The Buffalo Bills lost in demoralizing fashion to the Cincinnati Bengals in their Divisional Round playoff matchup. The Bills got off to a slow start on both sides of the ball, but they had plenty of opportunities to make a comeback. With the offense we are used to seeing from the Bills, they had a realistic chance to make it a game until late in the fourth quarter.
Buffalo had eight possessions in this game; one ended in a touchdown, and three of them went three and out. In the other four drives of the game, Buffalo was able to move the ball fairly effectively, but ended up stalling out when it mattered most. Hence the purpose of this article — drive enders.
Let's take a deep dive into what happened to Buffalo’s offense in these pivotal moments. Disclaimer: hindsight is 20/20. I play “Monday morning cornerback” for most of this article, which is a much easier position to be in than actually being involved in the game. These players and coaches are in the NFL, where the best football players in the world play, and it’s difficult to diagnose these things on the fly to make the correct decision. I’m sure everyone involved in the Bills’ organization wishes they could change these plays to have a better outcome. That being said, I analyze football plays and call it how I see it, and that’s what I’ll do here.
Opening drive: 3rd & 4
The Bills’ opening drive saw them running three plays and then punting — this being the final play of that drive. The Bengals played Cover 1 man-to-man on this 3rd & 4 play. Allen recognized the Bengals were in Cover 1, and noticed that he had receiver Stefon Diggs in a one-on-one on the left side. I’m all for throwing the ball to Diggs when he has one-on-one coverage. Diggs beat his man and streaked open down the numbers for what would be a big gain, but Allen overthrew him for an incompletion to end the drive. Obviously, it would have been nice to see Allen put this ball on the money, and we have seen him make this throw many times. But left guard Rodger Saffold was beaten immediately off the snap, and Allen had to throw the ball while off balance due to the rusher bearing down on him. I wouldn’t change anything about this play; they had the opportunity they wanted with Diggs, and he got open. They just needed to complete the pass.
Second drive: 3rd & 5
Buffalo’s second drive of the game was a three-and-out, again. On this 3rd & 5 play, the Bengals lined up in Cover 1 again, but this time they only rushed three linemen and dropped eight defenders into coverage. The Bengals played man-to-man on the Bills’ receivers, but they also had a free safety over the top and three “free” defenders lurked near the first-down marker. This makes it extremely difficult to attack the sticks at five yards if you're the Bills, but they ran a play that ended up getting receivers open. Allen was just about to throw to one of the receivers beginning to break open when he was hit from behind. Once again, the Bengals got pressure on the left side of Buffalo’s line, and this time was left tackle Dion Dawkins who was beaten with ease. On two third downs in a row to start the game, Allen faced quick pressure, and it changed the outcome of the play. If Allen had more time, I’d bet that both of these plays would have yielded a completed pass for a first down. For the record, both play calls by offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey had receivers open on the play, but the offensive line just ruined the play in both instances.
Drive before the end of the first half
I think Buffalo’s drive at the end of the first half was the most important drive of the game, and was a big turning point in their failed comeback attempt. The defense had just held the Bengals to a field goal on the previous drive, and the Bills got the ball back with 1:43 remaining in the half, in possession of all three timeouts, and were only down 17-7. Not only did they have a chance to make it a one-score game, but they also had an opportunity to score at the end of the half, and then get the second-half kickoff and score again, potentially taking the lead if they scored back-to-back touchdowns. We all know none of that happened; the Bills were only able to squeak out a field goal with those two drives.
Since the drive at the end of the half was so important, I’m going to review the last three plays of the drive, which were all incompletions. The Bills started off at their own 20-yard line and proceeded to gain 39 yards on their next four plays, which only took 38 seconds off the clock. We pick up the drive here at the Bengals’ 41-yard line, with 1:05 remaining and the Bills still holding all three of their timeouts.
Drive before end of half: 1st & 10
This ball should have been out immediately, as Allen saw the blitz coming. He had two wide-open receivers that likely would have picked up the first down if the ball was thrown to them quickly. Instead, Allen got a little greedy, and wanted to see if he could pump-fake the corner into breaking forward on Diggs’ flat route so he could throw the deeper corner route to tight end Quintin Morris. This took extra time, and was ultimately why Allen saw his pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage when he tried to throw the flat route. Allen liked the matchup he had to his left, and since the blitz came from that direction, logic would say to focus on throwing the ball to the left. Hear me out, though: on the right side, the defenders played seven and eight yards off the ball, respectively. If Allen saw this pre-snap, I think he should like those matchups with the route combination the receivers run on that side. Hypothetically, if Allen were to have thrown to Gabe Davis on his five-yard hitch route, Davis would have had a lead blocker in front of him, and one-on-one with a defender.... I like that.
