Sullivan: Gray leading Niagara through tumultuous 2020

Jerry Sullivan

Granted, they won’t be sending this film to Canton. There were stupid penalties, confounding turnovers, dropped passes, some brutal coaching by Anthony Lynn and the usual Hero Ball antics from Josh Allen.

But sometimes in the NFL, you take an ugly win and move on. The Bills beat a bad Chargers team, 27-17, on Sunday. They went to 8-3 and maintained their one-game lead over Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins, who drilled the winless Jets in an equally inelegant contest.

Yeah, the standard has been raised with this team, as I’ve been saying all year. Even in victory, the Bills do things that make you wonder if they’re capable of a serious run in January, or if they’re a fatally flawed squad that will break your heart in the end.

It sure beats the alternative. There were times, not so long ago, when you would have been thrilled to see the offense struggle to 27 points in an ugly win. Remember when the days when the defense played lights-out but the offense failed to hold up its end in a crushing loss?

“It’s hard to win in this league,” Allen said after throwing for 157 yards. “We’re sitting at 8-3. We put up 27 points against a really good team. They’ve been in every single one of their games. So we took care of business.

“We left a lot out there," he said. "We understand that as an offense.  We’ve got to be better late in the game.”

Allen and the offense had a rough day. They kept the Chargers in the game, turning the ball over three times in seven plays in the fourth quarter. They have an alarming inability to finish teams off after taking an early lead, which could prove fatal in the playoffs.

They still put 27 points on the board, which was more than enough with the defense playing its finest game of the year against rookie Justin Herbert, who entered the day second in the league in passing yards per game and had a fairly miserable outing.

Allen has regressed some since a marvelous September. Remember, the premise before the season was that the Bills could contend if the defense remained at an elite level and Allen continued to evolve into a real franchise quarterback, somewhere in the top half of the NFL.

The formula got flipped upside-down early in the season, with Allen playing at an MVP level and the defense falling back to an average and at times poor level. We’ve been waiting for signs that Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier had the D back on a solid footing.

That’s the real story from Sunday — the inspired play of the defense. It was a continuation of the Arizona game, when they held Kyler Murray down for much of the day only to lose on a last-second prayer. That play rewrote the narrative, but it was something for the D to build on.

Given two weeks to prepare, McDermott and Frazier were bound to be ready for Herbert. During their four years together in Buffalo, they’ve had a way of pulling their defenses out of messes. They recovered from a mid-season meltdown in 2017, battled back from an embarrassing start in 2018, when McDermott briefly took over play-calling duties.

This isn’t the same defense. It’s weaker up front and susceptible to the power run. But the secondary is still strong. Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is playing well again after a rugged stretch when he played hurt. Jerry Hughes has been a beast over the past month. A.J. Klein, the early whipping boy, has been making plays. Same thing for the rotational linemen.

Herbert completed 31 of 52 passes for 316 yards. He’s going to be a star. But he seemed out of rhythm for much of the day. The 21 incompletions were his most all season. A few drops didn’t help him, but the front four kept him off balance at times and I felt the Buffalo secondary got into the LA receivers’ heads.

Keenan Allen came in with a league-leading 81 receptions. He had four catches for 40 yards. Allen wasn’t a factor in the second half. Taron Johnson covered him a lot in the slot and more than held his own. Rookie AJ Epenesa had his best game, including a tackle for loss. Klein had 14 tackles. Vernon Butler had some big moments.

Things could have gone haywire in the fourth quarter, when the offense did its best to hand the game to a 3-8 Chargers team that has been falling to pieces in second halves and failing to close games all season long.

The Bills led 24-14 and seemed in control when Devin Singletary fumbled the ball away on the second play of the fourth quarter. LA marched to a first-and-5 at the Buffalo 11 (helped by two Ed Oliver penalties), but the Bills stuffed them on three straight running plays. On third-and-1, Klein blew up a toss play to Joshua Kelley and the Chargers settled for a field goal.

On the second play after the kickoff, Allen fumbled the ball away, mishandling the snap from center and trying to pick the ball up and run rather than make the smart choice to fall on it.

But the defense responded. Oliver atoned for his earlier gaffes by sacking Herbert on third-and-5, with Hughes applying equal pressure from his left end spot.

Four plays later, Allen threw an interception. Three plays after that, Tre’Davious White intercepted Herbert. That was pretty much it for a poorly run Chargers team that will almost surely get head coach Anthony Lynn fired at some point.

And to think, the Bills considered hiring Lynn as their head man before turning to McDermott early in 2017. McDermott has his flaws, like the team, but at some point every year he finds a way to get his defense right and put his team in position to win games.

It’s not always pretty. It never seems easy with the Bills, no matter the era or how talented they are. When the stakes are high, every game raises questions. It’s still hard to know whether Allen is a budding superstar or a high-wire act who takes too many risks to win the big ones.

But the season has a more predictable arc after 11 games. The idea was never for Allen to be great, just good enough to win with a strong defense and special teams. That’s the formula they won with Sunday.

Now, if Allen can return to his form of September, with the defense continuing its surge, a really interesting December could be in store.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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