There’s no rule about winning pretty. If there was a demerit for ugly wins, the Buffalo Bills would have been eliminated from playoff contention two months ago.
Ultimately, all that currently matters is that the Bills have nine wins heading into Christmas, and the path is clear: win the remaining two games and they will get into the playoffs. They don’t have to be pretty, they don’t have to be blowouts, they just have to be wins.
Talent is no longer a question for the Bills, but after another stumbling start muddled an entire game that came down to the wire, it’s fair to ponder whether they are consistent enough for a deep playoff run.
Buffalo was happy beating the Los Angeles Chargers 24-22 on a Tyler Bass field goal with 31 seconds to play Saturday. Every game in the NFL is hard, players and coaches say. They said the same thing after beating the New York Giants, if you recall.
But beating an inferior opponent late in the game, needing to come from behind because of an abysmal start to the game makes those games harder than necessary.
The Chargers had reason to be fired up. Their coach and general manager were fired after a hapless 63-21 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders last week and were being doubted without star quarterback Justin Herbert.
That didn’t make the Bills commit 64 yards in penalties, nor did it make them surrender three turnovers or seem lifeless during the first quarter and a half. It shouldn’t have been a game that needed to be decided in the final minute.
When the Bills flexed their muscles, the talent disparity was evident. A 57-yard touchdown pass from Josh Allen to Gabe Davis ignited the offense, which scored on back-to-back drives to take a four-point halftime lead after falling behind by 10 in the first half.
But then there was the second half, which included an interception, touchdown, three-and-out and a fumble before the game-winning field goal. And yet, the Bills have won three consecutive games and temporarily have a playoff spot following a Pittsburgh Steelers win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“You want to be able to win the close games, and that’s one of our big goals this year — to be able to win when it’s tight,” Davis said. “I just feel like it turns us up a little more to go out there and really execute.”
Josh Allen, and the passing game overall, continues to be an enigma. On the first three drives, Allen went 4 of 8 for 38 yards and was late and off target on three third-down throws. And then, out of nowhere, he throws a picture-perfect pass on the run to Gabe Davis, who dragged linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. into the end zone for a touchdown.
On six non-scoring drives, Allen went 4 of 9 for 38 yards and the Bills were 0 of 5 on third downs. That included a head-scratching no-no when he tried to heave it across his body to Diggs and it was undercut by Chargers safety Alohi Gilman.
On four scoring drives, however, he went 10 of 11 for 191 and Buffalo converted all five of their third downs, including a gorgeous 15-yard pass to Khalil Shakir with the blitz in his face to set up Bass’s game-winner.
And there was Davis, who had four receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown to cap one of the strangest eight-game stretches imaginable. He’s been held without a catch in four games, but still has 21 receptions for 378 yards and three scores, including two 100-yard games.
Even the recently mercurial Stefon Diggs — who has now been held without 100 yards in nine consecutive games, the longest stretch of his Bills tenure — appeared dinged up after a hit on the first play of the game and finished with just five receptions for 29 yards, but had two grabs for 19 yards on the final drive, including an 11-yard strike from Allen on third and 8.
“It’s understanding what’s going on; the flow of the game,” said Allen, who has led five game-tying or go-ahead scores in the final 2 minutes this season. “I think we were down 10-0, just continue to stay patient. We got the one play to Gabe and felt ourselves get into a groove. … Obviously made some bone-headed decisions. If I set up and just throw it deep to Stef, it might be a completely different game. But, again, just find a way.”
How about the defense? The same unit that pressured and hounded Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott the past two weeks let Chargers quarterback Easton Stick, in his second career start and playing without NFL receptions leader Keenan Allen, march 90 yards on 14 plays on their opening drive.
The Bills didn’t blitz Stick at all on the first series, understandably thinking they could confuse the inexperienced quarterback with different disguises and affect him with four rushers. Instead he went 5 of 7 for 72 yards.
After that, though, McDermott brought the heat for the remainder of the game. In unofficial statistics conducted by the Gazette, the Bills blitzed Stick 14 times — three were negated by penalties — and he went 4 of 8 for 51 yards and was sacked three times.
Buffalo blitzed Stick six times on second down, all with 7 yards or longer to gain a first down, and four of their five third-down blitzes came when 6 to 8 yards were needed for a first down. The Chargers were 0 of 3 when blitzed on third downs and were held without a touchdown on their last five possessions, including two with drive starts in Buffalo territory.
Then, with 22 seconds left, and the Bills clinging two two-point lead in an all-too-familiar situation, Oliver got such a quick jump off the snap that Los Angeles right guard Jamaree Salyer barely got his hands on him, effectively ending any shot to threaten.
“That’s what they pay me to do — make plays late in games,” said Oliver, who had two sacks in the game. “Just like I did in Kansas City, just like I did here. It’s becoming a trend — a good trend — and I would just like to keep it going.”
The Bills are talented enough to beat anyone in the league, that much is proven. But can they show it consistently every week? Now the Bills are 3-4 when losing the turnover battle and 2-4 when out-scored in the first quarter, with both wins coming against a backup quarterback.
For now, it’ll be a merry Christmas in Buffalo.