Drive before end of half: 2nd & 10
This play was a disaster from the beginning, because a defensive lineman jumped and center Mitch Morse snapped the ball early trying to draw an offsides penalty. The penalty was never called, and Allen wasn’t ready for the snap. The Bengals appeared to be in a Cover 2 zone. Allen had a couple of options that broke open on this play, but I think the early snap got him out of rhythm. As evidence, as he quickly tried to break out of the pocket when he actually had solid blocking from his offensive line. Cincinnati’s defensive line didn’t let Allen escape on this play, and really did an outstanding job of corralling him all game. After all the chaos, Allen didn’t try to force anything, and threw the dump-off pass to the running back. I don’t mind this decision, because Allen seemed a little flustered in the pocket, and he chose the safe throw that would have gained positive yardage to put them into a manageable third down. The only problem was that Allen got the yips, and overthrew Devin Singletary. Allen looked uncomfortable in the pocket on this play, and it led to another incompletion.
Drive before end of half: 3rd & 10
Buffalo’s offensive line blocked well on the previous play, but man, they were awful on this third down. Allen had to flush the pocket almost immediately, and then all bets were off at that point. If Allen had been given a little more time, he had an opportunity to throw a potential touchdown to Diggs running a seam route, as Diggs split his double-team and came open. If not the seam route, he had options near the first-down marker to keep the drive alive. I put this one on the offensive line. They had to be better here. Additionally, Allen perhaps could have opted to throw the ball to tight end Dawson Knox at the end of the play on the sideline, instead of the deep ball to Diggs. It definitely was the easier throw of the two, but certainly no gimme. Besides, Diggs was open, and how many times have we seen Allen put that ball on the money before? I’d still take my chances with him throwing that deep ball.
Field Goal drive: 3rd & Goal
This was the drive to start the second half, and even though the Bills did get three points, it still stung a little bit not scoring a touchdown. There was nothing particularly wrong with this play. We’ve seen Knox score on a route like this before, with Week 6 at the Kansas City Chiefs being an example. The problem I have is it’s just not a high-percentage throw to me, especially in slick conditions with snow on the field. Allen didn’t even really give Knox a chance to make a catch, either. I didn’t mind the Bills taking a shot to the endzone here, I just didn’t really like the play. The Bengals were in Cover 2 Man Under coverage, which means they had two high free safeties and everyone else was man-to-man on their receivers. “2 Man Under” is a great coverage on passing downs, because the defense has everyone covered, plus help over the top. Every coverage has a weakness, and the primary weakness here is the short-to-intermediate middle part of the field.
Let me play “Monday morning quarterback” for a minute. Since the defenders were spread out playing man-to-man on the outside, there weren’t any linebackers to clog u[ the middle. The Bengals had their two high safeties lurking near the goal line, because this play happened inside the 10-yard line, but there was still a lot of room to work with in the middle of the field. Running a levels route concept (deep, intermediate, short) across the middle of the field to occupy the two high safeties, then running a receiver underneath, would be something I preferred in that look. See the example below:
End of third quarter: 3rd & 2
Davis was open on this play, and I don’t blame Allen for wanting to throw this ball to him, but Davis’ route was at the end of Allen's read progression, and he ended up throwing the ball too late. Instead of throwing this ball late, it might have been better to throw the crossing route to Knox over the middle. To quote the movie Any Given Sunday, “One-half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it.” Allen was just one-half second too late with this throw, otherwise, it might have gone for a big gain. The Bills went three and out on this drive for the third time in the game.
4th quarter: 4th & 6
This play took place with 7:32 left in the game and the Bengals leading 27-10. If there was any chance at a comeback, this drive had to result in a touchdown. This fourth down was a “have to have it” play — your number-one play, the best one in the book. I’m just finding it hard to believe that this play was “the one.” It doesn’t get the job done for me. Maybe I’m delirious, and the Bengals just covered this really well. Thinking about it more, the best play in this situation might have just been “throw the ball to Diggs,” and I would have been fine with that. The ending to this play just about sums up how the game went for the Bills.
Final drive: Interception
The game was all but lost at this point, so taking a shot down the field is a must if the Bills wanted any glimmer of hope. I see what Allen saw: Cole Beasley was open, but once again, he just throws it too late. Knox in the middle of the field seemed to be a better option.
Allen is a supreme talent and a top-notch quarterback, but he didn’t have his best game on Sunday. (Nobody on the Bills did, for that matter.) Allen’s game comes equipped with amazing capabilities that no one else in the world can do, but sometimes the smaller “customary” plays are all that Allen needs to accomplish. There were times during the game when the ordinary play would have sufficed. The offense, as a whole, was able to make some of those plays, but couldn’t string enough of them together to score points. Whether it was due to poor blocking, bad play design, or bad throws, none of it matters, because it wasn’t up to Buffalo’s standard.
The Bills have had the second-best scoring offense in the NFL for two years running. We have seen them be dominant at times, but they just didn’t have it against the Bengals. It was such a stark difference from last year’s Divisional Round playoff matchup versus the Kansas City Chiefs, where Buffalo was seemingly scoring at will and keeping drives alive with improbable plays. The Bills will go back to the drawing board this offseason, hopefully injecting more weapons into this offense, and figuring out a way to make sure they don’t have this type of performance in the playoffs again. The hunt for Super Bowl LVIII starts now.