Bills report card: Buffalo overcomes Josh Allen's struggles with dominant rushing attack
ORCHARD PARK — Micah Hyde was just being honest, which is always appreciated.
The Buffalo Bills earning a playoff berth has become second nature during the Sean McDermott Era as Sunday’s 29-15 victory over the Atlanta Falcons sends the Bills into the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
What was fun about this one is that about three minutes before the game ended, the Bills already knew they had qualified because one of the trainers informed them on the sideline that the Ravens had lost to the Rams. That meant that as long as the Bills didn’t blow their two-touchdown lead, which they didn’t, they were in.
But come on, Hyde said afterward. This was cool, but nothing will ever match the scene that unfolded five years ago down in Miami when more bad luck for the Ravens — in the form of their loss on the miraculous Bengals last-second Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd TD — ended the Bills’ drought.
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“Nothing's gonna match 2017,” Hyde said with a smile. “That was crazy for us. I don't know what the percentage of us getting in was, then all being in a locker room with TVs on after the game. Our game getting over before theirs, then seeing that fourth and whatever it was, Boyd touchdown. Nothing’s matching that. That was amazing.”
I agree. Nothing short of a Super Bowl triumph will ever equal or surpass the emotion that was spilled that momentous day, but clinching a berth is still reason to celebrate, especially considering where this team was a month ago.
When the Bills were 7-6 and two games behind the Patriots in the AFC East on the night of Dec. 6, things were, as Josh Allen said, “pretty dull.” And what he meant was, the Bills were spinning their wheels and needed to get traction, and fast.
Like a new set of Goodyear tires on the snowy Southtowns roads around Highmark Stadium, they have it and are plowing forward with three straight victories and a chance to lock up the division and a home playoff game next week against the lowly Jets.
“That’s what we expect,” McDermott said of the standard he has established at One Bills Drive. “That’s what we talked about since day one. But I don’t want to get too far ahead of us. Let’s keep our focus where it needs to be, which is right in front of us, this past game obviously and then moving forward into next week.”
Here’s how I graded the Bills’ performance:
PASS OFFENSE: F
I did not think it would be possible that I would ever type that letter grade in this section of the report card, at least in a game where Allen played all 60 minutes. But there you have it. If he had any chance of forging his way into the NFL MVP conversation, it may have just imploded following a terrible three-interception performance.
He completed just 11 of 26 passes for 120 yards, no touchdowns, and he had a career-worst passer rating of 17.0 which put him in Nathan Peterman territory. It was one of those days where you’re watching this happen and you can’t believe your eyes. This is not a good Falcons pass defense, and it felt like Allen would be able to do anything he wanted. Instead, it was the exact opposite and the Bills were lucky that their normally dormant ground attack rose to the occasion and picked up the struggling quarterback.
There were a few beautiful throws, especially on the first two possessions which set up his two TD runs, but there were far too many misfires. He now has 15 interceptions which is a new career high. Gabriel Davis and Stefon Diggs both made a couple nice grabs, but last week’s hero, Isaiah McKenzie was muted, and TE Dawson Knox was invisible.
RUN OFFENSE: A+
And speaking of grades that I never thought I’d hand out, there’s this one for a team that has struggled to establish a legitimate ground attack beyond Allen’s designed runs and scrambles. The Bills finished with a season-high 233 yards on a whopping 44 attempts as Brian Daboll clearly recognized in the second half that it wasn’t Allen’s day. It was the second-highest run total of the McDermott era.
Devin Singletary had his third straight excellent game and this time he set new career highs with 23 carries, 110 yards, and two TDs. Both of his scores came on back-to-back second-half drives that gave back control of the game to Buffalo after it lost it late in the second quarter. Singletary hit the holes, ran hard through tacklers, and provided a huge lift to an offense that needed it.
Up front, Ryan Bates got the start over Jon Feliciano at LG and he, Dion Dawkins, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams and Spencer Brown had another strong people-moving day. Allen was not sacked, and the Bills averaged 5.3 yards per rush. Maybe the Bills have finally unlocked the right offensive line combination.
PASS DEFENSE: A-
The Bills generated pretty good pressure on Matt Ryan and racked up five sacks, second-most in a game behind the six-sack game in Miami. Ed Oliver was a beast and had one of the sacks, Greg Rousseau had a strip sack deep in Atlanta territory that set up the Bills’ second TD, and Harrison Phillips (who recovered the strip-sack fumble), Taron Johnson and Mario Addison had the other sacks.
The Bills had one breakdown when Falcons stud TE Kyle Pitts hit them for a 61-yard catch and run late in the first half. Otherwise, Ryan had a tough time moving the ball through the air as he finished 13 of 23 for 197 yards.
CBs Dane Jackson and Levi Wallace both had nice pass breakups on a pair of deep balls, while Matt Milano also had one. Pitts had only one other catch, and dual threat Cordarrelle Patterson had only two for 24 yards.
RUN DEFENSE: B-
Patterson is the Falcons leading rusher but he was held in check all day as he gained only 28 yards and averaged 3.1 per attempt. Mike Davis hit the Bills for a couple nice gains including four straight runs that concluded with him scoring a TD late in the first half. Still, he finished with just 42 yards and the Falcons had 96 as a team.
The Bills have been a little more stout up front the past few weeks, and in this game they did most of it without Star Lotulelei who allegedly played but did not show up on the stat sheet. Phillips has really emerged on the inside, and Oliver is playing the best he’s played since coming to the Bills in 2019.
Tremaine Edmunds led the way with seven tackles while Milano had six. A.J. Epenesa made a very nice tackle for lost yardage.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
The Bills should be concerned about their return game. Rookie Marquez Stevenson made another big mistake, fumbling a first-quarter punt that resulted in a safety and an early 2-0 Atlanta lead. Ball security has been a problem, and he dropped another punt in the third quarter though he was able to recover and make a return for positive yardage.
Interestingly, Sean McDermott didn’t yank him the way he did McKenzie after the latter fumbled that kickoff against the Colts. Moving forward, Stevenson has to clean it up.
For the second week in a row Matt Haack was not asked to punt. This is the first time since 2004 that a team (the Steelers) has done that which is pretty remarkable. Tyler Bass was nails as usual as he made all three of his extra points and produced four touchbacks on a cold day.
McDermott has now produced four playoff berths in his five seasons which is quite a things seeing as the year he arrived in 2017 the Bills were riding a 17-year drought. He earned his stripes Sunday with a winning challenge on a pass reception by Davis that eventually led to a TD rather than a likely field goal attempt.
And whatever he said at halftime seemed to work. The Bills had finished the first half terribly, but he regrouped the troops and the defense pitched a second-half shutout while the offense put up 15 clinching points.
Credit to Daboll for altering his game plan. It’s unlikely that he began the game figuring he’d call 44 run plays, but when he realized it wasn’t Allen’s day, he adjusted and when Singletary got hot, he rode him. As for Leslie Frazier, more stellar work as the Bills allowed just 265 yards and the Falcons were 1-of-8 combined on third- and fourth-down calls.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.