Sullivan: Bills a bright spot in 2020, but new year full of potential

Jerry Sullivan

I’ll admit, I figured it would be easy when they went up 14, that they were home free. I wanted to believe that this Bills team was different from those of the past, that they could win without pushing their fans onto the ledge and driving them to nervous distraction.

They had won six straight games by double-digits, hadn’t they? The Bills were an unstoppable force over the last two months, the hottest team in the league. So when they went up 24-10, early in the fourth quarter, it seemed like a done deal, on to the divisional round.

This was a playoff game, however, and history tells us you never take anything for granted. The defense, which had played admirably for three quarters, fell apart in the fourth, reminiscent of the Rams game early this year and, of course, that meltdown in Houston a year ago.

But it would have been too cruel if Buffalo fans had to live with another epic playoff collapse, an everlasting torment to go along with Wide Right and Home Run Throwback and the catalogue of woe against the Texans last season.

This remarkable team, which captured hearts and won its first division title in 25 years, deserved better than a crushing loss that would stoke their fans' fatalism and haunt them for decades to come.

So when the officials ruled no fumble on that pass to Indy wideout Zach Pascal in the final minute, I could sense all of Bills Mafia swallowing hard and thinking, “No, please, not again. This year is supposed to be different. Don’t let it come down to this.”

Thankfully, it didn’t. In the end, the Bills did what was necessary. They stopped Philip Rivers on four straight pass plays — including a Hail Mary that was knocked away at the end — preventing the Colts from getting close enough for a field goal that would have tied the game and sent it to, gasp, playoff overtime for a second straight year.

“Our defense really stood up at the end in a tough situation against a Hall of Fame quarterback,” said Bills head coach Sean McDermott. “I liked the look in their eye when they took the field for that last drive.”

Exhale, Bills Mafia. Disaster averted. They survived, 27-24, over Frank Reich’s gritty Colts. Playing at home in the playoffs for the first time since 1996 — and with 6,700 fans in attendance — they won a postseason game for the first time in 25 years, earning a right to play in the AFC divisional round next week against a yet-to-be determined opponent.

That’s all that really mattered in the end, that they won. They’re 14-3, still alive for the Super Bowl. As with any young, evolving team, an elusive first playoff win is a significant step in the Process. It helps you grow. It was harrowing, but the Bills will learn from this.

There are issues, of course. The defense looked worn down and skittish when the Colts were making their late run. They didn’t sack Rivers once. They can get sloppy against the running game. They’re vulnerable to receiving tight ends. Let’s face it, if they play that way against the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, they’ll get smoked.

Still, there’s a lot to build on. In sports, a true contender must persevere on days when things aren’t going its way, when the routine becomes difficult. In basketball, every champion has a game when their shots aren’t falling and they still find a way to win.

This game unfolded nicely for the Colts in the early going. They dominated time of possession. The Bills took over deep in their own end — at their own 15-yard line or closer — the first four times they had the ball. Indy penetrated Buffalo’s territory on each of its nine possessions, excluding a one-play kneel-down at the end of the first half.

Somehow, the Bills came out on top. They bottled up rookie running back Jonathan Taylor for much of the game. They staged a goal-line stand near the end of the first half, then Josh Allen marched them 96 yards to a go-ahead touchdown in just 1:32 before halftime.

That’s when you felt the Bills had it in the bag. So much had gone Indy’s way in the first half, and still the Bills led. They’d been merciless in putting teams away during the stretch. Rivers had been much worse in the second halves of games this season.

When Allen wired a 35-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs late in the third quarter, giving the Bills that 14-point lead, it seemed over. Then they acted like one of those classic Bills teams that insisted on making everything hard for themselves.

A great team has the talent and resilience to rise above its lapses. The Bills put up 27 points on a day when every offensive possession was a struggle. That says a lot. Josh Allen put on the kind of performance, under difficult circumstances, that was worthy of an MVP candidate.

Allen was 26-for-35 passing for 324 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He completes 74% of his passes in a playoff game, without turning it over, and it seems like a routine day at the office. Allen also ran 11 times for 54 yards and a TD. With the season on the line, Brian Daboll gladly took advantage of the fact that his quarterback was his best running option.

"It's the playoffs, man,” Allen said. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help us win.”

As usual, that meant getting the ball to the league’s best receiver, Stefon Diggs, who had six catches for 128 yards while nursing an oblique injury. Allen found rookie Gabriel Davis four times for 85 yards. Twice in a row, he zipped passes to Davis, who made the nice toe-drag catch along each sideline.

On one of the throws, Allen appeared to be heaving the ball out of bounds as he scrambled to his right. But that often seems to be the case when he’s determined to make a throw. You can never count Allen out of a play, his arm is so powerful and accurate.

If the Bills can produce 27 points under those circumstances, they’ll be hard to beat. They’re averaging 37 points a game over their last nine, so holding them to 27 seems like an achievement at this point. You’d better put up 30 or more if you want to beat them.

A lot of people are picking the Bills to reach the Super Bowl. When they lose — if they lose — it will be a disappointment. But winning a playoff game was the minimum goal before this season began, and they’ve done that. They’ve gone to the playoffs three times in four years under McDermott and they’ve taken the next step.

There should be more good times ahead, regardless of what happens next week and beyond. They have a franchise quarterback and budding superstar in Allen, two solid young linebackers in Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, a star receiver in his prime in Diggs, a rookie receiver, Davis, who has the makings of a quality second wideout.

The kicker is pretty good, too. Tyler Bass kicked a 54-yard field goal with 8:08 left, the longest by a rookie in NFL playoff history. Bass hasn’t missed a field-goal try since Week 9. That kick was the difference on the scoreboard. Indy’s rookie kicker, Rodrigo Blankenship, missed one kick that caromed off the uprights and never had a chance to try a potential game-tying boot at the end.

Sometimes, playoff games are decided by the narrowest of margins, by a ball hitting an upright or an official's call. In the end, a good team usually wins because it’s better. For the first time in ages, the Bills have that sort of team. Sure, they tortured you. But for once, they left you smiling at the end.

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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