and adjusted his route away from him and toward the right sideline.  Quarterback Tyrod Taylor noticed the same thing and tossed the ball toward Clay running away from Rankins.  Matthews was just as wide open, but the decision to throw the ball to Clay was sound.  It was a shorter throw and Charles was running away from a slower defender.  With a head of steam, Clay had the better chance to convert the third down.

And none of that is changed by the fact that Sheldon ended up with the ball in his hands, chugging towards the Buffalo goal line (right tackle Jordan Mills finally shoved him out of bounds at the 3-yard line).

The Interception and its Aftermath

The throw wasn’t terrible.  It could have been caught.  Clay could certainly have helped his quarterback by pulling it in.  At the same time, it wasn’t a really good throw.  It was behind him enough that it him in the shoulder.  From there, it popped into the air and dropped into Rankins hands.  Even if Clay had caught the ball (because Taylor couldn’t properly execute the pass) he still wouldn’t have achieved the first down because the throw pulled him back into the defender.

The Saints would make short work of the opportunity – they scored on the very next play – and continued on to a 47-10 victory (gamebook).  Taylor would play two more series (going 1 for 3 for 8 yards) before relinquishing the reins to Nathan Peterman – who played almost the entire fourth quarter.

That would prove to be a warm-up, as a few days later he was granted this Sunday’s start in Los Angeles against the Chargers.  It will be a career first for the rookie fifth-rounder out of Pittsburgh.

Assessing Tyrod Taylor

All things considered, it was an odd end (or perhaps temporary interruption) in the story of the converted running back/wide receiver.  Always an unorthodox quarterback – and one I always had my doubts about – Taylor goes to the bench having thrown just 3 interceptions and holding a 91.4 passer rating this year and a 92.1 rating for his 52-game career (including 38 starts).

On the other hand, his team is now 19-18 with him as the starter.

In this particular game, Taylor finished 9 of 18 for just 56 yards, with no touchdowns and the interception.  His longest completion of the night was for 9 yards.  His longest run was for 13 yards, as he almost had more running yards (27) than passing yards.

While the numbers were pretty atrocious, it should also be pointed out that his opportunities were fairly limited.  His receivers were rarely able to find the seams of the zones, and had great difficulty shaking man coverage in those moments – mostly early – when New Orleans mixed in some man coverage.

Certainly if it had been Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or one of the elite quarterbacks, he would have challenged the zones.  He would have zipped passes into the tight windows.  But not everyone is a Brady or a Rodgers.  I believe that quite a few NFL quarterbacks would have struggled in that situation last Sunday.

Taylor was failed by the play-calling as well.  On their second offensive snap. Buffalo went play-action, drawing the New Orleans linebackers back toward the line and opening a significant gap in the zone.  Tyrod hit Benjamin on the slant for 9 yards.  For whatever reason, they never went back to play action again, surrendering one of their most effective tools against the Saints’ zone defenses.

There was certainly enough blame to go around.

Missed Opportunities

But, of course, Tyrod could have done better.  The few chances he had he mostly missed, with his best opportunities coming in Buffalo’s opening drive.

Putting together their only sustained drive of the game, the Bills reached the New Orleans 18-yard line with 11:12 to go in the still-scoreless first quarter.  They faced second-and-9.  Getting man coverage, Benjamin ran up the right sideline.  But cornerback Ken Crawley was with him all the way.  Moreover, Benjamin’s route  drew the attention of free-safety Marcus Williams – who was also waiting for the throw in the corner of the end-zone (which sailed over everyone’s head).

Meanwhile, to the left side of the formation, tight end Clay had beaten safety Vonn Bell to the inside, and, with Williams vacating the deep middle, Clay would have had an easy touchdown.  But Taylor – who had been watching Clay’s route develop – gave up on him and turned his attention to Benjamin just at the point where Clay left Bell behind.

It would be Tyrod’s best chance to put Buffalo in the end zone all day.

On third down, New Orleans played zone.  Benjamin – again lined up to Taylor’s right – sat down in front of Crawley, as open as he would be all day.  This potential first down fizzled as Taylor’s pass was well behind Kelvin.  Buffalo settled for a field goal.  They wouldn’t score again until their last drive of the game, when Peterman threw a touchdown pass to Nick O’Leary with 1:54 left in the game.

