This week at SB Nation, writers from around the sports world are writing about the biggest “What Ifs” regarding their favorite sports teams. As Buffalo Bills fans, we’re not going to go back very far for our first look back. In January of 2020, the Bills lost a Wild Card playoff game with a list of what-ifs that’ll knock your socks off.
End of first half
Things were going well for Buffalo’s defense. They had kept the Houston Texans completely off the board in the first half when the Bills’ offense received the ball back with 5:45 remaining in the half. Five straight runs netted 14 yards but took three minutes of game time. The Bills had 2:34 remaining and stood on their own 18 when a 15-yard pass from Josh Allen to Duke Williams gave them some juice. Allen hit Cole Beasley for 21 on the next play and at the two-minute warning, Buffalo found themselves in Houston territory with two timeouts remaining. Buffalo continued working in the passing game, moving down to the Texans’ 26 with 30 seconds left and they called their second timeout.
Thirty seconds, first down, with one timeout should give you a few chances at the end zone from just outside the red zone. Up by ten, Buffalo could have made it a three-score game before halftime, demoralizing the Texans on their way to the locker room.
Instead, they gave the ball to 36-year-old Frank Gore up the middle for a one-yard gain and the clock started ticking. (This was likely an audible at the line from Allen, who saw something in the defense.) Wanting to save the timeout to salvage a field goal attempt, Allen spiked the ball on the next play. The Bills got just one shot at the end zone; a pass to Duke Williams bounced off his hands in tight coverage on third down.
The Bills kicked a field goal with nine seconds on the clock to give themselves a 13-0 lead going into the half. What if that lead was 17? The Texans’s perhaps would have been a little more desperate on offense to start the second half.
To open the second half, Buffalo kicked into the Houston end zone. It was caught by DeAndre Carter, who took a few steps forward then threw the ball underhanded toward the ref standing in front of him. The ref backed away from the ball, Buffalo recovered the loose ball, chaos ensued.
We analyzed this play with Zapruder intensity in January and there is no way you can’t say the Bills were hosed. It’s an illegal forward pass in the end zone. Safety. Kick to Buffalo. What if the refs made the correct call on the illegal forward pass? The Bills should have had a 15-point lead and the ball.
Instead, the officials ruled the player had given himself up despite no signal to that effect. They awarded a touchback to Houston, who eventually punted the ball back to Buffalo on the drive.
Cody Ford’s overtime penalty
After a ferocious Texans comeback, the Bills tied the score up very late in the fourth quarter, and sent the game to overtime. Their defense held on the first drive, giving the offense the ball and a chance to win the game. Josh Allen found Dawson Knox for a beautiful conversion and the Bills were in business inside Houston territory.
On 3rd and 9, Allen scrambled for five yards to get on the cusp of kicker Stephen Hauschka’s range. We never saw if head coach Sean McDermott would send out his kicker for a 55-yard game-winning attempt.
A flag was thrown on Cody Ford for an illegal peel-back block. (It was called a “blind side” block on the field, leading to further frustration from Bills fans.) Ford was going back toward his own end zone and blocked a player high. It may have fit the letter of the law to throw the flag, but Ford’s hit wasn’t malicious. This penalty is in the rule books so you don’t de-cleat unsuspecting defenders with helmet shots. This defender had his eyes on Ford and was chasing Allen. It wasn’t a dirty, head-hunting move.
What if the refs hadn’t thrown this penalty flag at a crucial time? McDermott would have had to decide to send out his kicker for a long field goal attempt. He only made one of his five 50-yard attempts in 2019; a 51-yarder on the road against the Miami Dolphins. The last time he made a kick longer than that was before his December 2018 hit from New York Jets defender Henry Anderson.
McDermott also could have sent out his offense to convert a 4th-and-5 play in Houston territory. It’s not as crazy as it once sounded. They were inside the 40 and McDermott upped his fourth-down aggressiveness considerably in 2019.
The sack that wasn’t: Taiwan Jones
The final what-if from the game was a crazy combination of physics and effort. On the ensuing drive, the Texans had escaped a 3rd and 18 by picking up exactly 18 yards on a pass over the middle. Later in the drive, on 2nd and 6 from Buffalo’s 44, the Bills called a linebacker blitz.
Siran Neal came unblocked from the right side of the defense and got his hands on Watson, who stepped forward to avoid a massive hit. Neal knocked him and started to wrap him but the impact knocked both of the players into Matt Milano, who had also come free on the left side of the defense on a blitz. The combined momentum and second hit shook Neal off Watson, re-balanced the QB, and knocked Milano backward. The only one left standing was Watson, who miraculously had avoided two unobstructed pass rushers.
What if the Bills had been able to bring him down on 2nd down? After a sack on their own 48, it would have been 3rd and 20 for Houston. Instead, Watson found Taiwan Jones who ran deep into Bills territory after the catch to set up the game-winning field goal for Houston.
If any of these what-ifs goes Buffalo’s way, their chances of winning the game go up dramatically. It’s the frustrating game of inches and split-second decisions that makes football so much fun to watch and so frustrating in the same breath.