Why Buffalo is Changing Gears

In between, it was all the things that have concerned me about Tyrod.  He didn’t anticipate receivers as they were about to break open.  He didn’t throw with great accuracy.  He didn’t challenge the zone coverages.  And – especially later in the game – he gave up on plays too early.  By the third quarter, he was ready to run at the first glimpse of daylight.

But more than all of this – and what I think is the predominant reason why coach Sean McDermott is moving away from Taylor – is the feeling that once this offense falls behind it cannot come back.  Under Taylor, the Buffalo offense has been dynamic from time to time, as long as they can keep running the ball and Taylor can look for big play opportunities.  But once they fall behind, the passing game by itself isn’t usually explosive enough to bring the Bills back into the game.

So, Nathan Peterman will get the next start.  In his one quarter of work, Peterman completed almost as many passes and for more yards than Tyrod did in three quarters.  Nathan finished 7 of 10 for 79 yards and the touchdown.  Encouraging, but to be taken with a grain of salt.  Once the Saints’ lead pushed toward the 40-point mark, much of the intensity of the game diminished.

It could be argued that former coach Rex Ryan’s commitment to Taylor cost him his job.  McDermott seems unwilling to let that happen to him.

Where This Does to the AFC Playoff Picture

The loss, of course, doesn’t help Buffalo’s playoff chances.  They do still currently have a hold on that last playoff spot, but it looks increasingly like they will lose it.  Once 5-2 and riding a dangerous running game and an opportunistic defense, Buffalo has yielded 81 points in losing their last two games.  The team that allowed only 561 rushing yards through their first seven games (80.1 per) has been brutalized for 492 in the last two games alone.  With a rookie quarterback at the helm, and with Kansas City and New England (twice) looming on their schedule, it becomes increasingly difficult to see Buffalo in the playoffs.

It also becomes increasingly difficult to see them knocking off New England on Christmas Eve.  When I was contemplating playoff positioning here, I felt that this was one surprise game the Bills might pull off.  It was a loss that might have pushed the Patriots into the fourth playoff spot.  Without that loss, the top of the AFC becomes a real scrum.  If this comes down to strength of victory, the Patriots could ease past Jacksonville for the third seed.

Fear New Orleans

Meanwhile, after opening up a 17-3 halftime lead, New Orleans took the air out of the ball.  Drew Brees threw just 5 times in the second half.  The Saints rolled for 214 rushing yards in the second half alone.  They ran 33 times and controlled the clock for 24:08 of the last 30 minutes.  The week before against Tampa Bay the Saints controlled the ball for 17:08 after intermission, running 20 times for 112 yards.  So, in the second halves of their last two games, New Orleans has piled up 326 rushing yards on 53 rushing attempts.  Brees has thrown a total of 13 passes in the second halves of those games.

Over their last two games, teams have exploited the relative “lightness” of the middle of Buffalo’s defensive line.  Built for speed, Buffalo has no defensive ends listed as heavier than Shaq Lawson’s 269 pounds.  Their interior line had only two listed at 300 pounds or heavier.

And it was here – the middle of Buffalo’s defensive front – that New Orleans concentrated its attack.  Relentlessly, New Orleans’ guards Larry Warford (listed at 332) and Andrus Peat (listed at 312) pushed Buffalo’s smaller interior linemen out of the way in an offensive game plan that was as subtle as a sawed-off shotgun.  Among the awards that the NFL doesn’t give out is offensive lineman of the week.  If they did, Saint center Max Unger might be a worthy candidate.

Against New Orleans, Buffalo began with Cedric Thornton lined up over center.  At 299 pounds (listed) Thornton wouldn’t seem to be a lightweight – although at 6-6, Cedric might seem to be a better fit on the outside.  But neither Thornton nor the since-released Jerel Worthy were a match at all for Unger.  Max dominated both to an extent rarely seen in the NFL.

Still a dangerous passing team with one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, New Orleans now boasts the league’s third best running game (averaging 142.2 yards per game).  They also feature the league’s eighth-ranked defense (number six against the run and number seven against the pass).

There are few weaknesses to find here.  The NFL season is long, and much can and will change between now and January.  But this is a team to be feared.